Archive for the 'Conservation' Category

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.

Examining “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness”

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Herri met de Bles after conservation treatment

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, a fantastical landscape by Herri met de Bles, is hanging in the newly reinstalled European art galleries after years in storage. Before it could be displayed, the 16th-century painting required careful conservation treatment in the DMA’s Paintings Conservation Studio. Treatment revealed a remarkably complex scene, with many tiny figures, hidden creatures, and microscopic details.

Little is known of Herri met de Bles, who was born around 1510 and died after 1550. Regardless of his life being shrouded in mystery, Bles was an important Flemish Mannerist landscape painter, known for knitting together realistic landscape scenes with fantastic imaginary elements. In Italy, where his art was popular, Bles was known as “Civetta” (“owl” in Italian), because he liked to paint little owls into his works, acting as a sort of playfully hidden signature. If you look closely in the tree behind St. Jerome, you will see the beak and eyes of a tiny owl peeking through a tree hollow.

Saint Jerome before treatment

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, although striking, arrived at the conservation studio in need of treatment. Bles applied colorful, thin layers of paint over a prepared wooden support. The wood warped over time, causing cracks in the support and paint simultaneously. A darkened varnish further obscured the beautiful and precise details. Paint applied in a previous restoration campaign, which was likely undertaken in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, had also discolored, creating dissonance in the surface of the work and obscuring the overall harmony evoked by the artist in the landscape.

The painting was examined using various techniques—including microscopes, ultraviolet light radiation, infrared reflectography (IR), and x-radiography—to gain insight into the condition of the work and the artist’s techniques. Armed with this information, treatment began in preparation for the reinstallation of the European Galleries.

Saint Jerome during treatment

First, the dark and discolored varnish and areas of overpaint were removed. Cleaning revealed a world of detail previously unknown. Photomicrographs show details hardly perceptible without the aid of a microscope. Tiny creatures emerged in the wooded forest scene to the right of the central figure and in the mountains to the left, including a bear and cub family, stags, tiny figures hiking with a dog, and mountain goats. St. Jerome centers the composition and is accompanied by precisely painted attributes, including the skull and lion. He is surrounded by tiny, lively creatures such as squirrels, snails, lizards, mushrooms, and frogs. Bles also renders architectural features beautifully and goes so far as to depict not only microscopic decorative sculpture and architectural features but also decorative friezes noticeable only with magnification.

The IR images revealed especially interesting technical information. An elaborate underdrawing emerged when IR images were captured. Carbon-based materials absorb the infrared radiation and will appear black in IR images, while other materials that do not absorb the radiation will look transparent. Using this technique, underdrawing materials that contain carbon such as black inks, charcoal, and other carbon-containing black pigments become visible underneath overlying paint layers. Transfer marks, appearing as tiny black dots, were visible throughout the underdrawing, suggesting the use of prepared cartoon drawings. More free underdrawing was also observed, and can also be seen in the detail image. This type of underdrawing has been observed in other paintings attributed to Bles and serves as a fingerprint, in a way, of his working method.

After years of being stored away, this gorgeous painting by a mysterious artist is now on view for visitors to explore as part of free general admission. The landscape’s abundance of details will reward close looking, and the work serves as a dynamic addition to the newly reinstalled European Galleries.

Laura Hartman is the Associate Conservator at the DMA.

Image: Herri met de Bles, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, 16th century, oil on panel, Dallas Museum of Art, The Karl and Esther Hoblitzelle Collection, gift of the Hoblitzelle Foundation, 1987.21

Some Assembly Required

Have you ever wandered through the galleries at the DMA and thought to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder how they got this huge sculpture up those steps?” or “Wow! I bet it was really hard to hang that giant painting!” If you have, this post is for you! In one of the DMA’s newest installations, Women + Design: New Works, there are several pieces that required significant effort on the part of the DMA’s Collections team to install. Check out these behind-the-scenes photos and fun facts from the installation process, and visit the Museum to see these works in person—and for FREE—now through Sunday, February 17, 2019, in the Mary Noel and Bill Lamont Gallery.

Iris 3Objects Conservator Fran Baas adjusts the laser-cut polyester lace on Iris van Herpen’s Voltage Dress.

