In March 1998, leading figures in the contemporary art world gathered at the Getty Center in Los Angeles for discussion and debate on the many issues surrounding the conservation of 20th-century art. Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, the three-day conference, entitled "Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of 20th-Century Art," drew over 350 participants to hear 34 speakers—among them artists, museum directors, curators, conservators, art historians, educators, collectors, dealers, philosophers, lawyers, and scientists. Two of the papers presented at the conference are excerpted here. The papers explore two very different works of art, one from the first half of the century, the other from the century's end. While their conservation problems are very different—as is the artistic intent in each case—both works are memorials and thus very much about mortality and immortality. The full version of these papers, along with the others presented at the conference, will be published in book form by the GCI at the end of this year.
Infinite Columns and Finite Solutions
By David A. Scott, Vladimir Kucera, and Bo Rendahl
Constantin Brancusi's monumental sculpture the Infinite Column (sometimes called the Endless Column) is a work of art whose creator surely did not intend to be ephemeral. Brancusi, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, made many versions of the Infinite Column in wood and plaster, most over a period of two decades, beginning in 1918. Each consisted of a series of repeated modules, threaded like beads on a wire.
Brancusi always wished to find a site for the ultimate version of Infinite Column, and his opportunity finally came in 1937. A group of mothers of Tîrgu-Jiu, Romania, not far from Brancusi's birthplace, approached the artist to build a monument to their children and young men, killed defending a bridge against the German army during the First World War. Accepting no money for the commission, Brancusi conceived of an ambitious assemblage of three related sculptures that would extend through the city. These became Table of Silence and Gate of the Kiss, both in stone, leading, a mile away, to the towering Infinite Column, a slender concertina of repeating elements. Erected in 1937 to a height of 29.33 meters (96 feet, 3 inches), the Infinite Column has come to be recognized as one of Brancusi's outstanding achievements.
The technicalities of the work are, however, part of the problem of its restoration and conservation. The structure is sunk 4.6 meters (15 feet) into the ground in concrete and consists of a steel framework with cast-iron modules threaded onto it like large beads, which were then thermally sprayed with brass. The thermal-spraying technology, sometimes referred to as metallization, was developed in Switzerland at the beginning of this century. In this process, a metal powder is forced through a compressor and heated over a flame. The molten particles are used to coat a variety of substrates.
Brancusi's intent was to create a sculpture that would not tarnish like an ordinary bronze but would continue to reflect light, like the polished surfaces of the artist's indoor figures. The thermally sprayed coating is somewhat porous and must be smoothed and polished if it is to appear anything like the golden surfaces that Brancusi used on his small sculptures. The efforts of the original engineers in the construction of this sculpture were extraordinarily praiseworthy. But what they did not realize was that the hand-finished, hand-polished brass surfaces that Brancusi desired would not last long outdoors.
Today the column is a heavily tarnished, tawny brown. The outer brass skin is blistering in places and becoming detached from the cast iron, which itself has begun to suffer from corrosion; plumes of rust can be seen descending from damaged regions of the surface as the cast iron corrodes away. From the carbon-steel interior of the column, large handfuls of rust can be grasped from an inspection hole near the ground. The preservation of the column and its artistic integrity have been neglected and the routine maintenance so essential for the structure's survival has not been carried out.
The sculpture has suffered political abuse as well. The Communists so hated Brancusi that in the 1950s the mayor of Tîrgu-Jiu ordered the demolition of the Infinite Column. Attempts were made to pull the structure down with horses and ropes—or tractors, according to another account—which failed after days of futile toil. Accounts also vary as to how much damage was caused by the demolition effort. Cracking of the concrete foundations is visible at the base of the sculpture.
Most of us would not be happy allowing this work to rust away in a Ruskin-like acceptance of the death of the art, leaving us only with its legend. Most conservation professionals would agree that preservation or restoration of the column is viable, although it is not conservable in the same sense that an outdoor bronze normally would be. There is no path of minimum intervention for the Infinite Column. Either an attempt at restoration is made or the work decays. Eventually, it would have to be pulled down as an architectural folly, a hazard of corroded iron and rusted surfaces.
Some have proposed removing the original sculpture to an indoor location and replacing it with a replica. This is hardly practical: a work of such great height is not amenable to replacement. The cost of preparing a convincing replica and of removing the original to a presently nonexisting indoor location would be prohibitively expensive.
