Conserving alchemy: Bonded bronze and the art of Michael Richards

Anne King, Ainslie Harrison, and Eugenie Milroy


In 2001 the 38-year-old Jamaican-American artist Michael Richards was flourishing. His body of work was compelling and suggested immense promise. He had already won a number of competitive artist residencies including one from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. His work had been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Miami Art Museum and the Aldrich Museum, amongst others. Often addressing themes of race and social injustice, his work from the 1990s has particular current relevance. Imagery of aviation and flight recurs in Richards’ art expressing the potential of both uplift and downfall. Richards’s best known work is Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, a full size cast of himself dressed as a Tuskegee Airman pierced by airplanes. This piece became prophetic when the artist perished in the September 11 attacks after working overnight in his studio on the 92nd Floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One.

In the spring of 2016 in conjunction with the 15th anniversary of his death, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council organized an exhibition entitled Michael Richards: Winged on Governor’s Island in New York. A.M. Art Conservation was asked to examine and treat 11 pieces for the show. The majority of these, which came from Richards’s estate, had not been exhibited since his death. Treating the sculptures within the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s tight timetable and budget was a challenge. These pieces are among the most significant surviving works by the artist yet none had been stored in conditions optimal for preservation.

Richards employed unique applications of a wide range of non-traditional materials, including human and synthetic hair, latex rubber, feathers, tar, barbed wire, fiberglass and mechanical moving parts/motors. These carefully chosen materials were often linked to themes in his work. The title work Winged (1999) was “cold cast” in “bonded” bronze, a material made from metal powder and resin. Bonded bronze became popular in the 1990s and was increasingly used by artists. The material gave the appearance of bronze without the costs associated with a foundry and the raw materials themselves, while affording direct control over the final product. Richards referred to himself as an “alchemist” for this use of “resin instead of bronze.” For him, the use of bonded bronze was also a play on the significance and permanence of bronze monuments.

Richards experimented with finishes, ratios of materials, hollow versus solid sculpture construction and variable use of armatures. Examination of the works revealed a progression in his use of these materials. Surprising corrosion patterns were observed in the bonded bronze. Differential thickness of resin, surface flaws and vacancies and incomplete coverage of complex molds and forms contributed to some of the condition issues. Happily, in 2017, Winged was purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, ensuring that the object could be properly cared for and studied further. This paper will explore Richards’ use of bonded bronze and some of the challenges it presents for conservators during treatment.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25