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Just One Word….Plastics

Last month I went to Paris. I didn’t go to do research at the Louvre, or to attend a special exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, I went to the POPArt Conference, an international symposium on the conservation of plastic materials.  The conference was the culmination of a European Union funded initiative, and like Contemporary Art: Who Cares?, it is another example of the way that European governments are supporting the conservation of contemporary cultural heritage in a way that the U.S. government does not.  The goal of POPArt was to improve the conservation of plastic objects in European museums and to establish recommended practices for exhibiting, cleaning, and restoring these artifacts .

Tara Donovan, "Untitled (Mylar)," 2010. Commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Frank Curtis Springer & Irving Moxley Springer Purchase Fund, Anonymous IV Art Fund, Deaccessioned Contemporary Art Fund. 2010.218A-D. Courtesy of the Pace Gallery.

When people think about plastics, their minds don’t typically jump to museum collections.  But in reality museums are filled with plastic artifacts and artworks made with plastic components.  Artists and designers choose them for their working properties and aesthetic qualities that cannot be achieved with other materials.  Some works in the IMA’s collection that are made with plastics include Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Mylar), Valentine Typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass II and Perry King, and Rudi Gernreich’s wool and vinyl Dress.  These are just a few examples and our holdings are only growing as we are rapidly acquiring many new objects in our Design Arts, Textile and Fashion Arts, and Contemporary Art departments.

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Questions that Lead to More Questions

I joined the Conservation Department at the IMA in October as Assistant Conservator of Objects and Variable Art.  One of my most exciting projects to date has been the examination of the Corner Cabinet with Breton Scenes by Emile Bernard, a rare example of Pont-Aven School wood carving acquired by the IMA in 2010.

Laura Kubick, Assistant Conservator of Objects and Variable Art and Jeff Fieberg, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Centre College, analyzing the cabinet in the gallery using XRF.

My work has focused on the surfaces of the cabinet. To discover what pigments might be present, I first used XRF with the help of Jeff Fieberg.  Some pigments suggested by this work are red lead, chrome yellow and ultramarine blue.  I am also trying to find out what type of paint is present – is it oil, tempera, distemper, etc.?  And is there a coating layer over the paint?

Microscopic examination revealed wax on the surface. I also took microscopic samples that will be analyzed using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) and Raman Spectroscopy with the help of Greg Smith, the IMA’s Conservation Scientist. These techniques will tell us which type of binder the paint has and more definitively identify the pigments present.

Microscopic examination of Bernard’s Corner Cabinet.

Photomicrograph showing a location where a yellow pigment sample was taken.

Once we have those answers,  I will work with Ellen Lee, The Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator, to answer further questions like would the cabinet benefit from cleaning and can cleaning be undertaken safely?  We may also answer a question about whether the frieze panel with faces is original to the cabinet or whether it may have been added later.  The work that Lee, Richard McCoy, and Jérôme Séré completed in the fall of 2010 examining the structure of the cabinet (check out the blog about this work) suggested that this may have been the case.  I look forward to the results of the analysis and sharing more about the cabinet.

Detail of Bernard’s Corner Cabinet with Breton Scenes showing the frieze with faces.



About Laura Kubick

Job Title: Assistant Conservator of Objects and Variable Art

Laura has written 2 articles for us.