Another option, that of dismantling and restoring the sculpture to an appearance in keeping with the aesthetic of the artist, was ultimately advocated by the International Brancusi Foundation, led by Romanian art historian Radu Varia, who originally approached the Getty Conservation Institute for advice. The GCI began working with the Swedish Corrosion Institute in March 1994, studying the rusting of the internal steel framework of the piece, the corrosion of the iron modules, and the deterioration of the sprayed metallic coating. The team then developed a series of recommendations, bearing in mind that all conservation and engineering work would need to be carried out by Romanian professionals. The final restoration of the Infinite Column is in the hands of the Romanians and the International Brancusi Foundation.
In present-day conservation practice, we seek to preserve all vestiges of original material, especially since the brutal restorations of art, in the past, have resulted in the obliteration of the original hand and eye of the creator. However, in the case of the Infinite Column, Brancusi's original intention will not be destroyed if an attempt is made to preserve the form and appearance of the sculpture; the essence of the work of art is contained in the shape and dimensions of the cast-iron modules (which must, of course, be preserved).
With regard to the surface of the work, the original aesthetic has been lost as a result of previous recoating efforts. The decision as to what color should be attempted is complicated, given that the original coating no doubt underwent a change in color within a short period after being exposed to the outdoors. The GCI and the Swedish Corrosion Institute have been successful in finding a brass-colored alloy-based on a Swedish coinage alloy of copper, aluminum, zinc, and tin—to replace the copper-zinc alloy that has tarnished badly, and they have recommended the alloy to the International Brancusi Foundation. The team also recommended that, in order to preserve the appearance of this new, thermally sprayed coating, additional protection be provided with an acrylic lacquer and a wax outer coat, a treatment that, with regular maintenance, should ensure that the sculpture retain a golden hue for several years.
There is room for discussion about what happens with the carbon-steel armature of the sculpture. Should this interior element be replaced when the column is dismantled, or can it be salvaged by scraping away the rust, reconstituting the armature, and reusing it in the reconstruction? Neither option is easy, any more than is the protection of the outer surface of the sculpture.
The problems of restoration are not infinite, but they are formidable. The most mundane is simply the cost. Requirements include about two tons of metal for the exterior coating, liters of organic coatings, hundreds of kilograms of wax outer coating, hundreds of hours of work to move everything safely, several metric tons of stainless steel for a new armature, half a ton of zinc or aluminum, thousands of kilograms of new cement to set the foundations—not to mention the costs of scaffolding, a crane, and labor, including the needed technicians, scientists, and principal organizers. The restoration is clearly much more costly than that of a typical outdoor bronze sculpture.
The case of the Infinite Column bears witness to an evolution of materials: from materials known for thousands of years to be suitable for external use, to those of the early 20th century (a time which rashly believed it could do better), to our own time at the end of the century, with its ever-evolving scientifically "approved" materials. We hope these will be an improvement on those Brancusi chose to use, without distorting the artistic message of the Infinite Column.
David A. Scott is a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute. Vladimir Kucera is head of research at the Swedish Corrosion Institute in Stockholm. Bo Rendahl is a research scientist at the Swedish Corrosion Institute.
By Ann Temkin
The counterpoint "mortality/immortality" has always provided a theme for works of art. Vanitas paintings presented meditations on the transience of life, portraying fruit about to decay, candles soon to melt, flowers ready to fade. These paintings were about death while they themselves were durable objects. What has happened to vanitas in the late 20th century? The subject of human mortality certainly has not gone away; the aids epidemic has brought it closer than ever to the surface. From Picasso and Duchamp to Schwitters and Rauschenberg, we live in a century that declares that things, rather than symbols, are the stuff of art. A serious work of art cannot, by current definition, "illustrate" death, but it can embody or imply it. Vulnerability and evanescence have determined not only the content but the form of much of the most important art of the decade. And this, of course, presents real dilemmas for collectors, curators, and conservators.
A case study is an artwork that the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired in February 1998. Entitled Strange Fruit (for David), it was made from 1993 to 1998 by New York artist Zoe Leonard. It is composed of about 300 rinds and skins of avocados, grapefruits, lemons, oranges, and bananas. After the artist ate, or others had eaten, the meat of the fruit, she allowed the skins to dry out and then "repaired" and adorned them, sewing up the seams with colored thread, shiny wires, and buttons. Bananas are closed up with stitches or zippers that run from top to bottom.
Leonard furnished a creation story for the piece, discussing its evolution as a work of mourning after the death of a friend. "It was sort of a way to sew myself back up. I didn't even realize I was making art when I started doing them. I had just come back from India and was impressed with how each scrap of paper, each bit of wire was used to its maximum, to the very end of its possible useful life. . . . One morning I'd eaten these two oranges, and I just didn't want to throw the peels away, so absentmindedly I sewed them back up."
