Rosa Lowinger: “Conserving the Uncollectible: Earth and Site-Specific Sculpture”


– I’m gonna talk a little
bit about the challenges of care for these works
of, site-specific artworks and works of land art. And they are slightly different, but they all sorta followed in a rubric of being somewhere in the middle, between architecture and sculpture. Some of the things that we have to do are more closely aligned with
how you deal with buildings in the sense that the land
and the landscape form part of the works to a greater or lesser extent and there’s often little or no way around the conditions of
the land and the landscape and how they impact these pieces. This is both the power and the challenge of dealing with these artworks when you’re part of the team that has to take care of them over time. And another division that I see in the site-specific works
and works of land art have to do with whether they
are in urban settings or in remote rural settings. So for example, this
phenomenal artwork in Sicily is in a very remote rural setting. It hardly gets any visitation although I understand it was just recently completed a few years ago and is seeing a lot more visitors. But for example, this piece, which is very typical of a
lot of the work that we see, is a site-specific artwork
created for a municipality, in this case Miami-Dade
County in South Florida. But this was a common, this
is a slightly later piece, but it was very common
beginning in the 1960s with the GSA art in
public buildings program to have large, massive works
of sculpture, often painted, as Suzanne described earlier, that the paint went off the canvas and onto the artworks outdoors. So these artworks of this caliber and this quality and importance exist throughout the United States. And the one thing is
that the paint surfaces on these works are sacrificial. That is to say the color is the aesthetic, but the color doesn’t last
because paint changes over time. And when these works are
repainted the challenge for us is to make sure that you’re getting not only the color, but the
texture and the reflectance as intended and migrating forward with the right kind of industrial systems that are now being used for these works. So this piece was treated
by our team in 2010 and one of the things we
had to do was remove coats and coats of paint that had
been put on the surface, usually by, since a
lot of these works fall under the aegis of a municipal
public works division, they often hire non-conservators or non-specialists in the field of art, although that has changed
a lot lately, to repaint, and painting is taking place with sort of approximation to the color system. So we’ve found that the color
had shifted so much over time. And it was a successful treatment, but the one thing that
we were unable to change, and this is one of the challenges of this kind of site-specific
work, is, if you can see, those large bowl-shaped
concrete painted elements are spectacular skateboard ramps. And there’s no way around it
because the artist was adamant, Oldenburg was adamant that the
pavement couldn’t be changed because if the pavement had been changed to something that was more grass or decomposed granite or something where you couldn’t
actually roll across it, it would have protected those forms, but that was not an option. And in our case, I feel very bound to respect exactly what
the intention of that is, even though we might sometimes
push at it a little bit if we feel it’s in the
best interest of the work. This is another example
of a similar situation. This is Roy Lichtenstein’s first work of public art in the city
of Miami Beach, the Mermaid, and this piece, again,
underwent the same kind of repainting campaign. You see the small image on your right that shows how the blue had shifted from that sort of deep ultramarine that is the intentional color. This is, the big slide, is after treatment and it had sort of changed over time by just repaintings that didn’t
have a strong accountability for what the original color was. And the way we were able to get back to the original color was because The Getty Museum had been working with the Lichtenstein Foundation to codify the exact colors
that are to be used. And we found a local fabricator that could help us achieve it in a kind of unusual way. We had to sort of, that
deep blue didn’t work very well in a commercial paint. We had to sort of get to it
by painting a white underlayer and getting thin layers on top of it. And of course the other thing is, this being a fountain piece, people use it to bathe in. Homeless people in Miami
Beach use it to bathe in, and another part of this work of land art, which I have to chide myself for not photographing it in its entirety, is the skinny palm tree to your left is actually part of the work itself. And so that’s another
component of its care, is to make sure that the
palm tree is healthy. So this is an artwork that I
think everybody here recognizes and it’s probably one of the most challenging works to take care of, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, because, for many reasons. But the main is it’s in the middle of an incredibly dense urban center. It’s also idiosyncratically made unlike, say, Nancy Holt, who worked with many technical people
to achieve her works. The artist who made this
piece made it himself and he kept changing the styles of it. So I was involved in this project in the late ’90s, for the decade of the ’90s, and there was a great push to figure out, how could we fix them? How could we bring them
to a state of equilibrium? And the reality of it
is that there wasn’t. It’s a work of art that
was a work of folk art with no real design or plan. It just kind of got made over time. And what eventually happened is that the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art took it under its, took over the stewardship of it. And even though it still belongs to the City of Los Angeles, LA County Museum of Art takes care of it and they have a permanent team on-site just to do constant maintenance. And of course any time that
