Conservation: Materials and Materiality in Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman II
November 14, 2014


Conservator Helen Ingalls with Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman II

Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman II is a poignant and provocative sculpture that is on view in American Art's Lincoln Gallery. In addition to the artwork's historical underpinning and evocative pose, it maintains a distinctive materiality that causes a visitor to pause and engage with its subject.

The material, and materiality, of artworks are points of consideration for nearly all art historical and museum professionals; however, none are more acutely sensitive to their importance than conservators. Art conservation requires a scientific understanding of the media that constitutes an artwork. Potential treatments and preservation efforts rely on the proper identification of the specific paints, metals, adhesives, and other components of collection objects. Misidentification of any part of an artwork can compromise its appearance and lifespan. Extensive testing is often carried out by conservators to identify the specific paint ingredients, ink types, or metal alloys used in the artworks they encounter.

In discerning the specific ingredients used in the distinctive patina of Tumbling Woman II, our objects conservator, Helen Ingalls, was able to benefit from a resource sometimes afforded to contemporary art collections: the people who actually fabricated the object. Through conversations and an onsite visit, Ms. Ingalls learned that although the sculpture resembles aging iron, Tumbling Woman II is actually made of bronze. The patina that is applied to the bronze surface comprises a series of fired nitrates and chlorides that yield the distinctly iron-like appearance desired by the artist.

To find out more about this sculpture and our ongoing efforts to preserve it, please join us at 6:00 p.m. on November 18 in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium as Helen Ingalls presents " Gravitas and Gravity: Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman II."

Posted by Chris on November 14, 2014 in Conservation at American Art
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Film Premiere: Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck
November 11, 2014

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is screening a sneak preview of the film Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck, an artist featured in the exhibition, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, now on view. The screening will take place Thursday, November 13, 2014, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. in American Art's McEvoy Auditorium. And the program is free. Public programs coordinator, Laurel Fehrenbach, spoke with the film's director Olympia Stone to find out more about her work and her fascination with Beck's artistic practice.

Olympia Stone

Filmmaker Olympia Stone

Eye Level: How did this film come about? What got you so curious about David Beck and his work?

Olympia Stone: I've had the privilege of knowing David Beck for almost my entire life. My father, Allan Stone, was his art dealer for many years, and David would often visit our home in Purchase, New York. My father collected many different kinds of art and represented artists working in a range of genres, but from the time I was about 7 years old, David stood out as the artist that I was most deeply inspired by—I remember Saturday mornings spent trying to imitate his tiny creatures with modeling clay (totally unsuccessfully, needless to say!) My fascination with the tiny scale of David's work has never ceased, and it is something I felt compelled to explore. Also, because David's work is so exceptional and yet he is not widely known—I hope that Curious Worlds will help to change that by introducing his artwork to a wider audience.

EL: From start to finish, how long did it take to pull it all together? Can you describe your process from idea to its first showing?

OS: I started planning the film in late 2009 and began filming in spring of 2010, and the film be finished in September 2014. Considering my last film (The Cardboard Bernini) took 6 years to make, this project went relatively fast!

Because David is so prolific, and his pieces are so intricate, his work is challenging to film, and takes time to show. Like an art exhibit, this film had to be "curated" because (even if you want to) you can't include everything in the film. So my process was to figure out what to highlight, and to film a select group of his large artworks. I tend to edit as I am filming, so I would put sequences together, then add on to it, then decide what was and wasn't working and try different approaches. As with most films, many sequences that were in the first cut, ended up being taken out for various reasons, I also had a collaborator in building the story sequencing., Jody Becker, (credited as the writer of the film), helped me with illuminating the stories of each of the pieces, while weaving in footage of David working in his studio, and elements of his personal biography.

EL: What moment, in particular, stands out during filming? Do something surprise you, or deeply intrigue you?

OS: There are a few things that stand out for me about spending time filming with David. The main thing is that even knowing some of David's artwork as well as I do, I was still unprepared for how involved his process really is: the unbelievable, painstaking nature of his work, and the many varied skills (gilding, mosaic work, carving, welding, painting, etc.) that come into play in each piece. His seemingly endless, boundless creativity is totally inspiring to me. His creativity is evident in the work, but there is also an invisible element, which is revealed in the kind of on-going problem solving I saw him engaged in, and captured with the camera.

I also loved learning about and visiting David's many sources of inspiration, like going to the flea market with him, or seeing him in the Morgan Library in New York, interacting with the ancient seal carvings. One of my favorite moments during filming was when David took out his old sketchbooks, and flipped through them. You could see the way his vision of the Dodo had evolved over many years, and the evolution was amazing to witness.

EL: How did you select people for the interviews? How do you decide what is important to include and what to cut?

