Presented by Catherine Williams, the talk started with a warning for more sensitive viewers – alluding to forthcoming descriptions of welding, an uncomfortable proposition for many conservators. The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas conserved a collection of sculpture by John Chamberlain in preparation for the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2012. Ranging from 8 to 22 feet in height, Chamberlain’s sculptures are composed of multiple pieces of salvaged sheet metal covered with layers of original automotive and applied artists paint, joined by mechanical fasteners and tack welds. Several sculptures were structurally unstable due to the spontaneous nature of their assemblage, with poorly prepared surfaces and poorly executed oxyacetylene welds. (The authors observed that the quality of welds improved after around 1981, when Chamberlain’s assistants executed more of the welding.) Paint (both the artist’s and original automotive) was lifting and flaking, and the sculptures were dirty.
Chamberlain’s studio was consulted over the course of treatment planning, but played a limited role in part due to the artist’s death in 2011. An interview with Chamberlain archived through the Artists Documentation Program offered guidance in terms of the artist’s priorities, especially in terms of aesthetic reintegration. In the end, it was determined that adhesives would not be sufficient to stabilize failed joins, and Chamberlain’s studio concurred with the conservators that welding would be an appropriate solution. The conservators contacted Guido Schindler of Schindler Metalworks in Houston to execute TIG weld repairs. It was emphasized by both the authors and responding audience members how much the eventual success of these treatments depended on the expertise of this highly skilled craftsman.
In executing the welds on four sculptures, Schindler added welding rod only where necessary, working around existing slag on surface and retaining the original welds’ “messy look.” In response to priorities expressed by the Chamberlain in an interview, artist’s paint was given priority in reintegration, though both the artist’s and automotive paint layers were stabilized. Balanced cleaning of the pastiche sculptures with so many contrasting surfaces proved a challenge. Careful documentation of each sculpture included painstaking numbered mapping and description of each intervention. In all, 20 sculptures were documented, 12 were cleaned, and 4 were structurally stabilized in preparation for exhibition.