Conservation of Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz
October 31, 2014
Today, we celebrate, along with colleagues at the National Museum of American History, the rededication of Gwenfritz, a 40-foot tall abstract sculpture by the esteemed American artist Alexander Calder. The artwork was recently conserved and relocated to the site originally selected by the artist. American History intern Auni Gelles shares five behind-the-scenes pieces of information about on the sculpture's recent restoration.
Calder had a deep relationship with the Smithsonian. Heeding First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson's 1965 appeal for the beautification of the nation's capital, the philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz commissioned Calder to create a sculpture to be placed outside what was then known as the Museum of History and Technology (which became the National Museum of American History in 1980). Although he had criticized the Johnson administration's policies surrounding the Vietnam War, Calder accepted this commission, which would become part of the collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Calder valued his relationship with the Smithsonian and solidified his commitment to public art in America by creating other works for this national collection. In a 1968 letter to David Scott, then the director of the art museum, Calder mentions his progress on both Gwenfritz and another stabile, Nenuphar.
The pool that will again surround the sculpture was an important part of Calder's vision. He originally envisioned high jets of water surrounding the stabile—that's the opposite of a moving sculpture, a mobile—but it was determined that the fountain would be too difficult to maintain. Water would no doubt come into contact with the metal, accelerating its deterioration. The water feature, however, remained part of Calder's idea for this site-specific work: the sculpture was designed to be surrounded by a reflecting pool.
The water feature disappeared when the sculpture was moved to a new location on Constitution Avenue in 1984, to make way for a bandstand. A major component of the stabile's restoration is its move back to its original location, where it will once again stand above a pool of water. Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision."
Like an archaeological dig, removing layers of paint on the sculpture exposed information about the object's past. When Calder created this enormous structure in his studio in France, he instructed metal workers where to cut with markings on the material. Individual pieces were then assembled to form this massive abstract shape, disassembled, and shipped to the museum in crates. Once it was reassembled on the west side of the museum in 1969, Smithsonian staff covered Gwenfritz in matte black paint in accordance with Calder's suggestions, concealing the original markings. It wasn't until 2013, when conservators removed the sculpture's surface coatings, that Calder's guide marks resurfaced. Conservators gained insights from these previously hidden marks. "It's as if we returned to Calder's hand," Lemmey said. "The piece reveal[ed] itself in the course of conservation and tells us a lot about Calder's creative process."
Gwenfritz received a new coating of high-tech, military-grade paint. Calder gained technical expertise as he studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a rich black tone for Gwenfritz, he shipped the metal pieces in a primer coat and advised the Smithsonian to add layer of low-gloss paint.
After careful consideration, the team chose to re-cover Gwenfritz in a new, military-grade paint developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Gallery of Art specifically for outdoor sculptures. Lemmey believes that Calder would have approved of this cutting-edge paint had it been available to him. "We would hope that the criteria that we used to guide this project would have been sympathetic to the way that Calder would have approached the problem himself," she said. In order to protect the metal for another 50+ years, the Smithsonian's conservators will check on its condition regularly and touch up the paint as necessary.
The sculpture is held together by more than 1,200 bolts, which were all replaced. When the stabile was assembled in 1969, the individual pieces were connected by 1,270 bolts that came in different sizes to fit various angles. Each of the bolts faced the same way, creating a uniform aesthetic. During the 1984 move to the north side of the museum, however, this detail was lost. According to Richard Barden, American History's preservation services manager who oversaw this recent conservation, records from both the original installation and the move 15 years later do not provide sufficient insights into how exactly the sculpture was actually set up. Before the stabile was temporarily deconstructed last fall, the staff had to better understand how it was originally put together. In 2010, Ashley Jehle, an intern in the American History's objects lab, created a detailed study of each of the 71 irregularly shaped pieces.
Using this as a guide, the conservation process could begin. The only parts of Gwenfritz that were replaced were the bolts, many of which had corroded over the years. Thin washers were placed between the bolts and the metal planes, and special attention was paid to ensure that all of the bolts would once again be facing a single direction, a fact that Barden is particularly proud of. Barden has made an effort to maintain more detailed records so that future conservators do not face the same challenges when caring for this sculpture. American Art conservator, Tiarna Doherty, stated the museum is saving the old bolts for future reference.
Fitted with this durable new hardware and a fresh coat of black paint, Gwenfritz is now back in its original location in a new reflecting pool on the west side of the museum. I can only imagine that Calder would be delighted to see this landmark work today, as it is more striking than ever before.
For more pictures of Gwenfritz, check out American History's Flickr album.
Picture This: The Installation of James Prosek's Mural
October 28, 2014
American Art's latest exhibition, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, opens this Friday, October 31. The show includes 46 works by 12 artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Laurel Roth Hope, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech. We've created an online gallery with many of the works in the show.
