From an initial gift of eight prints and one drawing in 1929, MoMA’s collection has bloomed to nearly 200,000 works across six curatorial departments—Painting and Sculpture, Drawings and Prints, Media and Performance Art, Photography, Film, and Architecture and Design—including everything from Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) to Maya Deren’s lush film Meshes of the Afternoon
Posts in ‘Behind the Scenes’
Pablo Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe is a series of six sculptures created in the first half of 1914. The sculpture depicts a drinking glass with the front cut away to reveal the liquid inside, and perched on the rim is a sugar cube atop an absinthe spoon. Each is painted differently on an identical bronze form. For the current exhibition Picasso Sculpture (through February 7), they are shown together for the first time since they were cast and painted, offering a unique opportunity for study and comparison.
As I’ve been going through the architectural models in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archive—in preparation for future display—I’ve seen all kinds of condition problems, from acidified paper, to warped and crushed elements, to losses and detachments. But this is not too surprising. Unlike more traditional museum objects like bronze sculptures or oil paintings, architectural models are utilitarian: they exist to articulate a design. Thus, their materials are more often selected for expediency than for longevity.
The painted wood and paperboard model for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers represents one of three apartment buildings Wright planned to build around St. Mark’s Church in New York’s East Village. Of the 19 models in the Archive, St. Mark’s Tower is undoubtedly in the worst condition; it has suffered just about every kind of damage I’ve seen among the models. It arrived acidified and embrittled, with approximately 50% of its exterior missing, its floors warped and separating, its wooden base and finial exhibiting large jagged losses, and every surface covered with an accumulation of dirt, cobwebs, and mouse droppings (see images below).
The St. Mark’s Tower model is arguably one of the most important models in the Archive. Had the project been realized in the early 1930s, it would have been Wright’s first skyscraper in New York City, and the first building in that metropolis with an all-glass exterior (beating out the Lever House and United Nations building by 20 years!). Though St. Mark’s Tower was never built, Wright exhibited the model frequently, into the early 1950s. (Price Tower, a later version of this building, the model for which is also included in the Archive, was built 20 years later in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.)
When loss to an object is as severe as it is to this model, conventional restoration techniques are brought into question: to introduce so much 21st-century material to an object from the early 20th century raises issues of originality and authenticity. In consultation with curators, a range of options were considered, from leaving the model incomplete and damaged, to restoring it entirely, to fabricating a whole new model. To strike a balance between restoring Wright’s vision and respecting the history of the object, we decided to restore it partially, leaving a quarter of it in its damaged state. From a specific angle, the model will look completely restored, but the unrestored portion will present primary evidence of the extent of the model’s loss and retain its material history. I will use materials in the restored sections that can be distinguished from the original, making the restorations reversible so that future generations can undo the additions if they so decide.
After extensive vacuuming and surface cleaning, the paperboard elements needed to be consolidated and reformed. For this task, I benefited from the expertise of our paper conservators, who advised me to use a combination of moisture, pressure, wheat-starch paste, and time to manipulate the model’s floors back into plane.
Replacement parts were cut from acid-free matboard. The thicker elements, such as the vertical window casings, were cut by hand. Creating these elements, which are repeated 468 times over the model, made for monotonous but meditative work (not unlike that undertaken in Wright’s studio, some 80 years ago). But I’ve been fortunate to work on this at a moment when it’s possible to also take advantage of new, time-saving technologies, like laser cutting, which was employed to cut the thinner elements such as the window mullions, and ink-jet printing, which I used to replicate repeated, hand-drawn pencil designs found on existing exterior walls.
After painting these parts with acrylic paint, I attached them to the model with a water-resoluble adhesive and a clamping system of cotton string loops.
I then applied the designs, printed on mulberry paper, which become transparent when saturated with adhesive.
This process has taken over 450 hours, 60 of which are condensed in this time-lapse video:
Now nearing completion, the restored model looks less like a ruin and more like an idea. In 2017, it will be exhibited for the first time in over half a century, allowing today’s visitors to gain insight into both Wright’s groundbreaking innovation and his working process. New Yorkers in particular may enjoy imagining how a trio of towering glassy structures would have transformed the landscape of the downtown lowlands.
With Francis Bacon’s Painting (1946) in the conservation studio for radiography, we had the opportunity to give the painting a closer look overall, checking it for changes in condition or other problems that might require conservation treatment of some sort.
At one point during the installation of Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015, one of the MoMA art handlers asked, “Where are all the photos?” It’s a valid question. For an exhibition of photography, Ocean of Images contains fewer framed pictures than one would expect.
