Conservation: Cleaning Hiram Powers' Greek Slave
December 18, 2014
Allison Rabent is a pre-program volunteer at the Lunder Conservation Center. She is working with conservators on a variety of activities. Allison, along with the project's lead, Conservation Technician Susan Edwards, recently investigated an ongoing treatment of Hiram Powers' Greek Slave and shares their findings with us below. American Art's sculpture curator, Karen Lemmey, contributed to this post.
This is a full scale plaster cast of one of the 19th century's most famous and popular artworks, Hiram Powers' Greek Slave. In March 1843, Hiram Powers finished modeling the Greek Slave in clay and soon after his studio made a plaster mold and this plaster cast of the sculpture. The plaster cast was a tool that was used by the artist or a workshop to create a marble copy of Powers' original sculpture. The Greek Slave was one of this artist's most famous artworks and five marble replicas of this size still exist today. Along with this life-sized cast, American Art has a three-quarter marble version on display on the second floor of the museum. The cast has a series of metal studs, known as point marks, and graphite X's on its surface. Each of these points indicates a location of measure that would have been taken by a pointing tool. A pointing tool was a popular device for sculptors in the nineteenth century. It was used to take a series of measurements from a cast, such as this, that could be transferred to a block of marble. The tool would be moved hundreds of times from the fixed points on the plaster to the corresponding locations on the block of marble from which the replica was being carved. Each time, the tool would be used to measure location and depth on the marble block, thus creating a three dimensional guide for the carver. By chiseling along the measured guidelines, the marble carver could replicate the artist's original form with much greater ease and in much less time.
The Lunder Conservation Center is cleaning this plaster cast in anticipation of its display in the museum next summer. It will be the center piece for a discussion of Powers' work and the materials and methods used to create sculpture. Considering its age and its function in Powers' studio, the work is in good condition, and its treatment will only require cleaning of the surface. The conservators began with a light vacuuming in order to gently remove any loose dust and dirt. This was followed by a dry cleaning using vulcanized rubber sponges, which are suitable for the safe removal of particulate matter on dry surfaces, and especially useful for treating porous materials.
Extensive testing was done beforehand in order to determine the best method for cleaning, while facilitating the most control over the process. This was especially important because it is crucial that the small graphite X's covering the surface of the sculpture are not faded or removed during cleaning and that the evidence of the sculpture's purpose as a guide for the creation of the marble sculpture remains intact.
In order to complete the treatment, conservator, Hugh Shockey determined that a gel cleaning system would be the best course of action. This system was chosen because it allows for a cleaning mixture to be suspended on the surface without exposing the plaster to too much moisture. Once the gel is applied, it is lightly agitated with a brush around a small area. This action helps expedite the drawing of the dirt up from the plaster and into the gel. Once the area is cleaned, the gel is removed with dry swabs, and then any remaining residue is cleared with water.
Visitors can watch the Greek Slave being cleaned over the next few weeks on the fourth floor of the Lunder Conservation Center. In addition, American Art's sculpture curator, Karen Lemmey, will be writing a series of blog posts beginning in the spring of 2015, illuminating Hiram Powers' process and connecting it with contemporary 3D and computer graphics modeling processes.
Alexander Calder's Nenuphar
December 16, 2014
In October, Alexander Calder's sculpture Gwenfritz, part of American Art's collection, was reinstalled outside the National Museum of American History. Karen Lemmey, American Art's sculpture curator speaks about another Calder sculpture which he gave to the museum at the same time.
Alexander Calder's sculpture Nenuphar takes its title from the Sanskrit word for water "lily." Apropos of its name, this sculpture "blossomed" out of another project, Calder's monumental stabile Gwenfritz, which rises over thirty-five feet above a pool of water. Although Gwenfritz was installed on the National Mall, on the west side of the National Museum of American History, it is part of the sculpture collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum. David Scott, director from 1964-1969, oversaw the commission and remained in close contact with Calder during the years leading up to the installation Gwenfritz. Their correspondence, archived in the museum's registrar files, illustrates the familiar tone of their ongoing exchange. For example, Calder casually addresses the director "Dear David" and signs off "au revoir, Sandy," as the artist was informally known.
