In this talk, Megan Randall, Objects Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the unique treatment history of Bruce Conner’s Child from 1976 – 2016. Bruce Conner was an artist who worked across media, from collage and sculpture to painting and drawing. Created in 1959, his sculpture Child is a corpse-like figure made of casting wax and shaped by hand. He sits in a high chair and is bandaged with stocking fabric and a belt around his waist, with additional wax painted on the surface. Child was made in response to the execution of Caryl Chessman, which Conner believed to be a social injustice.
Megan structured her discussion to be a timeline of Child’s complex exhibition and treatment history and described the numerous events that resulted in the figure’s condition when she first arrived at MoMA as a fellow in 2015. The sculpture was first exhibited in 1960 and received great attention from the public. It continued to gain exposure at galleries, in Conner’s one-man show, and even in public protests against police brutality and in 1970, was acquired by MoMA. The work was treated in 1976 in which the cheeks and head needed to be stabilized and an arm mended. Then, later that year, it was exhibited at SFMOMA, where Conner was disappointed to see its state significantly worsened. At this point, there had been no direct contact between MoMA and Conner, but he referenced the Geoffrey Clements photograph of how Child was originally positioned. It was clear that the shape of the figure had been badly deformed. The full figure had slumped forward, the mouth was now closed rather than open, and the legs had lowered and were in complete contact with the chair. However, it continued to tour at Hirschhorn Museum in 1988 and then at the Whitney in 1996, where Conner saw it once more and horrified, requested that it immediately be taken off view.
After several correspondences between MoMA and Conner, with the artist’s input on what needed to be adjusted, it was decided that a treatment of Child was necessary. Much of the issues with the positioning of the body was a result of the failing handmade hardware and joints and during an unfortunate turn of events during treatment, the body fell apart. Luckily all the original material was maintained, and the challenge was in terms of its assemblage. Sadly, Conner passed away in 2008.
In 2015, Megan Randall and Associate Objects Conservator at MoMA, Roger Griffith, started the journey to restore the exhausted Child. They began with documentation of the figure including imaging, photogrammetry to observe the three-dimensional positioning, and radiography to get a sense of the joining materials and the thickness of the wax. Child had been a victim of transport, handling, and failing of structural elements between its conception in 1960-2000.e treatment aimed to return the figure and vintage nylon stocking to their original orientation and stabilize the materials, while using images from the archive and Conner’s studio as reference.
Using a Go-Pro to document the process, the conservators carefully disassembled the figure, photographing each individual section and even had a carpenter create a replica of the high chair that Child sat on so that they could build up the figure away from the original nylon and wood. Loose sections were consolidated and the wax that had deformed was readjusted with heat and pressure. The next challenge was to create an armature that would help support the weight of the wax, as this was one of the original causes of the figure’s collapse. After months of testing, Megan and Roger decided to use polycaprolactone (PCL), an orthopedic thermoplastic polyester resin. It suited this project as it is a conformable, adjustable material that can withstand travel and is long lasting. Altraform was added into the armature and 3D Light Mesh was used to support weight from above as well. These materials were also Oddy tested and deemed safe for conservation practice.
After the figure was positioned back together, Megan and Roger had to tackle the vintage nylon stockings. Luckily, most could be repositioned safely, but three pieces needed replacements, for which Roger ordered online and surprisingly, toned with coffee and tea, to obtain the distressed appearance that gave Child its haunting effect. Finally, Child was back in its original orientation and ready to be shown at the Bruce Conner Retrospective at MoMA, and then subsequently, SFMOMA and the Reina Sofia.
After treatment photographs were taken to capture the armature inside each section and several techniques were used for recording its position. Photogrammetry was captured once again to compare future sets for monitoring any potential deformations or movements and radiography was done in order to monitor if the armature moved in the future as well as if the figure shifted in any way. A custom crate was created for safe travel to its next two immediate exhibition spaces and it just returned safely to MoMA, much to the happiness of the conservators. Ultimately, Bruce Conner’s Child has a complicated and extensive history, including it falling apart, but after countless hours of testing and treatment by conservators at MoMA, the figure was returned to its intended appearance and we as visitors had the pleasure of viewing its haunting and delicate beauty.