For artist Ryan McGinness, printmaking is not a new endeavor. Though he primarily paints, sculpts, and creates installations, he has worked with several print studios over the years and is currently partnering with the Lower East Side Printshop for a Publishing Residency. Founded in the East Village in 1968 and moved to Midtown in 2005, the Lower East Side Printshop awards Publishing Residencies to contemporary artists so that they can work with a master printer to explore printmaking and create new work. MoMA’s Junior Associates visited the Lower East Side Printshop last week to meet McGinness and artistic director/master printer Erik Hougen.
To celebrate the installation of Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Reclining female nude] in The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, MoMA’s curatorial and digital media teams have collaborated on a bee-cam, presented here for the first time, in order to give online viewers the chance to follow the activities of our honeybee colony during one day of the exhibition.
For this special summer presentation of Untilled, MoMA has partnered with urban beekeeper Andrew Coté, who maintains apiaries all over New York City, is founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association, and sells his rooftop and varietal honeys at the Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I recently spoke with Andrew about his involvement with the installation as well as the wider field of local beekeeping. Read our discussion below:
Margaret: We understand you come from a long line of beekeepers. How did you get involved in beekeeping in New York City?
Andrew: Beekeeping has been in my family since at least the 1800s, in a French speaking area of northern Canada. My great-grandfather, grandmother, and father were (and in the case of my father, is still) beekeepers. When I moved to New York City I did not see why I should leave beekeeping, which through my father I have been involved with for over three decades, behind. In fact, New York City has had honeybees as part of the landscape since shortly after the Lenape Native Americans greeted Henry Hudson. The Dutch kept bees down in what is now Battery Park and also on Governor’s Island in the 1600s. Later, honeybees pollinated the orchards of what is now the Lower East Side. A hundred years ago in NYC, beehives were commonly found atop orphanages and hospitals as a means of generating sweets for the kitchens. There are many examples and the honeybee has been pollinating the Big Apple since before the Dutch traded it for some rubber trees in Surinam.
We were surprised to learn that there is a very active beekeeping community in New York City including not only individuals but also businesses. Who keeps bees here and why?
The New York City Beekeepers Association is an urban hive for all of Gotham City, with hundreds of members. The stereotypical idea of the beekeeper is the retired firefighter or machinist, and almost always a man. But in New York City, there are beekeepers that span the spectrum, from medical doctors and university professors to hipsters to school bus drivers to the unemployed to hairdressers to NYPD Detectives and Bomb Squad officers. Men, women, and children keep honeybees in New York City. NYC beekeepers are such an eclectic group as to defy the usual idea of who is a beekeeper—but countrywide, most beekeepers are men over 50 years old.
Here in New York City, companies like the Waldorf-Astoria, Brooks Brothers, Green Naftali Gallery, The Rudolf Steiner School, and several other groups and businesses including restaurants, bakeries, and community gardens house honeybee hives. The New York City Beekeepers Association estimates that about 500 beehives are active in the five boroughs, though only about half that number are registered.
Where are some other beehives in Manhattan located?
There are beehives at a community garden at Rockaway Beach, in the oldest Catholic cemetery (dating from the 1770s) on Mulberry Street at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, atop St. Mary’s on Grand Street, atop a ballet school on 19th Street, on the roof of a tenement in Harlem; crowning synagogues and on private balconies. A French bakery in Bushwick. There are even two beehives sitting quietly gathering nectar and pollen nearby as understudies in case the bees on Untilled grow tired of their position and decide to explore other options.
What are some of the challenges of urban beekeeping?
Seriously speaking, one of the biggest challenges of urban beekeeping is dealing with traffic and parking. For the beekeeper who maintains more than one apiary and who needs to haul equipment, these two factors are the most difficult and time consuming. Also difficult is finding a suitable location to place bees. Getting permission from a landlord to place boxes of hundreds of thousands of flying stinging venomous insects on a rooftop is not an easy sell. Not falling off of the roof is also important, especially when, for instance, a bee flies into the nose of the beekeeper, making it difficult to maintain composure and balance (this may be phrased in a mocking tone, but, the problem is real). Then there is carrying the sometimes-very-heavy equipment up and down elevator-free buildings, ladders, and through hatch doors. It is hot, sticky, messy, often painful work, but with sweet rewards.
What does NYC honey taste like?
The spring and fall honeys from New York City are distinctly different, with the spring more of a light honey with a minty citrus taste, and the fall honey much darker, rounder, and richer—sometimes with a hint of spice. Honey comes in a range of colors depending on the plant nectar source, and those different plant sources also gives the honey different flavors.
What are some of the challenges of presenting bees in a public space? What special considerations were there for the installation of Untilled in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden?
Whenever placing a beehive anywhere it is very important not only to consider the true needs of the honeybees but also the perception of those honeybees for the humans who may come into contact with them (or may just be aware of them). People are often not well informed about honeybees and allow their prejudices and fears to guide their feelings about them. Education about honeybees and their beneficial and docile nature wins over most worried civilians in regards to honeybees. The rest can stay away from the hive.