In one letter dated 22 February 1968, Calder summarizes his progress report on Gwenfritz, by then nearing completion and awaiting shipment to the Smithsonian from the artist's studio in Sache, France. In the lower left corner of the first page of this letter, Calder writes, "I have made a stabile for the S. Inst.—'Nenuphar' which I will give to you," and includes a quickly drawn gestural sketch in ink. Although not much larger than a postage stamp, the sketch captures the key characteristics of the eight and a half foot-tall Nenuphar, notably the central element rising amidst whimsically curving projections that would be wrought out of sheets of steel.
Later that year, Calder gave the completed Nenuphar to the museum and it was displayed in the open-air courtyard that once stood at the center of the old Patent Office Building, which has housed the Smithsonian American Art Museum since 1968. During the the museum's extensive renovation, which included the construction of the canopied Robert and Arlene Kogod courtyard, Nenuphar was brought indoors and conserved by the museum's Lunder Conservation Center. Since the reopening of the museum in 2006, Nenuphar has been on view on the third floor in the Lincoln Gallery. Calder also gave the museum the maquette (a preparatory model) for the sculpture. Made of aluminum pieces that are held together with wire, it measures just 16 inches high and displays traces of fingerprints, perhaps even those of the artist himself. This maquette is on view in the museum's Luce Foundation Center.
Wing and a Prayer: Birds in Contemporary Art
December 12, 2014
Eye Level had a chance to catch up with Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at American Art, for a conversation about our current exhibition, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, which is currently on view through February 22, 2015.
Eye Level: Why Birds? Why now? Is there a resurgence in depicting birds in contemporary art?
Joanna Marsh: The exhibition is inspired by, and coincides with, the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The story of these birds has captivated ornithologists and artists for more than a century. Paintings, poems and personal accounts vividly describe their mass migrations and their rapid disappearance. But the lure of the passenger pigeon is just one facet of a deeply ingrained cultural connection to birds. The interplay between human and avian life abounds in literature, philosophy, science and spiritual thought through the ages. Nowhere, however, is mankind's interest in birds more evident than in the visual arts. The steady rise in environmental consciousness over the last several decades has led Americans of all backgrounds to focus more on our connection with nature. In the contemporary art world, the emphasis on birds is actually part of a larger preoccupation with natural history, ecology and climate change.
EL: How do more traditional (romantic?) depictions of birds, say from the 19th and 20th centuries, differ from what appears in the exhibition?
JM: Many of the artists in The Singing and the Silence draw inspiration from more traditional depictions of birds, such as 19th century naturalist illustration and 20th century wildlife art, but their work extends the boundaries of these earlier genres, which are most often characterized by realistic imagery and anatomical accuracy. The artists in this exhibition aren't concerned with the faithful depiction a bird species, at least not exclusively; nor are they solely preoccupied with the ornithological significance of their subjects. Instead, they focus on the relationship between mankind and the natural world, weaving together a myriad of references, from socio-political commentary to literary and religious allusion. That's the most important difference between the artworks in this exhibition and other forms of avian imagery.
EL: In 1914 we lost the passenger pigeon, and 50 years later, Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964. How do these two landmark dates help frame the exhibition?
JM: I think of these two environmental anniversaries as markers in our journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. In the context of the exhibition, they serve as conceptual bookends. The show begins with two works, one by James Prosek and the other by Rachel Berwick, which serve as memorials to the passenger pigeon. These pieces are somber reminders of our impact on the American landscape. But the exhibition isn't simply a meditation on loss. It is also a celebration of the diversity of life that still exists in our country and the many ways we can access that wonder. That's why the exhibition concludes with a luminous painting by Tom Uttech, which showing a forest teeming with wildlife. The scene is imagined but it's not a fantasy. The wild landscapes that Uttech depicts survive today because of environmental reforms like the Wilderness Act.
EL: The artists in the exhibition work in a variety of media. Can you discuss some of the more atypical, perhaps in the work of Laurel Roth Hope or Petah Coyne?
