“Do what’s right”: The conservation of a David Hammons mud sculpture

Sasha Drosdick, Roger Griffith, and Lynda Zycherman


“Do what’s right,” said the artist, without looking at the sculpture or asking what treatment we proposed. During a surprise visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s conservation studio, the infamously laconic artist David Hammons uttered these three words that encapsulate decades’ worth of conservation theory and ethical debates. What does it mean to do the right thing in art conservation? The 28-inch tall, mud sculpture with wire, human hair, and black-eyed peas presents a plethora of conservation concerns. In 2013, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the sculpture in what appeared to be a deteriorated and unstable state. It required a Plexiglas bonnet for its inaugural exhibition at the museum in 2015. As the work was being deinstalled from that exhibition, a small piece of mud fell from the sculpture and landed on its base. This event, in addition to the work’s condition, led us to question its overall structural stability and strategy for basic conservation maintenance. Without the artist’s explicit guidance, distinguishing between his intentions and the natural deterioration of the sculpture’s inherently fragile materials was challenging. However, finding a solution that would stabilize the work without diminishing its spirit was a challenge that we eagerly accepted. 

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2017 | Chicago | Volume 24