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An Act of LOVE: Photographic documentation of Robert Indiana’s iconic sculpture

Photo from Wikipedia:

“Charioteer of Delphi,” photo from Wikipedia: Charioteer_of_Delphi

One of the greatest sculptures in the history of art is the bronze “Charioteer of Delphi”. The life-sized figure is a masterpiece of balance between realism and formality, true to the tradition of Classical Greece but singular in its perfect achievement of cherished artistic ideals. The sculpture, which was erected in Delphi in 474 BC, was unearthed along with sections of the chariot horses in 1896. The base contained an inscription that credited the financial patron for this sculptural commission (a political figure) but the artist is not named, and even the city where the sculpture was conceived and fabricated is not conclusively known to scholars. Fortunately, the available documentation surrounding great works of art increased slowly through the ages. Prepatory drawings, sketch notations, diaries, letters, bills of sale, estate records and contemporary critiques are at times obtainable for study. But sadly, even a relatively thorough paper trail could be decimated through migrations, natural disasters and violent conflicts, and we are often left with fragments that must be bridged with speculation.

It is incumbent upon the art historian and the conservator to discover as much information as possible about an artwork in order to create both a cultural and technical context for the diverse works in museum collections. They utilize this augmented perspective in the service of insightful presentation in the galleries and informed preservation in the conservation labs. It is the mission of museums to provide not just a safe haven for art but to build an experience around a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture that will be infused with a greater knowledge – a sense of time and place, an understanding of the artist’s personality and inspiration, and the challenges and triumphs in the creative process itself. In this way we hope to turn the act of “looking” into an act of “appreciating” which carries the visitor into a genuine sense of empathetic connectedness to an art object.

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), “LOVE,” 1970 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Friends of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in memory of Henry F. DeBoest. Restoration was made possible by Patricia J. and James E. LaCrosse, 75.174 © Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), “LOVE,” 1970
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Friends of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in memory of Henry F. DeBoest. Restoration was made possible by Patricia J. and James E. LaCrosse, 75.174
© Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Which brings us to the LOVE sculpture of Robert Indiana. It could be confidently stated that this particular artwork enjoys international recognition within the IMA’s holdings, and its monumental form is much beloved by museum patrons. It was a pivotal work for Robert Indiana, serving as a commanding foray into the rapidly evolving artistic climate of non-traditional aesthetics in the 1950s through 1970s. This was also a time of awakening for artists who desired to work in large scale formats, which helped in turn to fuel a new zeal for public art commissions. The fabrication of the 12 foot tall, three ton sculpture at the Lippincott foundry in North Haven, Connecticut, was completed in 1970. It proceeded to Indianapolis in October of that year, and in 1975 LOVE was formally accessioned by the IMA and permanently settled on the grounds of our campus.

Tom Rummler (American), “Photograph of ‘LOVE’ in the Making in North Haven, Conn.,” 1970 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Robert Indiana, 72.78.14

Tom Rummler (American), “Photograph of ‘LOVE’ in the Making in North Haven, Conn.,” 1970
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Robert Indiana, 72.78.14

Fortunately for scholars of Robert Indiana and his iconic accomplishment, a sizeable group of gelatin-silver photographs by Tom Rummler had slipped quietly into the IMA collection in 1970, a gift from Robert Indiana himself. This body of work documented the construction process of the LOVE sculpture from the foundry floor and beyond, which is an invaluable record that informs the vital questions of who, how, when, and where in art historical inquiry. For the conservator, these images of process are a solidly reliable source of information regarding the assemblage of this imposing Cor-ten steel structure. I became aware of these photographs during the IMA’s conservation condition survey for all collection photographs that has been undertaken by contracted photograph conservator Paul Messier. This survey was generously funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in 2012, and we are profoundly grateful for this preservation project that has brought our photographs to the focused attention of the staff. The Rummler images document the creation of the LOVE sculpture at Lippincott Inc., and this massive undertaking is chronicled in views that celebrate the complexity, verve, and joy of the process. These photographs are beautiful in their own right as skillful compositions of light and texture; they visually convey the thrill of elemental industrial power harnessed to creative forces. A young Robert Indiana strikes poses worthy of a brave new world in art, and the faces of the fabrication crew are also preserved, a rare treat in art history up until the age of video. Paul confirmed that the 30 gelatin-silver Rummler photographs are currently in excellent condition. They are stored among works of photographic art, not in the library or the Registration office, which is a testament to the museum’s determination that they are at the same time art and document, a treasure of multiple virtues that deserves the highest level of care.

The Rummler photographs are offered here in light of the IMA’s designation of 2014 as a year in celebration of Robert Indiana – his art, his contribution to art history, and his ongoing relationship with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Visitors can view Robert Indiana’s graphic work and the Rummler photographs as part of The Essential Robert Indiana.

