AIC 41st Annual Meeting – Contemporary Art Sessions, May 31, 2013, “When Conservation Means Stapling: Touring an Unsupported, Unglazed, 9ft x 21ft, Oil Paint Stick on Paper to Three Venues by Joan Weir”

Joan Weir, conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, gave an informative Contemporary Art Session talk about the exhibition of Richard Serra’s 9’ by 21’ oil paint stick on paper, Untitled, 1974. She presented information about Serra’s working methods, and discussed challenges that conservators may encounter when working with oversize contemporary works of art on paper. I was particularly interested in learning about the process she used to mount the two horizontal sections of the drawing directly onto the wall with staples, because I had experienced the more modest challenge of how to mount an unglazed, unframed 8’ by 6’ contemporary charcoal drawing on a gallery wall.
Untitled, 1974, predated Serra’s use of the “bricks” he created from the individual oil paint sticks to facilitate the application of his medium. In 1974, he was still using individual oil paint sticks. When Weir unrolled the drawing from the 7’ storage tube, she observed that the oil paint stick medium on the upper sheet of paper was still flexible and in good condition, but had milky areas that appeared to be bloom.
After 30 years of being rolled, the paper remained strong enough to exhibit. The recto of the bottom sheet was disfigured with yellow stains. Since it contained no drawing media, Weir obtained permission from Serra to display the unstained verso side of the bottom sheet instead of the recto.
Untitled, 1974 had been exhibited without glazing or a frame less than four times, and had staple holes along the edges from the prior installations. Weir explored alternative hanging methods and finally embraced the idea of using standard 3/8” staples applied with a manual stapler. Prior to exhibition, she mended preexisting staple holes with Japanese tissue and a dry starch paste as needed. Post exhibit, she removed the staples with a Bosch staple remover, after inserting a protective Mylar strip beneath them.
To establish a safe procedure for the installation process, Weir created mockups of the same size as the drawing and practiced installing them. She determined that a courier team of two people was required to install and de-install the drawing, and used the same team and procedures for each of the three venues. The installation process also required 16’ of clear floor space in front of the wall, two scissors lifts, eight technicians, and shutting down the HVAC openings. A collapsible, portable raised work surface composed of Gator-board on folding tables “went on tour” with the rolled drawing. The stapling process was entrusted to a member of the Serra Studio team.
The installers practiced the installation two or three times at each venue prior to attempting the actual mounting of the drawing. They used tape on the wall to guide the placement of the drawing.
Weir described the installation procedure to AIC meeting attendees while she showed a video clip of the drawing being mounted on the wall. Seeing the actual process was very helpful. I hope she will add the video clip to the electronic version of her article as a valuable resource for anyone with a similar installation project.
During the first exhibit, she said that a sagging pouch formed along the top edge of the paper. By acclimating the drawing in the exhibit space overnight and refining the installation technique, she was able to prevent gaping by the third venue. The staples held very well.
Weir noted that the exhibited drawing accumulated many dust fibers and hairs, which she attributed to the HVAC systems. The requirement for constant supervision by a security guard prevented all but one touch incident, which she found remarkable.
Weir stated that this project had a number of high risks, especially the possibility of permanent damage from improper handling during the installation and de-installation process. Using the same people and procedures reduced the risk. This consistency was supported by all of the museums, the artist, and his studio, and it helped ensure the safety of the drawing.
This cooperative spirit extended to the relationship between the artist and the conservator. Weir respected Serra’s intent for how his work should be viewed. Instead of trying to promote traditional conservation ideals of how paper should be displayed, she worked to find the safest way to display his art without glazing or a frame.
Stapling art to the wall isn’t the first thought that comes to my mind when thinking about optimal exhibition methods. Contemporary art often requires unconventional approaches. Weir developed a workable solution that protected the drawing while allowing viewers to experience Untitled, 1974 as the artist intended.