November 9, 2009  |  Artists, Conservation
Claes Oldenburg: Conservation of Floor Cake (Week 2)

Last Monday, we talked about the history of Claes Oldenburg’s iconic Floor Cake sculpture, which is currently in MoMA’s Conservation Department for study and treatment. In this post we’ll discuss how the sculpture was made and how Floor Cake’s condition has resulted from natural aging combined with a heavy exhibition schedule.

Detail - filling inside cake

The filling inside Floor Cake consists of polyurethane foam and cardboard boxes.

For his seminal 1962 triptych Floor Cake, Floor Burger, and Floor Cone, Oldenburg enlisted the help of his first wife, Patti Mucha, who used a portable Singer sewing machine and heavyweight canvas to sew the covers of these large objects. Oldenburg then coated the objects’ surfaces with paint. These works might be described as sewn object-paintings. Floor Cake, for example, consists of five layers of sewn-and-painted canvas, with two chocolate-colored layers alternating with three thinner beige layers, topped by yellow-ocher drops of decorative “icing.”

diagram of cake layers

Diagram of cake layers. Drawing: Laura Davies

Recently, Floor Cake was on view at MoMA alongside Floor Cone, Pastry Case, I, and “Empire” (“Papa”) Ray Gun. When the installation ended and the Oldenburg works returned to storage, conservators took the opportunity to bring Floor Cake into the conservation lab for treatment.

Overall, the sculpture is in remarkable shape for a forty-seven-year-old soft painted sculpture that has traveled to Japan, Germany, and across the United States. But it has fifteen square feet of painted cotton canvas—three square feet of which are intended to rest directly on the floor—and visitors are meant to experience the object up close, without stanchions or a platform. As a consequence of the artist’s intent, Floor Cake has experienced typical wear and tear resulting in the condition issues listed and pictured below.

  • Structurally the three-dimensional shaped canvas is sound. There is minor canvas wear and a few small punctures in areas that come in contact with the floor.
  • The cake “filling” is comprised of two components: polyurethane foam and cardboard boxes. The foam is discolored but remains soft and flexible. The cardboard boxes, which are actually ice cream containers, are stable.
  • The thinner or single applications of paint are in good condition. The thicker or multiple layered areas of paint are cracked throughout. There are paint losses which are most notable in areas where handling and manipulation occurs. The paint surface exhibits an overall layer of dirt and grime that is to be expected with an unvarnished painted surface. (We will soon perform an analysis to determine what kind of paint(s) Oldenburg used on Floor Cake.)
  • The “chocolate drop” exhibits a chalky white efflorescence. This has also been observed with similar paint that Oldenburg used with his earlier painted plaster objects, such as Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (Dual Hamburgers).

condition photos
Next week, we’ll talk about our treatment proposal for surface cleaning, along with our goals and expectations for the treatment.


I really like the blog idea. I have seen some of the artist’s work and it’ll be interesting to hear and see what will be done to repair some of the boo-boos.

Great post, Cindy and Margo! The photos are great. The treatment brings to mind all of the questions associated with the conservation of tangible, traditional art PLUS all the questions of intangible time-based art!

Q-1: Since many of Oldenburg’s sculptures have undergone conservation, surely he has clarified many issues related to his expectations and preferences for the preservation of his work. Has the MOMA asked Oldenburg about his expectations for this work over time and the artistic ideas that arise as a result of its changes? The aging, alteration, loss and replacement of the aging painted surfaces, structures and soft-filling materials?

Q-2: Is there a “state” or point in time that the MOMA hopes to preserve for this work? Or is the documentation of the work and its continued de-evolution of materials and visual characteristics, as well as the resulting responses by curators and audiences, what the Museum hopes to preserve?

I’ve got ideas on the mobile phase materials that are poly-morphing onto the surface of the brown paints as opaque efflorescence and will be curious about the results of the FTIR, Raman and GCMS. But in the mean time, is the efflorescence part of what must be preserved? Is it old, fatty cake, like an artifact kept in the freezer from the original happening of its installation?

Very informative. Looking forward to reading the treatment proposal. I am wondering how long foam lasts before it starts breaking down and just how many ice cream cartons are in there.

Thanks for posting. It’s great reading, with extremely interesting visuals (especially the diagram).

this is so interesting and super informative! i can’t believe all of the steps that are involved in examining something so seemingly straightforward. thanks a ton for posting!

Awesome idea. Thank you for sharing.

um hmm. And if it’d been Patti’s idea and he had done the work, who would we say was the sculptor?

What was the important or significant to the floor cake Claes made

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