Stored away between the paintings and sculptures in MoMA’s storage facility lay a forgotten treasure from the Museum’s past: 11 disassembled pieces of the original stretcher from a Pablo Picasso masterpiece. Museum registrars rediscovered the group of stretcher bars during routine organization earlier this year, and since stretchers are occasionally replaced to ensure that a canvas is adequately supported, the discovery did not immediately strike them as significant. However, the large size and design of the parts of one stretcher were very unusual.
Posts in ‘Conservation’
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.
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.
Francis Bacon’s Painting (1946), which is currently on view in the exhibition Solider, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War, came into MoMA’s paintings conservation studio in early 2015, after we received a request for an X-ray.
Recently on Inside/Out, we heard from Assistant Media Conservator Peter Oleksik about MoMA’s efforts to preserve and digitize its collection of analog video art, amassed over the course of four decades. The heroic undertaking of digitizing over 4,000 videotapes was absolutely critical for preservation and access purposes. However, when we digitize analog videotape, we have just begun a new chapter in the artwork’s life
Three years after the advent of the Portapak (the first portable video recorder), MoMA showed Nam June Paik’s Lindsay Tape (1967) as part of the landmark 1968 exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, organized by K.G. Pontus Hultén. The piece consisted of two, half-inch reel-to-reel decks that were spaced 10 feet apart, with the tape (Paik’s original!), jerry-rigged together to allow it to loop continuously. After a week on view, the wear on the tape proved too much. It began to break down and was taken off view (and was almost lost to history). Despite this rather daunting introduction to the fragile and fugitive nature of video, the Museum began to formally acquire video works in the late 1970s,
Media conservation is responsible for the audio, 35mm slide, performance, software, video, and film-based artworks in MoMA’s collection, caring for them in collaboration with colleagues across the Museum’s departments including Audio Visual, Curatorial, Information Technology, and Registrar. The first conservation position at MoMA was created in 1959 for a paintings conservator, and since then the Conservation Department has evolved to include specialists in sculpture, paper, photography, conservation science, and most recently media, in 2007.
The centerpiece of the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Matisse’s remarkable room-size cut-out The Swimming Pool returns to the MoMA galleries for the first time in more than 20 years. In this video, MoMA’s Department of Conservation shares a behind-the-scenes look at the process of conserving this beloved artwork, and in the text below conservator Laura Neufeld provides background on the project.
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