Blog I: Overview of the Nevelson Conservation Project

By Stephanie Hornbeck

The art conservation practice Caryatid Conservation Services, Inc., based in Miami, will soon begin treatment of two sculptures by Louise Nevelson, Dream House XLIII (1973) and Untitled (c. early 1980s), in the collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (formerly the Miami Art Museum). The Museum has been awarded a Bank of America Art Conservation Project Grant, which will support the treatment and the production of a documentary film about the project by The M Network.  A blog series will describe the project as it evolves. This weekly blog will run on Wednesdays this summer and feature guest bloggers from the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Caryatid Conservation, The M Network and ARTEX Fine Art Services. In presenting the perspectives of scholars, conservators, film makers, and shippers, detailed windows will open onto the specialized work of those involved in this project.

Dream House XLIII  (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) arrives at Caryatid Conservation studio, in Miami’s Design District, on May 8, 2013. Stephanie Hornbeck (in gray lab coat) and ARTEX art handlers steady the sculpture, while being filmed for the documentary. Photography by Naomi Patterson.

Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) arrives at Caryatid Conservation studio, in Miami’s Design District, on May 8, 2013. Stephanie Hornbeck (in gray lab coat) and ARTEX art handlers steady the sculpture, while being filmed for the documentary. Photography by Naomi Patterson.

Blog I: Overview of the Nevelson Conservation Project

Sculptor Louise Nevelson (American, born Leah Berliawsky in the Ukraine, 1899-1988) was a major figure in 20th century art; Nevelson lived and worked in New York.  After experimenting with various styles and media, she moved into abstraction in the late 1950s and found wide acclaim with her large-scale, monochromatic sculptures—typically wood assemblages painted white, black, or on occasion, a metallic color.

Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) in the Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck

Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) in the Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck

Conserving art created by 20th century artists can involve navigation between the sometimes-competing demands of preservation of the physical art work and respect of artistic intent. Complex issues are at play and may include: artistic intent, conservation ethics, authenticity, exhibition installation, and the preservation of original materials vs. restoration. The conservation process can be protracted, involving an interdisciplinary team, consisting of conservators, conservation scientists, museum curators, registrars, studio assistants, fabricators and installers.

Like many Nevelson sculptures, the two works in the PAMM collection are comprised of wood elements attached to a wood substrate and painted flat black. The surfaces are unstable and very fragile. The black paint exhibits significant network craquelure, lifting, and flaking over large areas of the exterior of the sculptures. The paint layers are vulnerable to progressive damage if left untreated.

Left: Untitled (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) overall before treatment photograph.  Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.  Right: Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) overall before treatment photograph. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Left: Untitled (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) overall before treatment photograph. Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.
Right: Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami) overall before treatment photograph. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

To better understand the fragility of the black paint coating, research is underway to inform and determine treatment options. The research has consisted of a literature search as well as dialogues with members of the Louise Nevelson Foundation, curators, conservators and with other institutions that own similar, black-painted wood sculptures by Nevelson. To date, Dream House XXXII (1972) in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Dream House XXIII (1972) in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, have been examined. Both are in very stable condition and do not manifest the paint instability issues present on the PAMM sculptures.

Before treatment detail of network craquelure on proper left side of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

Before treatment detail of network craquelure on proper left side of Dream House XLIII (Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami). Photograph by Stephanie Hornbeck.

Object and painting conservators are collaborating on this treatment. Analytical testing (via microscopy and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, FTIR) of paint samples from the PAMM sculptures is in progress. Consolidation, filling and inpainting tests are underway. Depending on the research findings, the treatment will be developed and include stabilization to the extent possible. Upcoming blog posts will describe the treatment in more depth.

Plans are in development at the Museum for educational outreach programming around the project. Construction on the new Herzog & de Meuron museum building is nearing completion, and the facility will open in December 2013, in time for Art Basel Miami. The two Nevelson sculptures, important works in the Museum’s collection, will be prominently displayed in the new galleries.

Tune in next Wednesday, when Pérez Art Museum Miami Senior Registrar Naomi Patterson will describe the history of the two Nevelson sculptures since their acquisition at the Museum.

Stephanie Hornbeck is Lead Conservator of this Nevelson conservation project. She founded Caryatid Conservation Services, her private practice, in 2010, where she serves as Principal and Senior Conservator, after working for 12 years at the Smithsonian Institution. She can be reached at shornbeck@caryatid-conservation.com. 

For questions or comments regarding this blog, please leave a comment below, or directly contact the editor, Jillian Ambroz, at jambroz.caryatidconservation@yahoo.com.

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