November 23, 2009  |  Artists, Conservation
Claes Oldenburg: Conservation of Floor Cake (Week 4)
Floor Cake, MoMA gallery

Floor Cake, installed in a MoMA gallery

Looking forward, our preservation of Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Cake aims to bring the object to a state that more closely resembles the artist’s original intent. It will also stabilize the condition of the sculpture so that it can both endure a rigorous exhibition schedule and be safe in long-term storage. To develop a successful treatment plan, we considered the sculpture in distinct sections based on its materials:

Canvas. Treatment will stabilize the overall structure by mending minor tears and punctures to the canvas. The surface will be thoroughly inspected and recorded.

Filling. The condition of the foam and cardboard boxes that make up the cake’s stuffing will be carefully recorded to monitor for degradation. While the current state of Floor Cake’s foam filling is acceptable for exhibition (the foam is slightly discolored but retains a volume acceptable to fill the cake), it is likely that the foam will become increasingly hard and brittle, and will lose volume over time. Without preventative measures, the foam would eventually disintegrate, leaving nothing to fill the cake. We plan to measure the contents of the cake, recording both the weight and volume of the foam. Conservation scientists are currently working on new treatments to arrest the rapid degradation of polyurethane foam, an inherently unstable material. We also hope to discuss the cake filling with the artist to propose stable materials that might be used as a substitute.

Acrylic Paint. Areas of the paint layer that show flaking or are otherwise unstable will be made secure with an appropriate adhesive, and we will clean the surface of dirt and grime. Devising a way to safely clean the large expanses of painted canvas will be our greatest challenge in the treatment of Floor Cake. There has been a longstanding interest in the conservation field in developing new techniques to clean artworks with acrylic surfaces, and much research has been completed in this area. We hope to test some of these findings as well as to utilize techniques from past treatments.

Stay tuned for more posts—in the future, we plan to interview the artist and work with curatorial staff to ensure the preservation of the sculpture for years to come.


I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to some of Dale’s questions posted earlier. Before answering them let me make a few comments that will help keep others apprised of how science is informing the preservation and treatment of Floor Cake. The painted sculpture is less than fifty years old and that is young for the paint and other components evident to the viewer. A stable museum environment will go a long way to help it last much longer. That said, change is greatest for things that are young. So what this means is that the efflorescence Cindy and Margo have identified is a result of aging processes that we have little control over. Similar aging properties likely impacted Old Masters like Rembrandt but alterations of that nature are long gone. While these alterations make 400 year old paint film less flexible it does not impede our capacity to appreciate the same qualities that were originally evident hundreds of years ago. It does however underscore the importance of proper storage, exhibition, and handling for Floor Cake as it gets older.

Now to the specifics of Dale’s questions: we could use gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to identify the efflorescing compound but for a variety of reasons have not pursued that aggressively. The quality of the data from the FTIR was so good that there was little ambiguity about the fatty acid interpretation. Secondary evidence supporting this interpretation was the fact that the efflorescing compound had a cloudy appearance suggestive of the crystalline nature of long chain fatty acids. Crystalline compounds are highly ordered tightly packed systems and thus have poor solubility, which was also something Cindy and Margo found. With regards to the glass transition, Tg, crystalline materials have much more prominent melting points (Tm), so we are not concerned about the Tg of the efflorescing material. We also have no reason to believe they are ‘lightly cross-linked’. We are not sure but the efflorescing compound is either an additive to the paint or normal elimination products that are the result polymerization of drying oils and most alkyds from the 1960s. Several investigators (myself included) have found that loss of volatiles and semi-volatiles from oil paint are the chief reason why paint films lose their flexibility over time. The loss of semi-volatiles will result in a loss of mass which will lead to slight shrinkage of the paint film over time. Since the fabric support is not restrained (the way it would be in a painting) the need for stress release mechanisms (e.g. cracking) are reduced so the integrity of the paint film over the long term on the sculpture could fare better than a tightly stretched painting. (It does pose challenges though with respect to handling and treatment.) Finally, our scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a high vacuum SEM (great for identification of light atomic elements) but it would quickly suck any semivolatiles out so that type of alteration of the paint seen in the SEM would not reflect what we see at atmospheric pressure.

Chris McGlinchey
Sally and Michael Gordon Conservation Scientist
The Museum of Modern Art

Fantastic explanation, Chris! Thank you for all the detail, especially on the crystalline efflorescence. We look forward to the future posts exploring the treatment and preservation strategies. Thanks again.

Conservation interns, here and I are interested in learning more about the loss of volatiles and semi-volatiles (additives or elimination products) from oil paint. We’ve searched JSTOR and AATA but to no good result yet. Can you recommend any published information? Thanks!

i learned at school today about floor cake so my teacher told me to look it up and now i know what it looks looks like!!!

Leave a Comment

* required information

E-mail address*

Your comments*

Spam check*
Cri_71602 Please enter the text in the image.