The Conserving Outdoor Painted Sculpture Meeting, 2013

This week’s contributing blogger, Briana Feston, was most recently a Samuel H. Kress fellow at Sèvres-Cité de la céramique in France, and is currently the Graduate Intern in Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She is a member of the publications committee for AIG’s Electronic Media Group. 

It is difficult to imagine a better backdrop for discussing outdoor sculpture than the expansive sculpture garden surrounding the Kröller-Müller Museum, nestled deep within the Hoge Veluwe National Park in the Netherlands. In early June of this year, a variety of professionals with stakes in the conservation of outdoor painted sculpture were fortunate enough to convene in this ideal setting— amidst artworks by Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and others— for the Conserving Outdoor Painted Sculpture Conference to discuss the approaches, methods, and challenges surrounding this issue.

Participants make their way over to one of the stops on the garden tour: "Needle Tower," Kenneth Snelson, 1968.

Participants make their way over to one of the stops on the garden tour: “Needle Tower,” Kenneth Snelson, 1968.

This interim meeting of the Modern Materials and Contemporary Art (MMCA) working group of ICOM-CC was in part the result of a focus meeting organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012. Among an impressive and comprehensive list of goals for outdoor painted sculpture conservation established at that time was the aim of engaging a wider range of professionals, including artists’ foundations or estates, the paint industry, and fabricators, all to initiate dialogue and an exchange of expertise. The conference held this June was wildly successful at accomplishing just that.

Though the works and case studies presented were radically different— from painted cars (Nam June Paik’s 32 Cars for the 20th Century Play Mozart’s Requiem Quietly) and oil barrels (Christo’s 56 Barrels) to a rather large painted bronze teddy bear and an oversized shuttlecock (Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Shuttlecocks)— one common thread was the extent to which each project had benefited from the involvement of the paint industry and industrial coating experts, as well as the guidance and crucial documentation often given by artists’ studios or foundations.

As an emerging professional about to embark on a year-long stint at the Getty Museum that is absolutely sure to involve work on outdoor sculpture, I found it particularly interesting and valuable to attend a meeting featuring an acclaimed international cast. I was also fascinated to learn about the numerous advances made in the field in just the last few years, in large part because of the focus on collaboration with industry, which has meant both more options and new, more effective paint systems.

In two packed days, there were more (wonderful) presentations than I can mention here, many of which were detailed case studies, so I’ve chosen to highlight just a few that I thought stressed the larger themes at play.

The tone for the conference was set by Gwynne Ryan, who skillfully equated many of the problems of outdoor painted sculpture with those faced by time-based media conservators: iterations of works are sometimes necessary… and inevitable. Replacement of components, in this case paint systems, are often unavoidable, especially when the paint system serves not only as an aesthetic choice, but is vital to protecting the integrity of the substrate, preventing corrosion and deterioration.

Jardin d’émail, Jean Dubuffet, 1974.

“Jardin d’émail,” Jean Dubuffet, 1974.

Several presentations demonstrated how influential and valuable partnering with artists’ foundations and studios can be for everyone involved. Julie Wolfe spoke about the need to repaint the Getty Museum’s Three Brushstrokes by Roy Lichtenstein, and their subsequent collaboration with Lichtenstein’s former studio assistant, who now works for the artist’s estate and repainted the sculpture by hand.

In her talk about hand-painted outdoor sculpture, Frederike Breder outlined two entirely different approaches: a more conservative retouching treatment of a Nikki de Saint Phalle piece, and the complete repainting (on multiple occasions over many years) of the Jardin d’émail, a concrete and epoxy resin work by Jean Dubuffet, in the collection of the Kröller-Müller. What happens when a hand-painted sculpture like the Jardin d’émail needs to be completely repainted, due to its nature as a walkable sculpture, exposed to high foot traffic, bright sun, and pooling water in inclement weather? In this case, there was a huge reliance on collaboration with the Dubuffet Foundation: to retrace original documentation, to look at the artist’s techniques (line thickness, placement, etc), all while acknowledging that sometimes, replacement is the preferred option. The fiberglass-reinforced polyester tree sitting in the vast concrete of Jardin was, indeed, partially repainted by hand, after careful study of the nature and width of the black lines originally contouring the piece.

Similarly, Lydia Beerkens presented the re-coating of Tajiri’s Square Knot, a project that required working with professional industrial painters and the Tajiri Foundation. Representatives from each foundation also attended and participated in the conference, weighing in during Q & A sessions, and in a roundtable discussion finale.

Biking in and out of the De Hoge Veluwe.

Biking in and out of the De Hoge Veluwe.

Also especially notable were several talks by paint industry professionals and a stunning presentation by experts from the Kunstgiesserei St. Gallen, a foundry that works with artists to actualize all kinds of large-scale sculpture. The foundry also keeps a beautiful and extensive company archive documenting the materials that the artists chose (and ones they didn’t choose, with reasons why). You can check out the website and follow the links to the database Material Archive here:

The conference was a success in bringing an interdisciplinary team together to brainstorm, collaborate, and inspire one another. The environment was inspiring too: a garden tour contained its own series of mini-presentations and fostered additional discussion between the various participants. For many of us, our exit from the park was just as memorable: a 2-kilometer kiddie-bike ride that gave us one last look at the breathtaking scenery.

*All photo credits to  Julie Wolfe

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