In regards to special considerations when installing Untilled in the Sculpture Garden, we wanted to establish a natural barrier that would prevent people from coming too close to the hive for the safety and protection of both the bees and the public, yet not interrupt the viewing pleasure for John Q. Public. I believe that was well handled. Bees need a bit of space to take off and land, and that space needs to be free of curious art lovers. As curious as people are about art and bees (and bees as art), most possess a level of self preservation that forbids them from getting too close or curious about the installation. Through the natural barriers that exist with the meeting of the stone patio and the greenery, and the constantly present vigilant security team member, we are happy to report that things have been going smoothly.
Is this the first time you’ve worked with bees in the context of an art installation?
I have worked with honeybees in a great many ways—placing beards of bees on people’s faces, putting bees on the feet of a mannequin in front of a green screen for a television commercial for an athlete’s foot cream, traditional observation hives for educational purposes. I have wrangled bees for the cover of Time magazine, but this is the first time I have installed honeybees as part of an art installation. When Pierre Huyghe’s studio contacted me in 2011 to discuss how this could be done, I thought it was an interesting project, and I am so pleased to be part of it coming to fruition here at MoMA. I traveled with two of my team members to Los Angeles to see the installation there, and learned from the successes and difficulties their beekeeper faced. I also communicated with the beekeeper in Germany and of course, Huyghe’s team. It has been and continues to be a fascinating project.
How are the bees doing in their Sculpture Garden environment? Do they stay in the garden all day?
The bees are doing very well and are seemingly quite pleased to be a part of the art community. Few beehives can boast to being in such good company—works by Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, and other great artists are the immediate neighbors to these tens of thousands of honeybees. They are enchanted by live classical music or jazz on Sunday evenings. They are the best looked after beehive in the world, perhaps, getting two inspections from a professional beekeeper each and every day for a total of 14 inspections per week or 56 inspections per month—not to mention that they are probably the most photographed colony of bees in the history of the world, with hundreds if not thousands of people from all over the world photographing them seven days a week. Yoko Ono has even stopped by to greet them. They are happy bees indeed.
Despite this luxurious setting and the constant attention, the forager bees do just as their name implies—they forage for nectar, pollen, and water, and do so up to three miles from their home. Most, according to the orientation of their flight paths, are headed to Central Park to enjoy the nearly 1,000 acres of bounty there. Many others make beelines for Park Avenue where, as the name implies, they feast on the smorgasbord of nectar on offer there. Their honey may be the most complex, cosmopolitan honey ever concocted by the alchemy through which bees spin nectar into liquid gold.
What is the lifespan of the colony?
It depends how you choose to look at it. The lifespan of the average honeybee is six to eight weeks. The average queen lives for three years. A colony of honeybees will expand and contract from 10,000 to 75,000 bees at different points in the year. However, since a colony can regenerate a new queen, that colony may live on indefinitely, if it is healthy enough to do so and all conditions are correct.
What do you think people should know about bees and what are the most common misconceptions?
People should know that even if this beehive was not gracing the Sculpture Garden, there are currently 258 types of apis (bees) flying around New York City right now (and that does not include the vespa (wasps). So, they live among us now, have been here longer than we have, and without them we would have significantly less pollination. Speaking of honeybees (Apis mellifera), they are docile, not at all interested in stinging or harming anyone (if a bee approaches you, just calmly walk away, without flailing your arms or screaming), and are only interested in the pursuit of nectar, pollen, and water. Knowing that without the labor of the honeybee we would be in dire straights with our food supply is one way that we can appreciate these misunderstood yet sorely needed creatures.
We’ve all read about colony collapse and the challenges facing the bee population. What can we do to support bees?
Buying honey from a local beekeeper is a good start, and not honey that was trucked and shipped tens of thousands of miles to make it to the store shelf. Supporting farmers’ markets like Greenmarket is a nice way to lower one’s carbon footprint and support local agriculture such as beekeeping, which supports the bee population. Not using chemicals on our properties would go a long way to helping the bee population.
This summer MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is home to tens of thousands of Italian honeybees, as part of a recently acquired sculpture by French artist Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962). Huyghe’s Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Reclining female nude] (2012) incorporates a living bee colony that stands in for the head of a figure cast from a bronze sculpture by the Swiss artist Max Weber (1897–1982).
It’s hard to believe that MoMA’s website, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, is older than Google. It began with two relatively simple (by today’s standards) HTML exhibition sites for the Mutant Materials and Video Spaces exhibitions in 1995. Since then, over 200 exhibition sites have been created, documenting not only the Museum’s evolving curatorial interests, but also huge changes in Web coding and design.
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