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Meeting Gaetano Pesce

It was 3 pm when I met Gaetano Pesce at his New York office in January, but the moon was already rising, courtesy of the Notturno a New York sofa which he designed and where he sat.

Nighttime in New York

Gaetano Pesce on the Notturno a New York sofa. Image via


This vintage promotional image of the UP chairs shows numbers 1-6 with their original packaging. Image via

As a designer and architect, Pesce’s long career is distinguished by his creative use of modern materials to fabricate utilitarian objects that communicate socially and politically conscious messages. His most famous design is probably UP5 and UP6, a chair and ottoman combination designed in 1969 and widely known as “The Mamma” or “La Donna”.

These pieces were originally sold in flat, vacuum sealed packages. Once the package was opened, the compressed polyurethane foam expanded into a fully formed chair.  Watch it grow! But this playful design is also meant to convey a darker message about the condition of women as victims of prejudice and oppression, where the ottoman forms a prisoner’s ball and chain attached to a shape that recalls a prehistoric fertility figure.

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The Importance of the Superficial: Surfaces of Wooden Sculpture from Africa

As part of my work preparing for the reinstallation of the African galleries, I recently finished dusting the objects which are currently on view.  Removing accumulated dust from artworks is essential, and not just because it looks bad.  With time, dust can bond with, and encourage the deterioration of the surface of an artwork.

Dusting provided an opportunity to become acquainted with the wide range of surfaces that can be found on wooden sculpture from Africa. Given all the information one can get from these surfaces, this part of the project has been a visual and art historical education.

Under the dust, the surface observed can be one that the artist created.  Yoruba sculptor Lamidi O. Fakeye, for example, highlighted the wood itself by leaving the surface of his mounted horseman unpainted and unvarnished.

Detail of Mounted Horseman by Lamidi O. Fakeye, which features a bare wooden surface.

This is just one of a wide variety of possible surface finishes the artist could have chosen.  In contrast, this 20th century helmet mask for Bonu Amuen masker features a thick, slightly textured paint layer.

Detail of the painted surface of a 20th century helmet for Bonu Amuen masker.

The forehead of the Deangle mask is covered with layers of ritually applied materials.

For many works, however, the observed surface is the result of the combination of the artist’s activity and the use of the object after it was created.  Substances are often applied to painted wooden sculpture in Africa, however the material used and the reason for its application varies with the culture of origin of the piece.  Because of this variety, materials on the surface of African sculpture can provide information that is valuable for understanding the ways in which people have interacted with it.

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Working to Define and Care for African Art at the IMA

This is the first post in a monthly series about my work on the African Art collection.  I came to the IMA in October to complete a nine-month fellowship that will serve as the final requirement for my master’s degree in art conservation from New York University’s Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts.

My first weeks at the museum have been filled with introductions.  In addition to meeting new coworkers, there were plenty of new places to get to know as part of the job.  Work-related travel has included a day trip to the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana to examine furniture in storage, condition checking the Mary Miss installation FLOW: Can You See The River? in 100 Acres, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the historic Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens.

My introduction to the museum’s collection of African Art, however, is proving to be the most complicated. One of my main responsibilities at the IMA is to help prepare that collection for reinstallation early next year. This will involve months of surveying, testing and treating objects in that collection, as well as consulting on matters of storage and display. To begin to tackle this project, I wanted to assemble a list of the objects in the IMA’s collection of African Art, in order to ensure that my survey is thorough.

That practical, seemingly simple, request led me straight into questions of how African Art is defined at the IMA. If the answer seems apparent–that African Art is defined as art that comes from Africa–then consider the following example. The IMA owns two works by the living artist El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and currently works in Nigeria. One work, Sacred Comb, is on display in the Eiteljorg suite of African Art. However, the other piece, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is displayed in the museum’s Contemporary Art galleries.

Which artwork by El Anatsui is classified as African Art at the IMA?

Because these two curatorial departments use different criteria to define their collections (geography vs. time period), both can claim either work.  Furthermore, the IMA’s department of Textiles and Fashion Arts uses still different parameters for defining their collection–those of medium and use.  As a work that references traditional West African strip-woven textiles, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is actually catalogued as part of the Textiles and Fashion Arts collection.

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About Kristen Adsit

Job Title: Graduate Fellow, Objects and Variable Art Conservation
Interests: Contemporary materials and production processes; the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas; Variable art; Museums; Yoga; Hiking
Favorite Movies: Love to watch them; terrible at remembering them
Favorite Music: Too many to choose! Some classics are Architecture in Helsinki, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Jay-Z and Neko Case.
Favorite Food: Cheese of almost any kind
Pets: my medium-sized black pointy mutt, Zeke
Something you should know about me: I keep it real.

Kristen has written 3 articles for us.