If only photographers had been on hand in Delphi in 474 BC …


A Tale of Two Weegees

As I have written about in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), the IMA is very fortunate to have photograph conservator Paul Messier on site with us to conduct a conservation condition survey of all of our collection photographs. This initiative was made possible through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in recognition of IMA’s significant holdings of historic and contemporary photographs. With the information gained from this survey, the IMA hopes to design a program of optimal care that will allow us to responsibly study and exhibit our photographs within the highest standard of preservation.

Paul has recently surveyed our collection of Weegee photographs, which came to the IMA in 2009. Weegee is a pseudonym for Arthur Fellig, who immigrated with his family at the age of 10 to New York from the Ukraine in 1909. He began his work in photography as a darkroom assistant for Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos) before striking out on his own as a freelance photographer, concentrating on crime photography. He would often arrive at crime scenes before the first responders, which led to a joking reputation for prescience. This earned him the nickname of “ouija” (from the future-predicting board game), which was phonetically reinterpreted as “Weegee.” Weegee became well-known as a hard-boiled, scruffy, street-smart individual. He was also a natural self-promoter, who began signing his work “Weegee the Famous.” He is considered one of the first street photographers, as opposed to the traditional studio photographer who worked with staged compositions and tightly controlled content. His approach paved the way for the work of later notable photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Weegee developed and printed his own photographs, and his work was published in all of the prominent New York City newspapers. He became widely known for his gritty, unvarnished views of crime, but perhaps he is best appreciated today for his capture of NYC life in high and low places—glimpses of ordinary moments frozen into significance as unselfconscious documents of time and place.

Paul called my attention to two particular photographs that struck him as singular, both of which are portraits of Weegee: one is a gelatin-silver print by photographer Larry Block and the other is a color Polaroid self-portrait by Weegee. These images, while very different from each other, are praiseworthy for their success within their respective techniques in conveying a strong sense of personality. They are also beautifully rendered, aptly utilizing the aesthetic parameters of the materials servicing these processes.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

The undated portrait of Weegee by Larry Block is a study of the photographer in a pensive moment, fueled by a focused intensity. He is slouched informally, yet commands great presence; the setting is casual but dramatically rendered. This is clearly an individual that deserves our attention even as he ignores the camera, seemingly alone with his thoughts and his trademark cigar.  Read the rest of this entry »


An Artist’s Decision to Frame

A continuation of last week’s discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of face-mounting for photography conservation. Part One can be found here.

Indianapolis artist Linda Adele Goodine is represented by two photographs in the IMA collection. The first, Helios, The Golden Boy was created in 1990 and accessioned by the IMA in 1998. It is a silver dye bleach (Cibachrome) print on resin coated paper, and it is conventionally framed behind Plexiglas glazing that is held away from the photograph with spacers. The second photograph, Bella Hawk, was created in 2005. It is described as a “Polyflex” print (a silver dye bleach process print on a resin-coated paper) and it is face-mounted to an acrylic sheet and inserted into a frame. It was brought into the collection in 2010.

 Conventionally framed silver dye bleach print “Helios, The Golden Boy”,  1990.

Conventionally framed silver dye bleach print “Helios, The Golden Boy”, 1990.

I sat down with Ms. Goodine at the IMA to discuss face-mounting and how this procedure has featured in her thinking regarding both her own photography and her work with photo majors at the Herron School of Art (Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis campus) where she is a Professor of Photography in the Fine Art program. We first spoke of the Cibachrome print, Helios – The Golden Boy, created in 1990, well before face-mounting became commonplace for art photography. She said that the Cibachrome prints of the time already possessed many of the qualities that are listed as virtues for face-mounted aesthetics   prominent among them is the glossy, saturated color that allows a heightened apprehension of three-dimensionality in the image. These characteristics perfectly suited her artistic vision at this time, and works such as Helios went on to private and institutional collections, housed in conventional frames fronted with glass or Plexiglas glazing. However, artists such as Ms. Goodine were very aware of the problems associated with framing oversized photographs in this way: the handling required to secure the photograph within the frame would impart small, dent-like creases around the perimeter, and oily fingerprints were unwittingly deposited to the detriment of the surface sheen. Once framed, the heavy photographs could yawn forward, touching the glazing in spite of the frame spacers, often encouraged by powerful static forces. Photographs larger than 30” x 40” would also naturally ripple and curl at the edges, and multiple hinges would be placed around all four edges in an imperfect attempt to keep them in plane.

 Face-mounted Chromogenic Print “Bella Hawk”, 2005.

Face-mounted Chromogenic Print “Bella Hawk”, 2005.