Leonard's claim that she didn't even realize she was making art when she began sewing the fruit in Provincetown typifies the rhetoric of 20th-century art, which has sought to erase boundaries between art and life. Eventually the work seemed to her to be art, and she continued working on it in New York and, later, during two years in a remote part of Alaska, where she mainly had to rely on fruit mailed to her. She first decided to exhibit the fruit in 1995 at her apartment. Strange Fruit was later shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami during the spring of 1997 and at the Kunsthalle Basel that summer.
Early on, her dealer, Paula Cooper, suggested the possibility of preservative intervention for the sculpture. Leonard was amenable and worked for two years with German conservator Christian Scheidemann to devise a way to arrest the decay of the fruit surfaces. After much testing, Scheidemann developed a solution that consisted of shock-freezing the pieces and then penetrating them with Paraloid B72 under vacuum. This solution was complicated by the need to protect the wires, threads, and other elements from the Paraloid B72; in other words, the piece presented the intricacies typical of any mixed-media work. But Scheidemann succeeded in this as well.
However, Leonard found that she recoiled at Scheidemann's hard-won results. She realized that the appearance of decay was not enough for her; the metaphor of disappearance was insufficient. I would argue that this was a reaction determined by art history —after Joseph Beuys's sausages and Dieter Rot's chocolate, the pretense of deterioration was no longer persuasive. Leonard set herself a criterion of honesty and rejected the preserved pieces.
When she first heard that the Philadelphia Museum of Art wanted to buy Strange Fruit, Leonard was thrilled and grateful. But she soon developed concerns about our willingness to show it continuously, to devote a specific space to it, and to show it, still, when it became more evidently a ruin. We agreed to try (although we did not formally commit) to show the piece for periods of time with a certain calendrical regularity, which seemed in the spirit of the work's sense of marking time. We agreed to photograph, or permit Leonard to photograph, successive installations, perhaps for eventual publication. We agreed to collaborate with her over the years to determine when the piece was no longer presentable and what should be done with it at that time. Admittedly, this allowance for continued communication with the artist is unusual. However, we live in a time when the museum is much more engaged with its public, so why not with its artists?
What did my colleagues at the museum think? They felt terrific about exhibiting Strange Fruit but at first were less sure about acquiring it, because of the implied obligations, particularly of storage and conservation. Interesting to me was the discomfort some had in assigning it an acquisition number. How can you give a number to something that won't always be there? To me this revealed our collective belief in the sense of permanence bestowed by an inventory. The sense is fictional, of course; an unsettlingly large percentage of numbered objects in our building do not exist as their numbers would indicate: they broke, were sold, are lost, or were designated for practical use and wore out. The assignment of a number does not, in truth, guarantee "forever."
What did our conservators think? Indeed, the piece is a bit of an affront to the profession. It is like bringing to a surgeon a patient with an inoperable disease: next patient, please. But here, too, Strange Fruit is very much a work of our time. The heroics of the conservation lab are as much in question as those of the hospital. As medical and conservation technology develops and the number of potentially treatable patients grows, the questions raised by Strange Fruit become social questions as much as art questions. For example, is it more graceful and humane to let a person die than to preserve him or her bizarrely and at great expense? Ultimately, the conservators and I shared an understanding of the spirit of the piece. We agreed that the labor-intensive aspect of dealing with it as we normally would—such as thoroughly condition-checking each unit—stretched the bounds of common sense. But we agreed to do certain things, such as devising good storage so that the periods of dormancy would impinge as little as possible on the work's life span.
While Leonard initially did not expect that Strange Fruit would end up in a museum, I believe its impact there will be more profound than any she could have imagined for it. In a museum, it often seems, we are dedicated to preserving something larger than individual works of art; we are dedicated to preserving the fiction that works of art are fixed and immortal. Our building is the greatest support for this argument: a seemingly imperishable monument of Vermont limestone constructed in the timeless idiom of the classical temple. In recent years, however, it too has manifested signs of serious deterioration.
The provocation offered by Leonard's work sends a message that reverber-ates throughout our building. Maybe it is not the only thing in the museum that is not forever. Maybe this is not a universe without wounds, reconstructions, scars, or death.
Strange Fruit is a piece that will alter in appearance in the museum. And for that reason, even though it faces death and portrays death, I believe it may be more alive for viewers than many objects that are apparently fixed and never-changing. Sometimes it's great to get caught up in the fiction of forever and the fiction of certainty. Sometimes it's great to enjoy a pretty Impressionist landscape. But sometimes we're ready to know that there can be beauty in cracks and in loss. Sometimes it's much more of a help to know that everything is changing, is in some way dying, that we do what we can, and that we go on creating.
Ann Temkin is the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of 20th-Century Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.