they have to bring lifts in or a scaffold around those tall towers, it’s a huge undertaking. Another challenge to these works is when they are designed
to have landscape around them that actually damages them. This is a piece in a sculpture garden in Palm Beach called the
Ann Norton Sculpture Garden. And these works by the artist, Ann Norton, are intended to look like
they are archeological ruins that you just happened to come upon. And so a lot of tropical
vegetation surrounding them and touching them and covering them is part of their intention, which of course impacts
the pieces in many ways, not just with mold and bird droppings and all these superficial components, as you can see, because ultimately that’s part of what they’re
intended to be like. But also, as you can see in this, it actually creates breakage in the piece, to have that much humidity around them. So now I’m going to shift
from the urban setting into a more rural setting and look at some works that have to deal more with the desert landscape, those arid landscapes that are really the major locale of some of the pieces that we’re discussing today. And we were involved in this
project about 10 years ago. Chinati spend a fair bit of money to redo the foundations
for this installation, roughly around 2005 to
2009, I think it was. And the undertaking was so huge and it was only part of
the conservation plan. The plan had several components to it, but the foundation job was so immense that they ran out of money. And so they called us and said, “Could you solve this problem
for us without any money?” (audience laughing)
And what we wound up doing is, because the last component of the work, in addition to the foundation work, was the pieces were intended to be caulked so that water wouldn’t be
coming in between the planes, and also they wanted them
to be waterproofed because, as you can see in this image and oh, here in this image on the lower-right, they serve as bat houses and the bats drop all over the surfaces of the
concrete and stain very badly. So the program that had been developed by someone other than us was to caulk and waterproof the pieces to just protect them a little bit better. We wound up creating a plan where we used students to do
some of the implementation. That’s not a student. That’s me figuring out how to do it. And the interesting thing about working in these very arid environments is that when you wet up a surface, it can do funky things
to the concrete finish. So we had to first
figure out how to wet it so you didn’t create tide-lines, and actually the secret was
to wet from the bottom up so you got no drips as
it was running down. Because in order to
put the water repellent on them that they wanted, we needed to clean them
first ’cause they were dirty. And that was the the plan that we worked out. And as you can see, the bit of blue tape that is at the top of that is, you didn’t wanna get the water repellent into the crack because then
the caulk would not hold. And here we have a team of students from some of the conservation programs that came out for the summer. That’s how we got around
the financial burden. Chinati put them up and
they worked for free, as good interns will do, and they caulked all those joints, and they had to be caulked in such a way where the caulk was
embedded and then raked out so that it didn’t disrupt the
line that Judd had intended. So it’s in there to protect the space, but you don’t see it. And there is a waterproofing test that is being done on the left. And you can see that the finish itself, that is a finished product afterward. The finish itself didn’t change and that was really important to it, to make sure that we applied this without any alteration to the surface. But what we weren’t able to do as part of this project
is to do any repairs. And the new foundations, even though they were
installed shortly before then, there was still a bit of shifting, and what you get on some of these large concrete works is cracking in various places. So we weren’t able to take care of that. There’s still more work to be done on this and you can, I love this shot because it showed the
difference of conditions. We don’t have, in settings such as this you don’t have to deal with human
beings, for the most part, doing strange things to the artwork. But animals are around. I’m going a little fast
’cause I have 10 minutes and I know we’re running behind. So this year we were extremely privileged to be able to work on the Sun Tunnels. And I had initially gone out to look at the Sun Tunnels in 2014 when they were still under the stewardship of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, and I was asked to come out to just see what their condition was. And their condition was really quite good. But they did have a couple of key problems that had to be dealt with. And once Dia acquired them I went out again with the registrar, Elizabeth Peck, and we did an inspection
of them one more time. And they’re really well-built. They’re in excellent condition, but they did have
several areas of concern. And the first is that because the tunnels were cast vertically, the part that was at the top had a sort of depletion of the matrix,
of the cement matrix. It just depleted because it settled down. And those, you could see,
on every single one of them, those ends, only one
end of each tunnel had a lot of cracking and damage and old repairs that
didn’t look very good. The other side of them
was beautifully intact, no cracking whatsoever, but it had a dark stain around them from the mold release agent
that was on the bottom. So the main things were those cracks, little bits of graffiti. I am, I don’t know how
