Category Archives: Contemporary Art

BMA Voices: Questions I have about “The Figure of Question”

James Lee Byars. The Figure of Question. 1989. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel  Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn; Bequest of Blanche Adler; Gift of Thomas A. Leahy; Gift of the Living  Arts Foundation, Inc.; and Gift from the Estate of Felicia Meyer Marsh, BMA 1990.117. © Estate of James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars. The Figure of Question. 1989. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn; Bequest of Blanche Adler; Gift of Thomas A. Leahy; Gift of the Living Arts Foundation, Inc.; and Gift from the Estate of Felicia Meyer Marsh, BMA 1990.117. © Estate of James Lee Byars

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician

The Figure of Question by James Lee Byars is a totemic, gold form, which rests in the stairwell of the BMA’s West Wing for Contemporary Art. I have been taking care of this sculpture for a number of years now, and I always have these questions when I approach it:

#1. How can we keep people from touching this?
It must be irresistible, despite its proximity alarms. Visually, it is tempting, its form so appealing. Entirely covered in gold, so smooth and perfect, it must be a huge challenge for children and adults alike to keep themselves reigned in.

#2. How in the world did it get in here?
The sculpture weighs approximately 3 tons. Moving a piece like this requires riggers and a crane. The West Wing was literally built around the sculpture after its installation.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

Installing The Figure of Question.

#3. Why did Byars love gold so much?
Why not something less heavy or valuable? Is it the idea of weight? Is it because gold leaf is made by being beaten on a stone like marble; the two media reunited in this single piece – an extravagant marriage that forms a luxurious object? I read an article about the artist by Dave Hickey published in Flash Art in 1994. Hickey writes of Byars’ objects of gold, fabric, and stone: “(he) presents them to us in the interrogative mode, as if to ask: What do you think? Do these things exist? Would we be better off without them? And is seeing enough?” In James Elliott’s book The Perfect Thought, there is another really great essay by Achille Bonito Oliva about Byars’ employment of gold: “a rare material that in a cultural sense refers to the alchemical process of its transformation from a base to a noble substance, brute material rising to the status of spiritual abstraction.”

Perhaps because it inspires so many questions, this object is one of my very favorite in the BMA’s permanent collection. I like the artist, I love gilded objects, and I get to take care of it.

We use soft brushes to remove loose dust that accumulates on its top, down the sides and near the base. It is satisfying to engage with it. Byars’ surface is intended to be pristine, showing only the marble’s texture beneath the gold leaf. Because there have been times the sculpture has been touched, it’s had to be regilded several times. Jim Brewster, a gilder in Baltimore, has worked with the Museum on this object, and I was fortunate to learn his method of applying the patent leaf to mimic the artist’s original crystalline, fractured pattern.

Gilding

Jim Brewster teaches me how to gild.

Gilding is a painstaking process, and costly. (The current standard of gold is about $1200/ounce.) It requires patience, precision, and a proper working environment: there should be no dust or breezes of any kind. During one gilding campaign, a plastic tent surrounded the object to minimize dust accumulation and wind. Intervention such as completely regilding a work of art is not undertaken lightly; in fact it was discussed as a predicted necessary maintenance when the object was purchased.

Before the West Wing Reinstallation in 2012, there were enough abrasions, scratches and disfiguring oil spots from people touching it that the work again needed to be ingilded in a few select places. 22-karat gold leaf sheets were attached to the surface with a very thin adhesive coating, placing them in a loose random fashion, so as to imitate the existing gilding scheme without appearing brand new. Sheets of gold are extremely thin, at “1/250,000” of an inch. You can imagine that such a very fine material would be easily marred by the oil in a hand or scratched by the slightest touching.

As an employee of the BMA and a person engaged in collections care, I mostly think about question #1. As a lover of art, I definitely linger on question #3.

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.

BMA Voices: Finding an escape with Felix Gonzalez‑Torres

Felix Gonzalez Torres. "Untitled" (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A.  May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant, finds an escape from the hectic pace of life in Felix Gonzalez‑Torres’ “Untitled” (Water), 1995.

To learn more about this piece, see The five artworks you can touch at the BMA!

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.

BMA Voices: “What makes this art, rather than compost?”

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA  2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant, delves into art history to shed light on Zoe Leonard’s Untitled, 1999-2000.

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA  2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

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.

 

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.

BMA Voices: The five artworks you can touch at the BMA!

