Preserving 100-Year-Old Plastic: Naum Gabo’s “Constructed Head No. 2”

The plastic sculpture is deteriorating, so slowly you can’t tell, but actively and unavoidably. For two years now, Elena Torok, Assistant Objects Conservator at the DMA, has been researching the repair history and material composition of Constructed Head No. 2 by Naum Gabo (1890–1977), in preparation for a conservation treatment this past spring. The sculpture is now free to see in the European Art Galleries.

Naum Gabo, Constructed Head No. 2, 1923–24, based on an original design of 1916, Ivory Rhodoid, Dallas Museum of Art, Edward S. Marcus Memorial Fund, 1981.35, © Nina Williams, England

Naum Gabo was a Russian avant-garde artist who worked with some of the some earliest forms of plastic in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Plastic was just becoming commercially available, and Constructivists like Gabo were interested in using new materials to merge art and daily life.

Over his lifetime, Gabo made seven versions of Constructed Head No. 2. They are all similar in design—a geometric bust of a woman made of many combined pieces—but they vary in size and medium. The earliest version was made from painted galvanized iron in 1916, and the latest, in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s collection, was made from stainless steel in 1975. The version in the DMA’s collection, dated 1923–1924, is made from Ivory Rhodoid (a trade name for an early cellulose ester). It is the only version Gabo made in plastic.

Plastic artworks are tricky for museums to preserve. There are many types of plastics, and the materials, still relatively new to the history of art, don’t all age well. Depending on type, they may start to bend, change color, or even break down entirely. Gabo’s early plastic works are known for their sensitivity. A sculpture acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art notoriously degraded to the point of being unable to be shown again.

Assistant Objects Conservator Elena Torok with Naum Gabo’s Constructed Head No. 2.

How has the DMA’s sculpture escaped that fate? Torok’s research indicates it has something to do with the color. More specifically, she has identified white pigments in Constructed Head No. 2 that appear to slow the deterioration of this particular plastic. Although the sculpture has discolored slightly and the left shoulder has started to bend and deform, it is still in great condition, especially compared to many other plastic works Gabo made during the same time period.

By 2017 what had not aged so well were materials used in older repairs. Constructed Head No. 2 was repaired at least three times before it was acquired by the DMA in 1981, and some of the glues used had started to yellow and darken (a common occurrence with certain adhesives as they age). This change was not only visually problematic, but also structurally worrisome; as glues discolor, their breakdown can eventually cause older repairs to lose their strength. As a result, this important work in the Museum’s collection has not been displayed in recent years.

Torok treats Naum Gabo’s Constructed Head No. 2.

Torok thoroughly researched the sculpture’s repair history before determining a conservation treatment plan. Earlier this year, she carefully removed the old, discolored adhesive and replaced it with new adhesive that is long-lasting and, most importantly, reversible, meaning it can be removed and replaced if necessary in the future. In August the sculpture went back on display for the first time in five years.

Constructed Head No. 2 is almost 100 years old now. The sculpture is too fragile to leave the DMA, it can’t be displayed too long due to light sensitivities, and it has to be shown in a special perforated case to allow for air exchange. As it slowly breaks down, the plastic releases distinct-smelling chemicals that can actually speed the aging of the sculpture if allowed to remain enclosed in close contact with it over time. Museums continue to acquire works made with plastic, and conservators continue to research the material and fight science with science in order to keep works on view (and intact) as long as possible.

Lillian Michel is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Dallas Museum of Art.


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