Three case studies of outdoor sculpture with problematic intent issues

Michael Belman


The New York State Memorial for Fallen Firefighters by Robert Eccleston, Formula Compound #1 by Dennis Oppenheim and Trio by George Sugarman are three outdoor works that came to the attention of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center during the outdoor sculpture season of 2001. This presentation examines the histories of these three very different objects and how issues of intent affect the nature of their conservation treatment, maintenance and damage.

In mid-July, The Firefighter’s Memorial at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York was washed, stripped of its degraded coating and given a hot wax treatment. After the World Trade Center disaster, the larger than life sized bronze sculpture of two firefighters rescuing their injured comrade was heaped with flowers, letters, candles, t-shirts, badges and figurines. It was unclear as to who would remove or catalog the materials. As a result of prolonged contact, the items created large new patches of bright green corrosion product on the sculpture.

Formula Compound #1 is an installation of bent steel beam frames and towers supporting metal mesh forms that accompanied a one-time fireworks display at the SUNY College at Pottsdam in New York State. Oppenheim was unavailable after the performance and it was unclear whether the work was intended to be permanent. The unprotected steel surfaces corroded and mischievous students mistreated and rearranged the elements. In late August the installation, which had become a safety hazard, was examined to determine if it could be saved.

Trio, also located at Empire State Plaza, is an arching array of bright yellow sheet aluminum forms that Sugarman was known to have cited intentionally to invite the viewer to walk through and around it. The sculpture was treated in late September and numerous large gouges in both the paint and metal substrate of were filled, primed and inpainted. The placement of the work and a lack of security at the Plaza make the sculpture vulnerable to vandalism by skateboarders and BMX riders.

The problems with these works demonstrate the need for the development of routine maintenance plans, discussion with the artist before installation, and increased consideration in citing and security. The recurrent damage cannot be reduced with conservation treatment alone.

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2002 | Miami | Volume 9