Touching objects in a Museum can cause irreversible damage, even if you’re very careful. Because of this, most objects at the BMA cannot be handled. However, there are five works of art that you can touch: “Untitled” (Water) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Zinc-Magnesium Plain by Carl Andre, Scott Burton’s Rock Chair (located in the Levi Sculpture Garden), and Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses, both by Franz West. In each case, the artist clearly indicated that they wished these objects to be available for people to interact with physically.

Scott Burton. Rock Chair. 1986/1987. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1988.1

Scott Burton. Rock Chair. 1986/1987. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1988.1

You might expect this to be a nightmare for museum staff. How can we protect the works of art and honor the intentions of the artists? With the five pieces at the BMA it is a challenge but not as horrifying as one might think. For example, “Untitled” (Water) by Gonzalez-Torres (below) is a beaded curtain that one has to move through in order to go from one gallery to another. Occasionally one of the strings gets tangled in a stroller or pulled down by an enthusiastic child, but people are generally very gentle with it. When one of the bead strings is broken the BMA installation team replaces the string. The staff has become adept at keeping the artwork as the artist intended.*

Felix Gonzalez Torres. "Untitled" (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A.  May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

The Carl Andre sculpture Zinc-Magnesium Plain (not pictured) is of more concern. Because the piece lies on the floor and people are allowed to walk on it, there is a good chance that a sharp high heel or gravel caught in a shoe will scratch the piece. Interestingly, despite the encouragement of the artist most people walk around the work.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West

The Franz West sculptures Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses (pictured above) have been bigger challenges in every sense of the word. They arrived on loan to the BMA in 2008 as part of the major Franz West retrospective To Build a House You Start with the Roof. West was known for encouraging human interaction with his art. These pieces were two of many artworks in the exhibition that the artist stipulated could be touched. They were also supposed to be displayed outside. It is hard to imagine an artwork being touched by thousands of people without it being scratched, stained or, worse still, broken. Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses are painted sculptures made of epoxy and Fiberglass and – unlike the strings of beads – cannot easily be replaced. They also look like lots of fun to climb. During the retrospective exhibition and the traveling exhibition at LACMA there were surprisingly few incidences although some of the smaller pieces were handled a great deal and damaged. Swimmer and Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Ruhm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses received lots of shoe scuffs but survived.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West Franz West. Swimmer. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund; and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.16. © Franz West Both sculptures located on the BMA West lawn, 2008. You can now find them in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing.

Franz West. Violetta. To the song of Gerhard Rühm: I like to rest on aquatic corpses. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.1. © Franz West
Franz West. Swimmer. 2005. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund; and Frederick R. Weisman Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2008.16. © Franz West
Both sculptures located on the BMA West lawn, 2008. You can now find them in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing.

When the works of art arrived back at the BMA they were again displayed out on the lawn. Ironically it was not the ice, snow, animals or people that affected the pieces the most – it was the ultra violet rays from the sun. Despite UV inhibitors, the painted surface faded within a year. While the artist was apparently undisturbed by the signs of human interaction with his sculptures, he did not want uneven colors on the painted surfaces.

Detail of the fading paint on Swimmer, February 2009.

Detail of the fading paint on Swimmer, February 2009.

When the time for the reinstallation of the Contemporary Wing – where the works are now located – in 2012 it was decided by Contemporary curator Kristen Hileman and the Conservation Department to have the pieces repainted with input from Franz West. It was also decided to change to a more durable paint. The color and paint were approved by Franz West in March 2012. The treatment was carefully carried out by Chris Lidrbauch and Chick Bills of Silverback Art Services.

Please come to the BMA, and when you need to rest, feel free to lounge on Swimmer or Violetta and observe – from a safe distance – the surrounding fragile art.

Franz West on YouTube
View the installation of The Ego and the Id and other BMA videos on the Museum’s YouTube page.

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.

*Minor change to the wording of this paragraph for accuracy.

BMA Voices: Why is the BMA stockpiling fluorescent lamps?

Dan Flavin. Untitled (To Barnett Newman for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"). 1993 1994. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan  Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 1993.210. © Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Dan Flavin. Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”). 1993-1994. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Caplan Family Contemporary Art Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 1993.210. © Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Angie Elliott, Associate Objects Conservator

The Museum has a stockpile of fluorescent lamps (bulbs) that are so important that we keep them stored away in a vault. While I used to think of cubicle-laden offices and big box stores when I thought of fluorescent lighting, now my mind goes to the challenges of preserving contemporary art.

Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), 1993-1994, is the reason we have such an important collection of lighting supplies. His installation of red, yellow, and blue fluorescent lamps lights up a corner in the back of the Contemporary Wing. Using both long and short lamps, the work forms a column that stretches 24 feet from the second floor through the ceiling to the third floor. The light reaches beyond the physical lamps and ballasts and transforms the surrounding space and architecture. I love that I can walk by the museum at night and catch glimpses of this light bouncing from this rear corner through the large glass windows in the front of the Contemporary Wing.

Flavin uses an everyday and familiar technology in an unfamiliar way, but what happens when the everyday and familiar are no longer that? Lighting technology is rapidly changing to keep up with new environmental and energy regulations. If you’ve bought a light bulb in the past few years, you’ve noticed that how quickly those changes are happening. We’ve gone from incandescent to compact fluorescents in just a few years with LEDs quickly coming on the scene. The fluorescent lamp as we know it will likely disappear in the future… so how does that affect Dan Flavin’s art?

Museums and collectors have already faced challenges as lamp colors have varied over time. Colors have shifted as different manufacturers take on what a red, yellow, or blue should be. Dan Flavin’s Estate has taken an active role in dealing with the issues of aging lamps and technology. Ten years ago, we joined with other museums and collectors to have our lamps specially produced. Never fear – our Flavin should remain unchanged for years to come, but we do have challenges to face in the coming decades.

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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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At the intersection of art and mathematics

 

Photograph of Olafur Eliasson's Flower observatory courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Photograph of Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory, 2004 courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Mathematics and art at first seem worlds apart. But is it so? Might there be a relationship between these disciplines? And if so, can it be explored in the BMA’s collection? Are there works of art at the Museum that draw on mathematical ideas, processes, and overlapping notions of beauty?

A stroll through the BMA’s Contemporary Wing invites pause as I – do I dare – walk on top of Carl Andre’s Zinc-Magnesium Plain, 1969. I look down and take in the textures of the metal surfaces. I think about the shape of the squares and their imperfect alignment and how the grid that this zinc and magnesium surface represents extends out infinitely in all directions.

I look up and see an explosion of geometric shapes—this time in brilliant stainless steel. Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory 2004 bursts forth and lures a viewer inside and around the hulking form.  It is quite a complex structure. Each triangular spike that pierces the gallery air has curious openings of various sizes where the tips would be. I stretch up and try to see through them like tiny keyholes and spy intricate forms. I cross the threshold, feel the shadow of the large form darken the space and look up. It is a dazzling canopy of star-like shapes as if a new universe is unfolding. I am inside the observatory, observing, marvelling. I don’t rush this moment; the marvel has its pleasures.

As the wonder subsides, I catch myself thinking about shapes—the glittering diamonds and flower-like forms, the rhombuses, the pentagon that inscribes the invisible base of the sculpture, the hex screws that connect the steel planes. I wonder if this is what a mathematical imagination might feel and look like.

To try to understand these questions and ideas, I invited mathematician Susan Goldstine and architect Fred Scharmen to the Museum for a conversation about the intersection of mathematics and art in these pieces. Fred uses words like “striking and beautiful” to describe geometry and art.  Susan poignantly said that “the beauty of mathematics – and the mathematics of beauty – comes from the ways in which simple elements combine and intersect to form dazzling structures seemingly out of thin air.”

As soon as Susan walked under Flower observatory, she said that it was based on a rhombic triacontahedron – a convex polyhedron with 30 rhombic faces. I’d remembered reading that in my research but couldn’t see it. She helpfully explained it to me and offered to show me how to fold the shape with paper, so that I could understand it with my hands as well as with my mind’s eye.

This conversation about the relationship between art and mathematics will form the basis of the next Big Table Connections. Both Fred and Susan have a natural, deep connection to mathematical forms, and they will bring their knowledge to the BMA on Saturday August 2nd at 2 pm. We will also get the chance to fold rhombic triacontahedra and make mathematical drawings too. I hope you will join us! You can also join in the conversation online using the #BMABigTable hashtag on Twitter.

In the meantime, be sure to visit the Sondheim semi-finalist exhibition at MICA to see Fred’s large wall drawing inspired by his mathematical research. The exhibition is on view in the Decker, Meyerhoff, and Pinkard galleries at MICA through August 3rd.