Bella Hawk is a work from Ms. Goodine’s 2005 Gibson Lemon Series. All of these photographs are face-mounted, and she has face-mounted three more photographic series since. When asked why, she articulated four reasons: convenience, flattening, hiding surface flaws and damage, and desired aesthetic qualities. Once face-mounted, over-sized photographs were suddenly very easy to handle, and the ruinous creases and fingerprints were no longer a danger. The artwork was rendered unequivocally flat  permanently. Small scratches or cracks in the surface of the photograph were rendered invisible by the filling-in power of the adhesive. And in the case of Bella Hawk, Ms. Goodine was working with the face-mounted quality of imparting a certain luxuriance to the photographic surface; she said it “accentuated the light in the image, and gave an enhanced glow” that suited her subject matter.

Ms. Goodine is now moving away from large scale photography, and with this decision she expects to abandon face-mounting, as well. She believes that it is not really necessary to protect smaller photographs with adhesive-adhered glazing, as handling and caring for them is exponentially easier than with the larger works. She feels that the artist’s choice of photographic papers and printing processes can provide a wide variety of image aesthetics that can be utilized in the service of artistic vision; she personally prefers the image rendering characteristics of the Polyflex paper that she likens visually to the older Cibachrome (then Ilfochrome) papers. She also said that face-mounting is not a practical choice for her students at this stage of their artistic careers because of the expense involved, so the subject is not discussed at length in her classroom. But Ms. Goodine would like to strongly caution anyone interested in face-mounting their work to be knowledgeable about the components of the face-mounting package and insist on using the highest grades of plastic sheeting and rigid back supports available. As it is a permanent mounting system, long term stability is a paramount concern, and artists should continually investigate the products that can ultimately preserve – or possibly destroy – their legacy.


The Virtues and Potential Vices of Face-Mounted Photographs

When you look at a photograph in the IMA galleries, do you ever notice the mounts? Maybe not consciously, but your viewing experience is significantly nuanced by the manner of presentation. This is why a great deal of effort and expense goes into preparing photographs for display on our walls. Photographs in the IMA’s collection are usually presented to the public mounted in mats and framed on the wall behind Plexiglas glazing. This is the same way that works on paper, such as prints and drawings, are displayed and this tradition, with some variation, has a history going back several hundred years. Mats serve to both physically support and visually augment the photograph by surrounding it with a serene expanse of paperboard that will focus your attention properly on the power of the photograph held in the center. A frame surrounds the mat and a front pane of glazing, such as glass or acrylic sheeting, offers formidable protection against a variety of ills, including rapid changes in temperature and humidity, air-borne pollutants, and fingerprints deposited by curious visitors. The very large, contemporary photographs are usually not matted, but set directly into frames that are equipped with “spacers” – strips of mat board, or small squared sections of  plastic or painted wood that hold the photograph a respectable distance away from the glazing. It is worrisome when a large photograph sags forward within its frame to touch the glazing; the emulsion (or media surface) could eventually conform to the rigid, textureless material, resulting in an altered sheen in the contact area. Or worse, the photograph could adhere to the glazing, and disengaging the two always carries a high risk of wounding the image surface. But the newest generation of contemporary photographs often dispense with frames altogether – they seem to float on the wall like magic windows into other worlds. These photographs are hovering courtesy of a relatively new presentation system called “face-mounting.”

Face-mounting permanently marries the photograph to the glazing with an interface of synthetic adhesive. Usually, a rigid backing material is similarly adhered to the verso of the photograph, creating a unified package that encases the work completely, supplying strength, support, and unfettered edges. There are visual advantages to this system that are very appealing to artists. With face-mounting, the colors of the photograph appear saturated and lush, and the images are appreciated by viewers as “crystal clear.” As air between a photograph and the glazing has been eliminated, there are no issues of multiple light-reflecting surfaces that can confuse the clear perception of the image. The absence of air can also be considered chemically beneficial to a photograph, both in relation to traditional gelatin emulsions with their cyan, yellow, and magenta dyes and the pigments and dyes deposited in digital printing. The oxygen component of the air has a destabilizing effect on organic molecules, and this includes cellulose (paper) proteins (gelatin) and some classes of colorants. In addition, humid air will cause the damaging reactions to proceed at an accelerated rate. Finally, face-mounted photographs are prevented from distorting, tearing, or suffering from casual accidents that would ordinarily mar its surface; it will never be directly handled again.

Face-Mounted photograph “Yellow Hallway” by James Casebere, 2001  (IMA2003.78). This is one of the earliest face-mounted photographs to enter the IMA collection. It has been shown in our galleries with some regularity, and it remains in excellent condition.

