AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 11, “Made in L.A.” by Rachel Rivenc

The original topic of this talk shifted from the analysis of sculpture created by the “Finish Fetish” artists using ATR (attenuated total reflection) to a discussion of the materials and methods of fabrication employed by three of these artists: Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, and Larry Bell. Though not accepted by the artists themselves, “Finish Fetish” was a name bestowed upon a group working in the L.A. area in the 1960s referring to the cool, yet pristinely finished surfaces that were characteristic of their art. Rachel noted that care must be given to preserving the signature surfaces, thus any analytical investigations required the use of non-invasive techniques only. The materials examination was augmented by interviews with artists when possible, as well as archival documents.

Craig Kauffman, one of the first artists to use plastics in the L.A. art community, converted industrial fabrication methods into his practice. Heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, his early work involved painting, typically with clean lines, on the back of acrylic sheets composed of poly(methyl methacrylate), confirmed by ATR analysis. By 1964, he had begun shaping the acrylic sheets by vacuum forming, collaborating with a manufacturer. The acrylic was heated in an oven until it softened, then shaped on a mold to create shallow reliefs. Kauffman’s sketches reveal plans for fiberglass molds with wooden supports, which were especially necessary for his later experimentations with depth and complexity. The transparent shells were subsequently painted, using thick rubber masks to create crisp lines. Later, he created a feathered look by spraying the paint over a cardboard mask, which served to soften the lines. He eventually shifted from solvent-borne acrylic-based paint, an ethyl methacrylate/methyl acrylate co-polymer, to nitrocellulose paints, since the solvent-based paints caused the substrate to craze and crack.

Rachel went on to discuss the technique and materials of John McCracken, who is reported to have said he wanted his sculptures to look as if they were “made of color.” They generally consisted of wooden planks coated in a layer of fiberglass, followed by a primer and various layers of paint, later switching to polyester resin application instead of paint. To make grooves in the surface, he would mask the lines with painter’s tape, then coat exposed surface in the polyester resin mixed with pigment. He consistently jotted down ideas and sketches before producing technical drawings, and even kept a notebook recording the varying temperatures and amounts of catalyst used for the resin as he experimented, making note of how it affected the working time, as well as the properties of the resulting work. Regardless of the conditions, the application of resin to the surface of the planks required an experienced and steady hand in order to avoid the evolution of bubbles in the resin layer (as any novice conservator embedding their first few paint samples for cross-sections knows!). The final step involved sanding of the surface to a smooth sheen.

The last artist Rachel broached was Larry Bell, who worked not with plastic, but with glass. Originally a painter, he would add mirrors to his compositions to introduce volume, eventually deciding that he wanted to work exclusively with volume. He worked often with plywood, mirror parts, and paint, though he increasingly favored glass, such that his paint became instead the effect of light as it was manipulated by the glass. In 1962, he began experimenting with the vacuum deposition of thin films to the glass, soon after which he bought a secondhand machine to execute the process himself in 1966. This purchase allowed him the freedom to create larger panels, which also corresponded with a shift into more environmental art. The vacuum chamber heated the metal under vacuum to a temperature at which the metal vaporized and was deposited on the surface of the glass as a micron-thin film. The three metals most commonly used by Bell were aluminum, silicon monoxide, and nickel-chromium alloys, otherwise known as ‘Inconel.’ The thin film of metal influences the way light is reflected, refracted, and transmitted through the glass. Bell also experimented with changing the temperature and combining metals, all while monitoring the chamber through a window to assess the changes. Rachel noted that Bell, the only artist alive of the three discussed, is actively involved in the conservation of his work, providing conservators with replacement panels when they break.

The above represents but a small portion of the project embarked upon by the GCI (Getty Conservation Institute), a study of the materials and working methods of these and other artists active in the LA area during the postwar period who borrowed from modern industry. The study is a part of both the Pacific Standard Time initiative that included a recent set of exhibitions across Southern California sponsored in part by the The Getty. It also represents the GCI Modern and Contemporary Art research initiative. Future plans include a publication to disseminate the work, a short video, and an exploration of practical applications for the information gained, such as ways to mend cracked and chipped polyester and acrylic resin. Ultimately, the research of Rachel and her colleagues, Emma Richardson and Tom Learner, will hopefully help facilitate treatment decision-making for conservators working with modern and contemporary artwork.