BMA Voices: Re-fabricating a beloved sculpture

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981-1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art

One of the BMA projects that has most inspired me is the conservation of Bruce Nauman’s large neon Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version), 1981-1982. And interestingly, the project didn’t involve developing an exhibition or acquiring an artwork, elements often associated with a curator’s job.

Installed on the museum’s façade for over thirty years, this bold sculpture had become a signature piece for the BMA. But those decades also led to the aging of the work’s infrastructure and technology. By 2013, it was clear that a complete overhaul was needed in order for “VVS” to be operational into the future. In consultation with Nauman’s long time studio manager Juliet Myers, BMA Objects Conservator Christine Downie worked with Jacob Fishman, a highly skilled fabricator of Nauman’s neons since the 1980s, to have the sculpture removed from the building by crane and transported to Fishman’s Chicago studio. There, a template was created from the old piece so that all the neon letters could be re-made. The existing armature was stabilized, the work was re-wired, and the old transformers and timer were replaced with up-to-date models. Unlike a more traditional art object such as an oil painting, it was not important to repair and preserve the aged components of the piece. Rather the artist preferred that his sculpture be almost entirely re-fabricated so that it could best convey his idea in the vibrant and precisely sequenced manner he had originally envisioned.

Among Nauman’s many influential accomplishments is broadening the subjects and forms that are considered part of art’s scope. Starting in the late 1960s, he created works that appeared like neon signs, flashing text and schematic images in vivid hues. In addition to provoking viewers to consider the aesthetic dimensions of a format associated with advertising, Nauman called attention to the idea that visual art can be a means for exploring language. Looking back to art made before the middle of the 20th century, it is difficult to think of an example made up entirely and exclusively of words the way Violins Violence Silence is. It is as if the introduction of written language into visual art threatened the integrity of both forms of expression. But by the 1960s, artists began to cultivate this creative “contamination” in response to a culture in which words and pictures were coupled almost everywhere else—newspapers, television, movies, billboards, comic books, etc.

In addition to affording an opportunity to research Nauman’s career, the conservation of the piece allowed me to interact with a remarkable group of experts and art lovers. I find the contemporary focus of my job rewarding not only for the connections I make to innovative artworks, but also because of the relationships I develop with those who make, care for, and appreciate art. The BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, a membership group for people passionately interested in 20th and 21st century works, marshaled its impressive forces to raise funds for and awareness of the project. Downie and Fishman’s thoughtful technical oversight and caring stewardship of Nauman’s piece was admirable, as were the gracious contributions of the dynamic and knowledgeable Myers. As a culminating celebration, acclaimed art critic Peter Plagens and distinguished curator Paul Schimmel joined Myers for an insightful panel about Nauman’s work. The dedication of this group has insured that an important contemporary sculpture will illuminate the BMA campus for years to come.

The conservation of Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version) in 2014 was made possible through the generous support of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, Stuart and Sherry Christhilf, Suzanne F. Cohen, The Cordish Family Foundation, Inc., Nancy L. Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff, Janet E. and Edward K. Dunn, Jr., Katherine M. Hardiman and The Hardiman Family Foundation, Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, Mary and Paul Roberts, The Thalheimer-Eurich Charitable Fund, Inc., and donors to the Illuminate campaign.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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