Menil’s major car wash
Museum discovers bright colours and bumper stickers while conserving Chamberlain’s car-metal sculptures
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 243, February 2013
Published online: 07 February 2013
Visitors to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, last month were greeted by four shiny sculptures made from twisted bits of car bumpers and bonnets, metal filing cabinets and various pieces of found metal in the museum’s main foyer. The works, including the 14-part, 21ft-long American Tableau, 1984, were among a group of 12 sculptures by the American artist John Chamberlain (1927-2011) in the collection to undergo a 12-month comprehensive study and conservation treatment funded by a grant from the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project. The month-long installation of the pieces was part of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebrations. In 1987, an exhibition of Chamberlain’s sculptures from the 1970s and 80s inaugurated the museum, which holds one of the most significant collections of his work.
Chamberlain, who is best known for his metal sculptures, was renowned for his ability to transform industrial materials into works of art. The main focus of the project was the stabilisation of these large-scale sculptures. “In many ways, these pieces are their own worst enemies,” says the museum’s chief conservator, Brad Epley, who led the project. “There is no good place to grab them. You just have to hold them where you can, and this often puts stress on the welds, which are the minimal points of attachment.” He says the pieces had suffered “a certain amount of wear and tear” over the years. Chamberlain used welds as well as mechanical fasteners such as screws, nuts and bolts to secure his collages. “His working process was about putting these elements together and not permanently keeping them together. Welds and fasteners were quickly [applied] to confirm a desired aesthetic arrangement,” Epley says. Conservators were tasked with tightening nuts and screws and making minor adjustments to stabilise the works.
The team was also faced with paint issues, including lifting, separating and loss. In many of the pieces, there was not a great level of adhesion between paint layers because Chamberlain did not meticulously prepare the surfaces before applying artists’ paints over the metal’s existing industrial coatings. In some cases, it was difficult for conservators to determine whether the damage to the paint occurred before or after Chamberlain assembled the works. “We gave priority to artists’ paints over industrial ones because we know he definitely applied these in his studio,” Epley says, adding that Chamberlain used a wide variety of paints.
One of the biggest revelations came from thoroughly cleaning the sculptures to remove decades of grime—not an easy task, given the number of nooks and crannies in each piece. “These are juicy, rich pieces… bright colours and chrome, side by side. It was great to reacquaint ourselves with the surfaces that Chamberlain must have seen originally,” Epley says. Another surprise was the number of things that remained hidden from view because of the way Chamberlain had twisted the metal pieces around each other; for example, a 1960s New York Giants bumper sticker was tucked inside one piece.
According to Epley, the team was able to gather valuable information about Chamberlain’s methods and techniques. “The opportunity to work on a large sample of works at the same time means that we are able to contribute a systematic approach to treating Chamberlains to the conservation world,” he says.
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