MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Library recently made an acquisition sure to excite even the most casual architecture fans: the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive. In addition to many thousands of drawings, photographs, and ephemera, this collection includes over 60 models and building fragments. One of the largest and most expansive models is that of Broadacre City—Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian reimagining of the city as open space and landscape rather than skyscraper and skyline. Read more
MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Bringing the Project to Conclusion: Restoration of Number 1A, 1948
Readers who have been following the blog will recognize a pattern in our approach to conservation treatment of Number 1A, 1948, the final of three Jackson Pollock paintings that have been the focus of our 18-month project. Read more
As indicated in the previous posts in this series, MoMA paintings conservators and conservation scientists have been studying five Magritte paintings for the past two years in preparation for Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. Read more
As indicated in the previous posts in this series, MoMA paintings conservators Cindy Albertson, Anny Aviram, and Michael Duffy have been studying five Magritte paintings for the past two years in preparation for Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. Read more
As indicated in the previous post in this series, MoMA paintings conservators Cindy Albertson, Anny Aviram, and Michael Duffy have been studying five Magritte paintings for the past two years in preparation for Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926–1938. Read more
In his polemical 1938 speech “La Ligne de vie (Lifeline),” René Magritte spoke of his “objective representation of objects,” claiming that, “In my view, this detached way of representing things is characteristic of a universal style in which the manias and minor preferences of the individual no longer play any part.” Read more
Throughout the project, we’ve been working closely with curators in MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, and this exchange of ideas surrounding Pollock has enriched and informed the treatment process. During one such meeting, we took advantage of the opportunity to view One: Number 31,1950 as Pollock saw it during its inception: laid horizontally. Read more
In the March of 2012, conservators in MoMA’s sculpture conservation lab undertook a yearlong treatment of an original kitchen by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier from the seminal urban construction the Unite d’Habitation. All of the kitchen components (including the drain!) were transported from Marseilles, France, to our lab in New York City, and reassembled for research and treatment. Read more
After exhaustive research prior to conserving Untitled (Piano), it was time for reflection. MoMA curators and conservators discussed the difficult decisions ahead. We knew that Nam June Paik playfully changed his works with each installation, and often incorporated new audio and video technologies into his older video sculptures. Should we continue this tradition, or freeze the existing technologies at the moment of his death?
The project that unfolded represents a series of negotiations, always followed by documenting our decisions for future staff and researchers.
First we decided to purchase a full backup set of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. Paik preferred this technology even in the face of thin, flat screened models appearing on the market. Two of the monitors no longer worked. For these we purchased used monitors of the same size and swapped their cathode ray tubes with the originals, allowing us to use the original monitor casings. This was carried out by CT Lui and Raphaele Shirley of CTL Electronics. CT Lui worked closely with Paik for many years and still runs a TV repair shop off of Canal Street in New York City where he increasingly works for museums. We also purchased backups for the two security cameras, and extra bulbs for the spot light.
Next came the piano. After further discussion we decided to replace the original 5 ½” floppy-disc player-piano unit, knowing that future repairs and disc replacement would be impossible because of technical obsolescence. Fortunately PianoDisc, the company that made the unit, still exists. They now make wireless units that play encoded MP3 files. We worked with Paul Keogler of Dancing Ivories on Long Island to replace the unit and repair the piano. Our decision was to leave the original floppy-disc player-piano unit on the piano as evidence of the original technology, and install the new MP3 unit hidden away behind it.
Hopefully future staff will approve of our decision. Of course they can always remove the older unit or rewire the original unit in the future.
The piano itself was in poor condition. The wood was scratched and dented from use, and the mechanical systems were damaged and heavily restored. Once again, our discussion led to nuanced decisions. We decided not to repair the wood, but replace the completely worn hammer shanks and felt pads.
The final phase of the project was to preserve the two videos that were on laser discs. After determining that they were in good condition, we digitized them to create uncompressed files for archiving on our repository for digital collections.
One problem was left unresolved. Now that the videos are in digital format, they can be played from a computer or other digital playback device. Should we hide this device behind a wall and leave the laser-disc play decks on the floor since the artist approved this technology? Should we install little green LED lights to make the decks appear like they are functioning? Or would that be dishonest?
What would Nam June Paik do? The question haunts us since he did not leave a clear roadmap for decision making in conserving his work. The decision about whether to display nonfunctioning laser-disc play decks will be made by curators and conservators in the future, as they continue to keep the media sculpture alive by retaining old technologies, hiding new technologies, and inevitably change the artwork.
Anthropologists tell us that objects develop social biographies as they accrue new meanings over time. A conservator would tell you that they have material biographies as well. I am reminded of a comment made by the late Stanley Eveling, “An object is a slow event.” Video sculptures must change materially over time as museum staff struggle to keep them operative. Their meanings inevitably change, as society brings new understanding to older technologies and older art forms. Retaining an artist’s vision for the work while managing change is at the core of our work in the Museum. I can’t help but think that Nam June Paik is giggling at our research and negotiation to keep the piano playing and the video rolling.