JM: Both Laurel Roth Hope and Petah Coyne create evocative sculptures that illustrate the diverse possibilities of non-traditional materials. Coyne's elaborate installations makes use of a lengthy list of materials, including such unorthodox things as cast-wax statuary, taxidermy animals, hat pins, chicken wire, velvet, and the black sand from pig iron casting. This assemblage of unexpected materials is echoed in the work of Laurel Roth Hope whose elegant peacock sculptures are created from a similarly improbable set of materials—fake fingernails, barrettes, Swarovski crystal, and nail polish, all mounted on walnut pedestals.
EL: Art has always intersected with other ideas and disciplines. How have the artists explored the intersection between art and science?
JM: That's a really broad question. The entire exhibition is a cross-disciplinary project and each artist approaches that intersection in a different way.
EL: The exhibition seems to have found a perfect home in the Smithsonian. Are you collaborating with any other units?
JM: Yes, primarily through public programming. On January 13, we're offering a tour of the exhibition that I'll lead jointly with Dr. Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center. Dr. Marra was one of the scientists who contributed to "The State of the Birds Report" released this fall. For the gallery tour, Pete and I will discuss the artistic and ornithological importance of several works in the exhibition.
For a more in-depth look, view images online from the exhibition.
New Acquisitions: Judith Schaechter's The Birth of Eve
December 9, 2014
Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft, joined American Art's Renwick Gallery staff earlier this year. She talked with Eye Level about the museum's recent acquisition The Birth of Eve by Judith Schaechter, which joins her 1990 work A Little Torcher also in the museum's permanent collection.
For more than 30 years, the labor-intensive medium of stained glass has been Judith Schaechter's singular obsession, and today she is recognized not only as one of the foremost innovators, teachers, and practitioners in her field, but also one of an elite few glass artists to have gained critical attention from both the world of craft and the overlapping sphere of fine art.
Following a two-year long installation from 2010-2012 at Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison turned art space, The Birth of Eve marks Schaechter's return to the meticulous decorative style which has become her hallmark. Her technical skill is evident in the sea of flowers covering the lower panel, constructed of up to five layers of cut, sandblasted, and enameled glass, stacked to produce variations of pattern, color, and depth. Schaechter balances this dizzying vision of "Eden" with the calm of the void above, from which Eve tumbles, her face in a delicately-etched pensive expression. This piece, a notable departure from secular themes, will open up a new direction in her work. Schaechter has referred to this recent work as a "masterpiece" of her art.
Initially a painter, Schaechter discovered stained glass in the early 1980s and immediately connected it with her illustrative graphic renderings, influenced by sources such as underground comics, Japanese woodblock prints, punk subculture, medieval tapestries, and popular media. Her work since has focused on the tension between disturbing, psychologically-charged narratives and the historical tradition of stained glass, with its attendant associations of literal and metaphorical themes. Known for her desperate, sad-eyed figures, cast in macabre scenes that evoke the tortured saints of Gothic cathedral windows, Schaechter plays the dark tone of her imagery against the beauty and light of her medium. By drawing parallels between the modern and the medieval, her works confront contemporary fears and anxieties, yet read as timeless meditations on suffering and transcendence.
Schaechter's work can also be found in various collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including the 2011 Venice Biennale, the 2011 Renwick Craft Invitational, the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and the Renwick Gallery's 1990 exhibition, GlassWorks, from which the museum acquired its initial example of her work. We are proud to add The Birth of Eve to American Art's permanent collection.
Indie Arcade at American Art: Five Questions with Chris Totten
December 4, 2014
Kaylin Lapan, public programs coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a game enthusiast, asks Chris Totten, Chair of the DC chapter of the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) and professor at American University's GameLab, about the changing environment of indie gaming, in anticipation of American Art's Indie Arcade on December 7th at 1-7 p.m. This event will include classic arcade machines supplied by MAGFest, game building workshops using Unity, Scratch and GameMaker, as well as indie games created by local developers from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington as part of IDGA.
Eye Level: What is an indie game? How is it different from any other game and when and how did the genre develop?
Chris Totten: "Indie" has become a very fluid term in the game industry. The "traditional" definition is a game created without the backing or funding of a major publisher. However, as some non-publisher-affiliated studios get bigger and create bigger projects the definition has focused more on small developers working within limited sources. My favorite definition of indie games is games developed with the support of collaborative communities of creators who meet either locally or on specific online forums. These developers function much like an art scene where they critique one another's work and share ideas. This allows them to challenge one another and push the creative envelope forward.