Najla 1A team of preparators works on lowering the two pieces of Najla El Zein’s Seduction onto the platform. Each piece of the sculpture weighs approximately 1,500 pounds and needs to be moved with a gantry crane. The lower stone was placed first, and then the upper stone had to be carefully lowered onto it.

Mobile 1Fran Baas, Lance Lander, and Mike Hill review the instructions for assembling Faye Toogood’s Tools for Life Mobile 2. Because the components of the mobile are heavy, the team had to know exactly what to do to minimize unnecessary handling.

Mobile 2Mike Hill and John Lendvay work to assemble Tools for Life Mobile 2 as it hangs from the ceiling.

DougDoug Velek takes measurements for the two pieces of jewelry by Katie Collins. Prior to installing the work, the preparators made the wedges and lifts used to display the jewelry in the exhibition. After confirming that the necklaces were centered on the wedge, preparators used pins to secure them in place.

SS and RSCurator Sarah Schleuning and preparator Russell Sublette discuss the placement of the three stools by Faye Toogood.

Katie Province is an Assistant Registrar for Collections and Exhibitions at the DMA.

Second Blooming

Alexander Calder’s Flower is back in the galleries after undergoing recent treatment in the Objects Conservation Lab. This mobile, a highlight of the collection, was given to the Museum in 1949, after it was commissioned for the Dallas Garden Club Flower Show by Mrs. Alex Camp and the Dallas Garden Club. The acquisition marked the beginning of the Museum’s contemporary art collection.

Fig03

An early photo of Flower from the DMA Archives.

In recent decades, Flower has not flowed or moved as Calder originally intended because of damage that occurred in 1979. While installed at the Museum’s former home in Fair Park, the mobile fell two stories and crashed to the ground after its hanging attachment failed. This caused loss of paint and some minor structural changes to the mobile’s elements. Because the piece is very carefully balanced in its construction, and weighs only four pounds overall, these slight deformations created noticeable alterations in how the mobile moved. Paint losses were addressed at the time, but all attempts to return the mobile to its original form were ultimately unsuccessful.

In preparation for Flower’s current display, DMA Associate Objects Conservator Fran Baas and I performed a conservation treatment this past fall. Our work enabled the mobile to move again in a way that more closely represents Calder’s original design. It also provided a unique opportunity to learn more about Flower’s history.

 

As we worked with DMA Archivist Hillary Bober to examine Calder’s original 1949 drawings and archival photographs of an early 1950s installation, subtle differences became clear. Most notably, one central metal hook was bent in an entirely different position than it had been. The changed areas were carefully manipulated back to their original positions to the extent that was safely possible. Although these repairs were very small, they created big changes in how the mobile moves overall.

Fig04

Flower on display after recent conservation treatment.

After many years, Flower finally hangs in a way that is much closer to what Calder intended. This beautiful floating sculpture is now on view in the Museum’s Concourse overlook on Level 3.

Elena Torok is the Assistant Objects Conservator at the DMA.

 

Artistic Equations

Mathematics and art, two subjects that are often thought of as an unlikely combination; however, for American artist Alfred Jensen these two subjects fit together exactly. One of Jensen’s geometric, mathematical paintings could be seen if you peeked into the Conservation Studioab this past fall. This painting may appear simple in design, but the process and the surface are very complicated and interesting. Jensen was fascinated by the Maya calendar, philosophy, mathematics, color theory, pre-Columbian culture, and Asian culture. All of these things influence the compositions he creates, and in this particular painting there is very likely a specific reason for the number and placement of each dot of paint throughout the work.

Jensen combines mathematical and philosophical theory with artistic practice in his works similar to the way the field of conservation combines science with art. This perfect comparison makes it all the more exciting to perform a conservation treatment on this painting. In this work, it appears that Jensen applied the paint straight from the tube by dotting it directly onto a primed canvas. The dots were clearly not added at random, but were planned out, as is evidenced by a grid applied in pencil that can be seen in the reserves between the dots, below the paint.

Due to the high impasto of each little dot of paint, little cups and horizontal platforms are created that are perfectly positioned for catching and gathering dust. The dust detracts from and changes the way the colors interact with each other, affecting the color theory aspect of Jensen’s technique. Additionally, since the surface is unvarnished, the dust has started to attach itself to the paint, which will make it increasingly difficult to remove in the future.

