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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.