Category Archives: Contemporary Art

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.