"Indie" has in a way always been part of the gaming landscape. Digital games in particular began as the work of individual creators trying things on computers. Even when video games became big business, groups of smaller developers still made games on computers like the Apple II and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Some of these efforts became famous such as Richard Garriot's Ultima or the Oliver Twins' Dizzy games.
Currently the game community doesn't quite know what to do with the term "indie" as it has become a sort of marketing buzzword that doesn't quite describe its userbase anymore. Popular "indie" games tend to be smaller entertainment games with styles unlike those in the big "triple-A" publisher markets. This is interesting because you're starting to see games from independent creators that are bending the rules of what games are supposed to do or be about. This includes biographical games, games about dealing with tragedies, medical illness, social norms, etc. In this way we're seeing a transformation from being like indie film or music (where the "indie" terminology comes from) to being more like art movements like those in the early 20th century. In this way it's important to have events like the one at the Smithsonian American Art Museum since it gives these developers an opportunity to connect with the public and solidify their place as art enclaves.
EL: Who can make video games? What steps should individuals take who are interested in learning how to develop video games?
CT: Everyone can make video games! No really. A boom of approachable tools released within the last decade has made it easier than ever to create video games. Even so, there exist a lot of barriers in how people perceive what games are supposed to be. On one hand we have really awesome and approachable tools like Unity, Construct 2, Game Maker, Pixel Press and others that make games easy to create. People need to get over the idea, though, that games need to be either very long or have really intensive visuals to be good games. Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure is a 10-15 minute adventure game created by a 5-year-old and her dad where the daughter did all the art in crayon then scanned it so her dad could make it move in the game. I made a game out of craft foam a few months back. Games can be made of just about anything visually since our computers can now display them. And can be as long as you feel like making them. So people shouldn't be afraid to experiment!
EL: Do you see differences between how younger and older generations use, view, and interact with video games? For example, someone who can't remember a time before Mario 64 and someone who saw the creation of Pong in the 1970s.
CT: The main difference I see is how older and younger players learn how to play games. Someone who grew up with Atari or the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) either learned how to play from the instruction book or by manipulating the controls to see what actions they had at their disposal. Today games provide a lot of that information for players through tutorials or other things so younger players are less prone to experimenting on their own. As a designer this worries me since there are fewer opportunities to create surprises or more seamless experiences if players expect the pause the game so information can be handed to them.
EL: Do video games offer different advantages and disadvantages from tabletop games?
CT: From a purely design standpoint I would say no. Game designers think of game design as universal, so many things that could occur in a video game could also be constructed onto paper. Complex video role-playing games, for example, developed as a genre on computers because designers wanted the computer to do math for them when they played Dungeons & Dragons. The advantages video games have are the aspects of immediate action and perspective, i.e. players get more immediate feedback for their actions and can see things from the first person, visually. The advantages that tabletop games have is that they (mostly) require multiple players to be interactive and that the tabletop market is less burdened by the limited topic areas that video games are (sci-fi, fantasy, and war games —all carried out in action gameplay). You could make a tabletop game about starting a colony (Settlers of Catan), managing railroads (Ticket to Ride), or supplying power to urban areas (Power Grid) and it can still become very popular. There are, though, a lot of tabletop games that feel like video games (Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game and Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures) and lots of video games that feel like tabletop games (Civilization and FTL: Faster Than Light).
EL: Are video games art? Are some of them art, but not all?
CT: I think the answer to this question depends on what any given person's definition of art is. For myself, games are art where someone can explore ideas proposed by the designer and that games are the type of art that I do. I think if someone else wants to think of art as something where they have a singular message that is delivered with no audience interaction or choice then no, games are not art to that person.
The quest to make games broadly accepted as art, though, is problematic. It limits the other types of media that we compare it to. A lot of art isn't interactive. When it comes down to those types of debates I often say games are like design or architecture, as they are fields where the designer uses their craft to communicate with the end user. The user's use of the designed solution is meaningful in graphic design, architecture, food preparation, beer making, and things like that.