Face-Mounted photograph “Yellow Hallway” by James Casebere, 2001 (IMA2003.78). This is one of the earliest face-mounted photographs to enter the IMA collection. It has been shown in our galleries with some regularity, and it remains in excellent condition.

With these virtues in mind, it seems that the conservation community should welcome face-mounting with open arms. However, conservators are a cautious folk, and they never fully trust innovations that have not been observed and judged over significant periods of time. Their first concern is the obvious drawback of having a glazing material that cannot be removed. If the acrylic sheeting becomes scratched or clouded, it cannot simply be replaced – these problems become a permanent part of the artwork, compromising the prized aesthetic qualities expected from face-mounted images. The “protective” nature of glazing the front of the artwork is tempered by the fact that it is now also the aspect of highest vulnerability and it must be zealously protected from harm.

 Read the rest of this entry »


A Discussion of Orotones

In February of 2012, the Indianapolis Museum of Art mounted a works on paper exhibition created by IMA Prints, Drawings & Photographs Curator Marty Krause entitled “Looking West.” This exhibition featured collection prints, drawings, photographs and watercolors by artists of the 19th & 20th centuries who were captivated by the scenery and culture of the American West. Two of the photographs chosen for this exhibition were taken out of storage for the first time since their acquisition in 1988. They were listed in the museum’s database as works by Edward Sheriff Curtis and identified as “orotones.”

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “Three Chiefs Piegan,” 1900. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.65

It is one of my responsibilities to inspect every artwork prior to display in our galleries to make sure that there are no compelling condition problems that would require treatment before the installation. The orotones were stored with the oil paintings, hanging high on massive wire mesh storage racks suspended from the ceiling. I had to climb a ladder to reach them, and at the top I leaned forward to remove the archival foamboard light shields that were fitted around their frames to protect them from unnecessary light exposure. What I uncovered were two gleaming images, casting a quiet golden glow that seemed slightly miraculous given the cold illumination provided by the overhead fluorescent lights. The orotones shone as if lit by internal church candles, and I was immediately intrigued by the beauty and presence achieved by this esoteric photographic process.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, "The Vanishing Race," 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “The Vanishing Race,” 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was both prominent and prolific in the history of orotone images. His most famous endeavor involved amassing a documentary record of Native American cultures through staged scenes and portraiture, and the use of this particular technique enhanced the romantic appeal of this body of work. The IMA photographs are entitled Three Chiefs, Piegan and The Vanishing Race. They were in identical frames of gilded wood with decorative corner elements, and I came to learn that these were a common type of frame associated with Curtis’s work, personally selected to properly enhance and dignify his images.

Detail: lower left corner of the frame belonging to “Three Chiefs Piegan.”

What are orotones? This turned out to be a much more complicated question than anticipated. Other names for them include Goldtones and Curt-tones, the latter term coined by Curtis himself. The Latin word for gold is aurum, approximated by the prefix ‘oro’ which seems an obvious reference to the golden appearance of the images. This has lead to the misunderstanding that all orotones utilize actual metallic gold within the process. In truth, Curtis’s orotones were created by projecting a photographic negative onto a glass plate that had been pre-coated with a silver-gelatin emulsion, thereby creating a ‘positive’ image. The image was developed and fixed, and the emulsion was then coated with a layer of ‘bronzing powders mixed with banana oil’ to produce a backing color that enabled the highlights and shadows to be discernible, thus rendering the image readable. The ‘bronzing powders’ (metallic powders in a liquid carrier) were probably variable mixtures, but in Curtis’s work, they have been found to contain copper and zinc (note: bronze is technically defined as an alloy of copper and tin; copper and zinc are the components of brass). This metal combination was confirmed at the IMA through a brief scan using a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The ‘banana oil’ is amyl acetate in acetone and benzene, with the addition of a small amount of proxylin, which is a cellulose nitrate lacquer. The amyl acetate solvent is produced synthetically, but it has the distinct smell and taste of bananas, which explains the persistent use of the term ‘banana oil.’ It takes a great deal of skill to lay this coating over the emulsion flawlessly, which may help to explain the relative rarity of this process and Curtis’ justifiable pride in his mastery of the technique. He is even thought to have modified the materials to gain the precise aesthetic that he wanted, although this speculation has not been well documented.

Now that we understood what orotones were, we knew that we needed to re-examine our stewardship practices surrounding them to make sure that we were giving them the care they needed in order to survive into the distant future. It is very fortunate that we have the advice of visiting photograph conservator Paul Messier (which I wrote about here), contracted by the IMA for a condition survey of all collection photographs through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The following information is excerpted from Paul’s survey of The Three Chiefs, Piegan:

 Read the rest of this entry »


About Claire Hoevel

Job Title: Senior Conservator of Paper

Claire has written 6 articles for us.