it has been thus far, but no one has ever decided
to take a can of spray paint to these pieces, which is great. All the graffiti, there is some graffiti but it’s really discreet, pencil markings, little. I love this one ’cause it was done with just wet dirt, with wet earth. And then small bits of corrosion from places where the aggregate, where the rebar that reinforces
these was at the surface. And you can see the level of
the damage on those sides. And the other thing that
was happening with them is that there is, on the top of each tunnel, since they were cast vertically and they’re now horizontal, the top of each tunnel presented this long crack that ran the
entire length of the tunnel. And I, the two times that
I went out to inspect it I was absolutely certain that I was seeing light come through it. But I was wrong. There was no light coming through it. It was a superficial
crack from the bottom up. But still we felt it was
important to reinforce it, especially, you’ll see in a minute, in areas where it sort of spanned two of the cord holes for the constellations. And then there was this other condition on the surface of the tunnels that I would never have been able
to identify had Elizabeth not told me what it was, and it is essentially, you
see these brown markings throughout the interior? It’s that people like to
come and shoot bullets into the Sun Tunnels. But they don’t shoot them to
ping them and damage them. The shoot at an angle
to watch the bullet spin around inside the tunnel. But the effect is that, because the bullet is hot
as it hits the concrete, it creates this sort
of smear of brown metal on the surface, which luckily Nancy Holt
knew about it in her lifetime and felt that it was okay to leave because it would’ve been very difficult to remove molten metal from
the surface of the tunnels, and probably not very efficient, if you will, because there’s no stopping anyone from doing it again. The challenge of this piece
and the Judd was that, when you’re out in these
incredibly dry landscapes, anything you do to these surfaces that involve moisture
wicks away immediately. So you have very little
time to really do your work without having someone
constantly hydrate the surface, which I’ll show you in a second. This is us ascertaining carefully from the top that that crack
did not go through anywhere. This is us doing a little
bit of remedial work, just in the area where those cracks spanned two
constellation core holes. Because we were concerned that, in an area like this, ooh. I don’t know how I’m doing this but it doesn’t seem to be working. Well, you can see what I’m talking about, that where it spans in
between two of those holes, if it continued to crack and
it cracked all the way through, then a piece could dislodge. So we routed those areas out and reinforced them with
stainless steel threaded pins, and then filled them. You can see us working,
using the holes themselves. And we didn’t do any repairs
to small little spalls of the sort you see there on the left because the point here was to stabilize and to have an aesthetic that was in keeping with the fact
that this is a piece of art that lives in an exposed
rural environment. This is the patching work. We used patching mortars that we typically use in the conservation field of architectural work where you have to do patching work on cast stone or friezes or concrete brutalist buildings. We use the exact same methodologies here. You can see the shaving of the patches, and that is me in the parka. I live in LA and Miami so
I don’t do cold too well. So yeah, that we me
cleaning off some graffiti because these tunnels, we were gonna wash them initially, but we realized it was a
totally futile thing to do. If we washed them, they
would be dirty overnight. So instead we dry-cleaned them and we also removed a lot. The graffiti you couldn’t,
most of them were pencil marks, but you couldn’t erase them out because they were on top of
layers and layers of dirt. So the only way you could do it was with a fine sanding to get
the graffiti marks out. And then this is our work to keep those patches hydrated
for as long as possible because all of these
restoration mortars need to be wet for a long time
so that they dry well. So while we were working, we just kept wetting
them and wetting them, and overnight, when we went away, we wrapped them in burlap and plastic, and in the morning of
course they were dry. But at least they kept
from cracking overnight. And here I’m gonna show a video that was made by the artist, Marie Lorenz, who came out to visit us. It’s a short video that just kind of shows you a little bit of the work from a drone. And the little camper
that we have there was our way of dealing with the site because we had no electricity, no water, no bathrooms, no place to get away from the elements or to store our lunch. So that served as our
headquarters out there. You can see this is filling the crack. Lucinda’s wetting the
crack before she fills it ’cause we had to keep the concrete wet all the time while we were working. And you will see in a minute, a dust storm blowing in
while we were working. Very surprising. And the dust storm coming at us. We had to pack up all of a sudden and get the heck out of Dodge (audience giggling) because– (audience laughing) So I think that was it. And then I wanna just finish by saying I had the opportunity also, after we worked at the Sun Tunnels, to go and do an inspection
of The Lightning Fields which are in beautiful condition. But for a conservator it
was really interesting to be at a place where photography is really, really not allowed, or discouraged and certainly not allowed, and it really made for a
very interested interaction with the work of art that
we were dealing with. Thank you. (applauding)

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