OS: Many of the people in the film are not interviewed in the context of being "art experts" (although some of them are) but as David's friends. Seeing him interacting with his old friends and hearing their funny stories or thoughtful remarks about him was a wonderful part of making the film. I would have loved to include more of those playful scenes but ultimately I had to decide which worked in the larger context of the film, and those moments that didn't had to go. These are the tough decisions you are forced to make in the edit room!

EL: What is next for you? Do you have a new project you're working on that you can tell us about?

OS: One of the people I interviewed while working on David's film is a most unusual and accomplished sculptor, Elizabeth King. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia. She and David are old friends, and share certain things in common in terms of their art process. My next film will be about Elizabeth and her very interesting work. I believe she is another artist working largely in her own genre. Filming has begun!

Posted by Jeff on November 11, 2014 in American Art Here, Five Question Interviews, Post It
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Throwback Thursday: You Don't Know Jack!
November 6, 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.

Today, we're focusing on our Luce Foundation Center where we have over 3000 objects from our collection in open storage. But one sculpture stands out and its name is Jack. When you come to Luce, on the third floor of American Art, whether to look at art, listen to music or an artist lecture, you will see Jack prominently standing on the main level. In a post from February 2009, Howard fills us in about Paul Feeley's sculpture.

Paul Feeley's Jack

Paul Feeley's Jack

Paul Feeley's sculpture Jack is a visitor favorite at The Luce Foundation Center. In fact, it's one of the objects people want to reach out and touch. And probably more would do so if it weren't for the sign that asks you not to. What is it about Jack? Perhaps it's the giant scale of this once-popular children's toy that naturally makes you want to interact with it. When objects are deliberately created out of scale, they're just begging for attention, aren't they? Jack makes me think of recent works by contemporary artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst that are also blown way out of proportion. I'm thinking about Hirst's spin art series and how he took carnival fare, super-sized it, and created an art market for it. Feeley's Jack seems modest in comparison. And that, I believe, is a good thing.

Feeley, who among other things, was Helen Frankenthaler's teacher at Bennington, created Jack in 1966, the year of his death, which just adds to its poignancy. He's known as an abstract expressionist who created color field paintings as well. One of these, Alruccabah from 1964, is also in the collection at American Art.

It's interesting to look at Feeley's two-dimensional work and see the image of the jack pop up every now and then. I've seen it in his paintings as well as in pages of an artist's book that Harvard Art Museum has online. In the last year of his life, Feeley gave the jack an extra dimension and created this sculpture that has found its permanent home at Luce.

Posted by Jeff on November 6, 2014 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center, Throwback Thursday
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Create a World: An Evening with Art Critic Jerry Saltz
November 4, 2014

Jerry Saltz © Liam Crotty Photography

In an appearance worthy of a TED talk, critic Jerry Saltz delivered a spirited address the other evening at American Art's McEvoy Auditorium, as part of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series. Saltz, art critic for New York magazine and the author of Seeing Out Loud: The Voice Art Columns Fall 1998 - Winter 2003 and Seeing Out Louder, offered his remarks while pacing the stage relentlessly, giving himself a workout that would have made a FitBit sizzle.

Titling his talk, "A Year in the Life of an Art Critic: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Bad," Saltz talked about his job as a critic and his schedule of attending thirty to forty shows a week, then returning home to write them up. Interestingly, before he was a critic, Saltz mentioned his life as a long distance truck driver who liked to read ArtForum magazine. He would eventually become a reviewer for that publication.

"Other artists teach us about art," Saltz said before speaking about the "history" of Jackson Pollock's drips (you can trace them all the way back to cave paintings) and Picasso's once-scandalous Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. Saltz continued with observations on Matisse and Picasso, the relationship between the two artists, and the sublime nature of Matisse's Paper Cut-Outs.

Speaking to the artists in the audience he urged them to "make your work yours" before adding, "You must exhaust everything you can do before you end up doing what you must do, what you're driven to do." He then went on to lay out some essential rules. These include #1 "Embed Thought in Material"; #2 Never count anyone out. Be nice to everybody, even the ones you hate; and #3 "You must not ever be defined by rejection or failure, ever." He advised that when you go out into the world, "show up for everything, do everything...there should be no line of investigation closed to you." In short, he told us, "create a world."

If you've got concerns about contemporary art and the role of the artist today that are keeping you up at night, no need to worry. Jerry Saltz has it all covered: he even does the pacing for you.

Did you miss Jerry Saltz's talk? Here's our webcast:

On Wednesday, November 5, join us for An Evening with Kathleen A Foster: "They’re Saved! They’re Saved!:Winslow Homer and The Life Line," the third and final lecture in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series.

Posted by Howard on November 4, 2014
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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.


Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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.


This letter from "Sandy" (Calder's nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968. Smithsonian Institution Archives accession 96-135, boxes 1 & 2.

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.


Gwenfritz as it appeared in 2013

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.

Posted by Jeff on October 31, 2014 in American Art Elsewhere, American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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