Prosek's piece is 168 x 496 inches and took about a week to install. But we have also created a behind-the-scenes time-lapse video which compresses the process to about 2 minutes.
The exhibition, curated by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art here at the museum, will continue through February 22, 2015.
5 Questions for Christopher Kendall on the 21st Century Consort's Aviary Performance
October 23, 2014
American Art's Jo Ann Gillula speaks with Artistic Director Christopher Kendall about the upcoming season of the musical group in residence at the museum, 21st Century Consort, which opens their season with Aviary on October 25 in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium from 5 p.m to 8 p.m.
Eye Level: Is it really the 39th season of the consort? What was the very first concert and where was it held? Are you planning a special celebration next fall for the 40th anniversary?
Christopher Kendall: True confession: I can never quite figure out when you celebrate anniversaries (ask my wife). If this is our 39th season (it is), should we be celebrating this year or next? We decided on next, and are making some exciting plans (more on that at some later point). In any case, at our age, the Consort can justifiably celebrate every year: there aren't many new music or chamber groups who have survived so long. We credit our residency at the Smithsonian to a large degree for this; our home at American Art has been a terrific tonic, its exhibitions and collection an inspiration, and you and your staff the ideal partners in crime! One of the joys —and a poignancy too— of our residency here is that our very first concert 39 years ago took place in the Lincoln Gallery in this very building!
EL: Christopher, you have a most unusual repertoire lined up for the first concert, even for you who programs such varied contemporary music for the group. Are you actually combining 14th century and 21st century music? And as this concert celebrates our contemporary art exhibition, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, how do the two "blackbird" pieces differ?
CK: Perhaps the most unusual thing about this program is that most of it is downright un-American. Wait! I mean, not written by American composers, as a large percentage of our programs are (they are, after all, frequently related to the American art at the museum). But it happens there is an especially rich trove of European music having to do with birds, apropos this bird exhibition, running all the way back to the middle ages. Our arrangements, by Adam Har-zvi, of music of the 14th century follows a distinguished tradition by composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Charles Wuorinen and others, who are clearly fascinated by the complexity and, to our modern ears, strangeness of this music. It may not be easy, in fact, for audiences at the concert to tell that these pieces were written so many centuries ago. I'm looking forward to experiencing these medieval French pieces in juxtaposition to music by the most bird-song-obsessed composer of our (and all) time, Olivier Messiaen. To answer your question: the blackbird and other ornithologically-inspired pieces are all quite different, but all are for the birds (in the very best sense!). And stay tuned for a special, thematically appropriate encore....
EL: We have gotten such acclaim for the now "annual" Christmas concert, featuring William Sharp as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Why do you think audiences respond so positively to this piece?
CK: We're grateful that our audiences' tastes align so well with ours, since we now appear to have to play this piece (The Passion of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol) year in and year out! But performing it is sheer pleasure, perhaps for some of the same reasons people want to hear (and see) it. It is music that truly appeals to head and heart. Compressing the entire Dickens novella into about an hour, basically squeezing out a lot of the text and replacing it with notes, means the composer Jon Deak has achieved an intense and engrossing experience, to perform and to witness. If anything, the loss of text and gain of notes makes this beloved story all the more touching and funny, scary and ultimately, uplifting. I'm moved to tears every year! And there is William Sharp's inimitable depiction of Scrooge (and most of the other characters in the story). We say Bill is Ebenezer when he's on that stage. The characters he is not playing are all represented by the instrumentalists, who literally deliver their lines as part of the music. It's all endlessly challenging for us, and a blessing for us, every one!
EL: I know you gave us a teaser last year from O Brien's Algebra of Night. Why did you particularly want to perform the piece in its entirety? And how do the other two pieces also speak to cityscapes of New York?
CK: This is an extraordinary composition by a composer for whom I have a special sympathy (we are both administrators, he at Indiana University and I at University of Michigan). We both endeavor to keep our artistic production going while contending with academia. Frankly, I had worked as a dean with Gene for years, dimly aware he was a composer but without actually hearing his work. When I encountered Algebra of Night, I was stunned. Here is a masterful and incredibly beautiful work, intellectually deep, via some magnificent poetry, and intensely lyrical, via the poems' settings for mezzo-soprano and a quartet of piano and strings. I have been eager to premiere the entire work, a long and ambitious cycle, and, following our performance, to record it. That's the plan. And in the preview of a few of the movements last year and now in the entire cycle, it's been a pleasure to introduce the wonderful mezzo Deanne Meek to the Consort and our audience. And to add, I'm also partial to the other, "night in the city" works we'll do on this February program. And watch out for another of those surprise encores.
EL: The museum opens an exhibition on The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi next spring, a Japanese artist who painted in a modernist fashion in America. How did you select the various works to represent the immigrant experience?
