43rd Annual Meeting- General Session: Practical Philosophy, May 14th, “Philosophical and Practical Conservation in the Installation, Re-Treatment, and Storage of a Rubber Sculpture by Richard Serra”, Presented by Emily Hamilton.

Like many artists working in the 60s, sculptor Richard Serra was drawn to the possibilities of natural rubber prior to his more recent steel installations.  Like many conservators working in modern and contemporary conservation, Emily Hamilton was faced with the arduous task of conserving it in an ethical, stable, artist approved way for display for a museum expansion.  I was drawn to Emily’s talk for several reasons, as the issue of stabilizing rubbers works keeps popping up in my career.  In 2003, I was gearing up for graduation at Washington University in St. Louis, when across the park, conservators at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) were preparing ‘Untitled’ an oversized sculpture of three overlapping panels for a major Serra exhibition. The treatment while well guided with methylcellulose patches, something I could not readily detect at the time, did not maintain its desired appearance or stability in the decade that followed while it in storage.  In 2014, Emily would get a chance to try the treatment again following the museums renovation.

Degradation and separation of latex, and previously rolled storage that exacerbated the problem.
Degradation and separation of latex, and previously rolled storage that exacerbated the problem.

The basis of both the 2004 and 2014 treatments were from research conducted by Michelle Barger at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which she presented at the 2008 ‘The Object in Transition’ at the Getty I had been fortunate enough to attend during my internship year at the Museum of Modern Art.  (Free to Stream).  The talk focused on the conservation of Eva Hesse’s ”Expanded Expansion” made of similar materials at the same time as Serra’s piece.  Michelle’s work not only focused on the technique of applying cheesecloth patches with methylcellulose, but also the ethicacy conserving a work that had deviated so far from its initial appearance and stability without the help of a living artist to give advice.
Working with Michelle’s research, Emily Hamilton created a modified innovative approach to the treatment, using the previous 2004 treatment as a facing to stabilize the structure from the front so she could apply patches from the back and ultimately remove the discolored 2004 patches.  With assistance from the installation staff, she was able to perform treatment in situ on a support that allowed for adequate rolling and flipping with Tyvek and a large diameter tube.   Emily’s practical approach is evidence that its not just the treatment materials we use, but how we choose to use them based on the object.  The final push to provide flat storage for these objects is most definitely a win for natural rubber artwork overall, I just wish I could convince my private clients to do the same.  As a final thought Emily offered the possibility of restoring some of the three dimensional qualities to the work in the future, so it would look closer to its intended appearance and convey some of the verbs Serra had chosen to invoke.  Previous time constraints and the fragile nature of the piece did not lend this possibility.   Fortunately her treatment and storage solution, along with a living artist to consult, just may allow for that possibility in the future.
An image of Serra's 'Untitled' at the time of creation in 1968 vs, the appearance in 2014 following treatment.
An image of Serra’s ‘Untitled’ at the time of creation in 1968 vs, the appearance in 2014 following treatment.