In the summer of 2014 the Department of Painting and Sculpture approached sculpture conservation to inquire if Bruce Conner’s work CHILD could be restored. CHILD was created in 1959 as a response to the sentencing of death-row inmate Caryl Chessman who had been incarcerated for the kidnapping and sexual molestation of a woman in Los Angeles. Conner responded to this high-profile capital punishment case and his visceral repulsion to it by creating a frightening sculpture of a deformed corpse-like child. Made from casting wax, the figure appears strapped to a wooden highchair with belt and twine, the head tilted backwards with a gaping or screaming mouth, and body veiled in torn and stretched nylon stockings.
Deemed un-exhibitable in its current state in 2014, over the years the wax figure had taken on an increasingly slumped position due to a gradual delamination along the original tacked joins. The nylons had pulled away from the sculpture during an earlier restoration attempt in 2000 and hung tenuously from the chair in small bundles. Thus the goal of the treatment of CHILD was to return the figure and the nylon stockings as close as possible to their 1960 orientation and, once in place, stabilize the sculpture so that it could withstand exhibition and travel in the present and future. In order to accomplish this task, two main treatment requirements became clear: one, to make the soft wax sculpture strong enough to support its own weight; and two, to treat the figure without compromising the fragile nylons.
It is a rare opportunity for a conservator to work on an object that has been deemed un-exhibitable and to get the opportunity to bring the work literally back to life! As with any work that comes through the lab, initial legwork was required prior to treatment in order to understand as much about the materials and condition of the work as possible. Documentation in the form of photography, x-radiographs, and ultraviolet images were performed of the sculpture and our science conservation department analyzed the wax. We were able to determine from this analysis and from information and letters in the conservation file that Conner formed the sculpture in segments from sheets of casting wax that were then tacked together by hand. Conner then took molten wax and poured it over these forms to create drips and texture and finished the sculpture by adding a belt, twine, fabric bundles, and stretching nylons thus creating a visual impact of the work.
For years, ideas and speculation have proliferated in the literature concerning MoMA’s care of Bruce Conner’s CHILD and its “state of great disrepair.” Conner’s frustration with the Museum was clearly communicated through interviews. Conner was engaged with MoMA on condition issues over the span of 26 years, and yet he offered differing and often conflicting opinions during that time. Due to the sculpture’s inherent fragility and severe structural issues the work has only been exhibited a handful of times but since its acquisition it has never been exhibited at the Museum.
The full assessment of the wax forms required their removal from the original chair prior to the start of rebuilding the sculpture. We determined a removal order based on accessibility and removed the sections of CHILD one by one out of the original chair. These sections were photographed, lifting fragments of wax were consolidated, and areas of severe slumping were reshaped using heat.
During this period a replica of the chair was built to satisfy one of our treatment requirements, namely to allow us to reform the figure without disturbing the nylons. This replica of the original chair was painstakingly fabricated by MoMA carpenter John Wood to exact dimensions of the original chair, made especially difficult due to the hand-made asymmetrical construction.
Once the wax pieces had been stabilized and the replica chair complete, we were faced with the task of reassembling and strengthening the figure. Months of brainstorming and tests passed before we found a method we thought would work: to create a compatible interior armature system. We ultimately decided to use a thermoplastic polyester resin called polycaprolactone. This resin softened under heat, conformed to the surface, and hardened into a rigid plastic. We experimented with many variations of this material in pellet, sheet, and fabric form, and ended up using two types of the resin, one embedded in scrim and one in a thick mesh.
In order to build the armature, the wax surface was first covered with a sheet of Teflon™ plumber’s tape. This sheet acted as a barrier layer between the wax and the armature, preventing significant heat transfer from the armature material while it hardened. The barrier also allowed the armature to be removed and reworked during the building of CHILD without impacting the surfaces or shape of the wax. This advantage proved to be essential, as the process of creating the armature and aligning the wax forms required numerous iterations of refinement. Over the plumber’s tape, small strips of the scrim were placed, slightly overlapping until an entire form (leg, chest, back) was supported. In areas that needed extra support, strips of the mesh were added.
The process of building and shaping the figure was carried out primarily in the replica chair. Every placement of an additional part of the figure required extensive consultation with the 1960 photographs to determine proper positioning. The time-lapse video below shows a very condensed video of this process. The video was captured with a GoPro camera that took a photograph every 10 seconds and is comprised of over 10,000 photographs, representing 111 hours of treatment.
After the figure of CHILD was set back into the chair the nylons were addressed. Fortunately we discovered that the small amount of nylons hanging to the side of the sculpture actually contained virtually all of the original material. After re-stretching and placing the existing nylons back into their original position based on the historic photographs, we were able to evaluate possible additions of vintage nylons. Original 1960s vintage nylons were sourced and purchased and eventually a match was found for the exact pattern used by Conner. However, although the nylons were the same age and pattern as the originals, their colors differed significantly. After several dying tests, coffee and tea dyes were used to help sufficiently “age” the vintage nylons to match the material on the original and were integrated onto the sculpture.
With the treatment complete we set about continuing the documentation of CHILD. We took extensive after-treatment photographs of the work in addition to more radiographs. These images allow us to monitor the stability and position of CHILD as it travels to different venues in this exhibition including SFMOMA and the Reina Sofia.
We are immensely grateful to the support we received in undertaking this endeavor. The success of this treatment is due in large part to the collaboration of multiple parties across MoMA, SFMOMA, and beyond. Now on view for the first time at the Museum, the restored sculpture can once again remind us of the passage of time, shifting attitudes, and engage audiences with its compelling imagery.
Read more about MoMA’s conservation of CHILD on The Art Newspaper’s website. Essays on the artist and more on history of this sculpture can be found in the exhibition catalogue of the retrospective BRUCE CONNER: ITS ALL TRUE.