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.
#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 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.