Three-Way Plug three ways: Conservation treatments of three editions of Claes Oldenberg’s Cor-Ten steel and bronze Giant Three-Way Plug

Mark Erdmann, Adam Jenkins, Robert Marti and Marianne Russell Marti


Claes Oldenburg created his monumental sculpture Giant Three-Way Plug in 1970. He viewed the piece as a coming together of the mechanical and the organic, and he anticipated the evolution of its patina as a reflection of the” events of nature” around it. However, almost immediately after installation, efforts were being made to arrest these evidences of nature and maintain a current image free from further deterioration.The artist himself recognized the tension between a philosophical ideal and the reality of gradual deterioration when he stated his preference for either pristine polished bronze or completely oxidized brown or green, but nothing in between. The in-between state of streaked and pockmarked Cor-Ten, graffiti, corrosion-marred bronze, and muddy footprints all distract from the conceptual nature of the monumental banal. Three editions of one artwork-in different settings and with different treatment histories-have over the course of four decades been subjected to efforts to create a balance of acceptable deterioration with respect to the artist’s vision and preservation of an artwork as an investment or permanent member of a collection and community.

The sculptures, their locations, and the conservators who treated them are as follows: 1) Edition 1 of 3, at Oberlin College, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio, treated by Mark Erdmann of ICA-Art Conservation; 2) Edition 2 of 3 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, treated by Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc.; and 3) Edition 3 of 3, originally created for the private collection of David Pincus and now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, treated by Adam Jenkins of Milner+Carr Conservation.

Per the artist’s instructions, the sculptures, intended for outdoor display, were partially buried in the ground as part of their installation. Contact with the earth resulted in accelerated corrosion of the Cor-Ten steel; in addition, the welds between the bronze prongs and the Cor-Ten body of the plug were sites of severe corrosion on two versions of the sculpture. Above ground portions of Cor-Ten weathered differently due to water run-off, prevailing wind, overhanging limbs, snow and leaf accumulation, and public interaction with the artwork.

This presentation explores the deterioration of each of the three sculptures prior to conservation treatment and the conservators’ differing approaches to treatment of similar issues. Where applicable, earlier conservation treatments of each of the sculptures are briefly discussed as well.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20