CK: I appreciate the way you phrased this question, since the big challenge here was one of selection. American music has been endlessly enriched, even defined, by immigrant composers, initially from Europe and by now from all over the world. So as a theme for a program, it is really way too broad. But we're focusing on Asian composers in recognition of the remarkable artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, with a few other works by immigrant composers with special meaning to the Consort. So, unusually for us, we begin and end the season this year with works not by American composers. But in a way, all these distinctions break down, as American music increasingly embraces and is transformed by international influences and becomes a truly global language.
The Concert's program, Aviary takes place in American Art's McEvoy Auditorium, beginning at 5 p.m. There is a pre-concert discussion at 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with Artist and Musician Furniteur aka Brittany Sims
October 21, 2014
Unwind after work and ease into the weekend this Friday, October 24 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with an evening of music, art, and drinks at our Fall Luce Unplugged Community Showcase.
Local music scene standouts Furniteur and Laughing Man, chosen by Washington City Paper, will perform, and Atlas Brew Works will offer tastings to visitors 21 and over. Furniteur AKA Brittany Sims and her collaborators Kevin Bayly and Mike Toohey will play her synthpop hits, which are guaranteed to make you dance or at least nod your head. Laughing Man will follow up and change the tune to experimental rock. Preview their sound by listening to their new album and check out Washington City Paper's review.
In addition to making music, Brittany Sims works as a visual artist. We spoke with her about her fine arts background, thoughts on art and music, and the meaning behind the name of her electronic act.
Eye Level: You're the first musician with a Master of Fine Arts to play Luce Unplugged. Tell us about your fine arts background.
Brittany Sims: It's cliché, but I was always an artist. I went to Tulane University and got a BFA in painting then went on to study portraiture in Joanette and Cedric Egeli's atelier in Edgewater, MD. I learned an extraordinary amount about the figure and color, but I wanted to learn more so I went to The New York Studio School in New York and got my MFA in painting. I currently paint and work by commission while doing faux finishing and murals with a DC design and fabrication company called Swatchroom. I also do a lot of live-painting at weddings. It is great to still get to spend everyday creating.
EL: As an artist and musician, what do you think about the increasing overlap of the two?
BS: The performance aspect of music and art have always been linked, but the increase of visual stimulation during performances of late is fantastic. I saw a Darkside show at the 9:30 Club with scenography by Children of the Light that absolutely blew my mind. It not only enhanced but elevated their performance exponentially. I have been trying to think of ways to emulate that feeling in my own performances as Furniteur ever since.
EL: Is Brittany Sims the fine artist any different from Brittany Sims of Furniteur?
BS: The fine artist is a more intimate identity that wants to hide in a cottage on the water and just create things that may or may not ever be seen. Furniteur is more interested in collaboration and interaction, but it took me a while to get used to the vulnerability of performance.
EL: Tell us about the name Furniteur.
BS: It actually came from the 1973 sci-fi movie, Soylent Green. In the film, the wealthy have apartments that come with a mistress they call "furniture." The literal objectification was interesting, the 1970s future wardrobes and style were impeccable, and Furniteur was born.
EL: Last April, you played at the Corcoran and more recently at the (e)merge art fair. How does playing in a gallery or museum compare to playing at a concert venue?
BS: As an artist, playing among works of art is such a cool experience. I have more of a connection. At concert venues, it's more about bringing the art into the space.
We can't wait to have Brittany play next to the artworks in the Luce Center. Catch her set on Friday at 6 p.m.!
Throwback Thursday: Picture This: Trees in our Kogod Courtyard
October 16, 2014
It's Throwback Thursday! And we at Eye Level have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting posts from the past. American Art has been publishing our blog since September 2005 (that's an eternity in Internet years) and some of our posts are as current now as the day we first posted them.
Today, we feature a photo I took in September 2007 as the last tree was lowered into our about-to-be opened Kogod Courtyard. The seventh anniversary of our covered courtyard is coming this November 18. And, since it's opening, it's been the "go to" place to hear music from our Take 5! series, watch films, and take part in our Family Festivals. Even if there's no special event, the Kogod is the place to go for a quiet place to read and even work.
Timing is everything. On my way to photograph the installation of Andrea Zittel's work for our upcoming exhibition Celebrating the Lucelia Artist Award, 2001—2006, I stopped off to see what was happening in our courtyard. When I arrived at work this morning I had gotten wind of a pending tree arrival. Just as I entered the courtyard I looked up and saw the third black olive tree being lowered by the crane through the one remaining opening in the Norman Foster designed glass canopy.
Down below are a series of five photographs of the tree being lifted from the street, up to the canopy, and finally down to the courtyard floor. These were taken by Smithsonian Landscape Architect Paul Lindell. Great shots.