Removing the dust from the surface is no easy task. Each little dot of paint has pointed ends that are extremely fragile and sometimes very small and difficult to see without magnification. As the DMA’s conservation intern, I began cleaning this painting in September 2017. In the image below, I’m using an optivisor to be able to see the very tiny, vulnerable peaks of paint and a small, soft brush to carefully dust each daub of paint to reveal the intended color below without disturbing the peaks. A HEPA vacuum gathers the dust so it doesn’t settle back onto the paint below.

The removal of the dust is a very slow, careful process because each little dot essentially becomes its own painting, requiring individual attention. From the viewing window of the Conservation Studio, it may seem as if the painting has not changed very much; however, below you can see the difference between a cleaned (green) and uncleaned area (blue) of the painting. The area in the green square is no longer dull and gray, and the colors show their intended vibrancy. The cleaning, while slow and detailed, is a very satisfying process.

Caroline Hoover is the Conservation Intern at the DMA.

Grime, Dust, and Drips…oh my! A short update from the Steichen Conservation team

If you’ve walked through the Barrel Gallery recently, you might have seen some conservators crawling around. Whether on the floor or on the ladder, the monumental size of Steichen’s mural series, In Exaltation of Flowers, has required some minor acrobatics. The team recently finished the cleaning phase of the treatment process – an essential step to protect the paintings from further degradation and ensure they can be enjoyed to the full extent that their beauty merits.

Cleaning huge paintings with tiny sponges.

You may recall from the short history of the murals that was recently posted that the canvases have been rolled up for over a century. During that time they encountered water damage, dust, dirt, grime, and other indignities that can be found in a storage room. This left the paintings with a significant amount of dust and dirt on their surfaces, which dulled the colors and deadened the sheen of the paint. To remove this disfiguring accumulation, we used special non-abrasive sponges to gently dry clean the surface and reveal the surprisingly fresh surface the paintings still exhibit. In areas of drips from water damage, tiny hand-rolled cotton swabs and a gentle chelating solution were employed.

The aftermath.

After cleaning, the paintings were brighter, more even, and much closer to the appearance Steichen intended them to have. The next phase of treatment includes loss compensation, framing, and preventive measures like backing boards. We’ll describe these processes next week.

Before and after cleaning

 

Elements of Beauty: Studying Steichen’s Technique

Over the past several weeks, a series of seven murals entitled In Exaltation of Flowers by painter and photographer Edward Steichen have been undergoing conservation treatment in the Barrel Vault Quadrant Galleries. The first step to any conservation treatment is the careful examination of the artwork. This gives a conservator insight into the condition of the artwork, and allows for a better understanding of the artist’s materials and working methods. A thorough examination provides invaluable information, which a conservator uses to plan the best conservation treatment.

Fig. 1-2 Left: photographed under visible light Right: Photographed under UV. When viewed under UV, different pigments used to paint the sitters face become apparent based on their characteristic fluorescence.

The conservation team has been examining and documenting the front and back of each mural. To better understand their painted surfaces, the team is using different types of surface imaging techniques incorporating the use of visible light, raking light, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The information gained from these different light sources provides a better understanding of the structure and condition of the murals. For example, viewing the murals under UV can give information regarding pigments, surface coatings, and previous restoration (fig. 1-2).

Fig. 3 Conservation intern Diana Hartman positioning the XRF spectrometer on an area of metal leaf in preparation for analysis. The XRF spectrum above is an example of the data collected from this analytical technique.

More in-depth elemental analysis using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) has also been carried out to help determine the types of pigments and metal leaf present on all seven murals (fig.3). This non-destructive technique uses an x-ray beam to excite electrons causing different atoms to emit energy characteristic of specific elements. By detecting these elements, XRF provides information a conservator can use to identify the pigments present.

Fig. 4 Conservation intern Keara Teeter collecting a sample from an area with gilding

Microscopic samples were taken to better understand the layered structure of the murals starting from the ground layer, priming layer(s), paint layer(s), and in some areas metal leaf (fig.5). These cross-section samples are viewed at high magnification with both visible light and UV, which allows for a close look at the type of pigments, adhesives, and coatings present and the order in which the artist applied them.

Fig. 5 Cross-section sample magnified 200X, photographed with visible light. Description of the layers from the bottom up: canvas glue sizing, white ground, blue paint, light yellow paint, dark yellow paint, black paint, adhesive, gold leaf.

Diana Hartman is a Conservation Intern at the DMA


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