We’ve taken a short break from writing about Claes Oldenburg’s iconic Floor Cake sculpture—currently undergoing conservation treatment here at MoMA—to prepare a lecture for last week’s annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Conservators, educators, and scientists gather each year to discuss new types of treatments for works of art and to examine the effects of past treatment. Our presentation focused on the history of Floor Cake and its condition (please see our previous posts), as we have been working to conserve this unique and popular work for the past several months.
In this week’s post we would like to introduce you to one method of examination we use in conservation: cross sections. Small samples of paint (about the size of the period at the end of this sentence) were taken from different locations on the sculpture and embedded in polyester resin for microscopic and analytical studies. The mounted cross sections provide valuable information about a painting’s layered structure, pigments, and technique. In the image to the right, the paint sample is actually the tiny dot embedded in the resin, just below the head of the pushpin. Please visit the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation’s website for a full description of paint cross sections in conservation.
Samples were taken from the chocolate drop, the sprinkle, the white upper layer of cake, and the second brownish layer. These cross sections were quite surprising. First, all of the sections showed evidence of white ground preparation. Some of the areas of cake are so thinly painted that we were surprised to learn that the sculptor used this traditonal painting technique. Secondly, the object went through many iterations, best illustrated by the “chocolate drop” (uppermost cross section image) as what appears to possibly be flavors of cherry, lime, and orange before the uppermost layer of dark ocher brown. These sections reveal an extremely painterly quality to Oldenburg’s application of layers.
Look for upcoming posts, in which we proceed with cleaning the paint and consider adding filling!