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Art at the ‘cutting’ edge: Cross-section sampling of paintings

Last month, I led a handful of members of the IMA’s Second Century Society through a special behind-the-scenes workshop in my laboratory exploring the practice of cross-section sampling in conservation science. A cross-section is a miniscule sample cut from an artwork so as to contain all the layers of the painting – from the topmost varnish to the lowest preparation layer. When examined under a microscope or probed using micro-analytical techniques, a cross-section tells the story of the artwork’s inception, creation, and aesthetic techniques in a way that no other analysis or connoisseurship can. Although the collection and preparation of these samples can take days, we whisked participants through the many steps of sampling, mounting, and analysis of a cross-section using materials prepared in advance – much like a cooking show – in order to explain this invaluable technique for understanding and interpreting artworks in the collection.

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Figure 1. The horizontal red and white element (#2013.443B) is seen in the foreground.
Roy Lichtenstein, Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012.
Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation with additional support from the Robert L. and Marjorie J. Mann Fund.
© Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

Recently, we installed Roy Lichtenstein’s Five Brushstrokes on the Sutphin Mall. The extraordinary process of carefully positioning and stacking these monumental artworks – one that involved cranes, work crews, and conservators – was captured on time-lapse photography. The morning after the installation, I found a plastic baggie with two small paint samples on my desk. As I turned the chips over in my hand, it was obvious they told a story of the sculpture’s creation – so I prepared a cross-section to check it out.

The five components of Brushstrokes are made of painted aluminum. One of the samples came from the horizontal red and white brushstroke (Figure 1), and it is obvious from the cross-section (Figure 2) that the white highlights were painted first and then the sculpture was masked off to add the red passages – you see the red layer over top of the white in the cross-section meaning that the red paint had to be the last to be applied. But what is all that thick pink stuff below? An industrial product similar to Bondo! Yes, it is an epoxy version of a fairing compound like that used in bodyshops to level dents and scrapes on your car. When an aluminum sculpture is fabricated, the surface isn’t always smooth, and so an epoxy or polyester filler is troweled on top and sanded smooth to give an even surface that is then painted.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

This layered structure seems complex, but cross-sections can get much more interesting! Check out this cross-section from a wooden shutter salvaged from a historic property on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate, Figure 3. Because the building was regularly repainted, the section shows over a dozen different paint schemes. Furthermore, irradiating your sample with ultraviolet light and imaging the visible fluorescence from the paints can help to identify additional layers in what looks like a single, thick white paint coat toward the bottom of the section – the shutter has obviously been touched up with the same color a few times too!

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Cross-section sampling is, by its nature, a destructive technique since a small sample of paint must be sacrificed. However, these samples can be vanishingly small, oftentimes less than the width of a hair, and yet they yield an enormous amount of information about the materials, craftsmanship, and condition of an artwork.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Installation

 

The Golden Age anew: The IMA’s Dutch and Flemish gallery reinstalled

071814_dutch_flemish_01On July 18, the newly reinstalled gallery of Dutch and Flemish painting opens to the public. The Northern baroque paintings are one of the strengths of the IMA’s collection, and it is with pride that the IMA presents some of its most popular paintings – such as Aelbert Cuyp’s Valkhof at Nijmegen and Jan Miense Molenaer’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent – alongside some of the lesser-known gems, such as Govaert Flinck’s Woman in a Red Dress and Pearls. Several pictures are coming out of storage, including an excellent mid-17th century copy after a lost self-portrait by Frans Hals and a painting of an old man in a fur-edged cap by a follower of Rembrandt, both from the Clowes Fund Collection. The integration of these two Clowes pictures into the hanging in the William C. Griffith Jr. and Carolyn C. Griffith Gallery (H215) invigorates the survey of 17th century Northern painting.

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Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, (Dutch, 1638-1698), “Dam Square in Amsterdam,” 1668
Collection of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

The highlight of the new gallery layout, however, is a long-term loan from the Koninklijk Museum voor  Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde’s Dam Square in Amsterdam [left] of 1668.  Recently treated by IMA paintings conservators, this is the artist’s largest and most vibrant interpretation of this site. The painting shows the “eighth wonder of the world,” the classicizing Amsterdam Town Hall (Stadhuis), overlooking the boxy Renaissance Weigh House (Waag) and the chancel and spire of the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk). The square, which bustles today with tourists as it bustles with magistrates and merchants in Berckheyde’s painting, occupied a central place in the Dutch national identity in the 17th century.

The cornerstone of the new Town Hall was laid on Oct. 20, 1648, in celebration of the Treaty of Westphalia, the agreement that officially recognized the Dutch Republic’s independence from Spain. The entire visual program of the building’s exterior is crafted, in fact, to speak to this newly gained freedom. The tympanum on the east façade displays the enthroned maid of Amsterdam surrounded by water creatures, who offer her crowns of laurel. This carved relief is surmounted by three free-standing sculpted figures; on the two sides stand Prudence and Justice. The figure of Peace crowns the pediment and holds aloft an olive branch, symbolizing peace, and the caduceus of Mercury, an allusion to wisdom and trade. Even the classicism of the architecture – the rounded arches of the ground-floor doorways, the prominent Composite and Corinthian pilasters on the second and third levels, the sculpted tympana, and the carved garlands between the pilasters – is meant to recall the style of that exemplary model of republicanism, Rome. That Peace stands atop a cornucopia, evoking abundance, is fundamental to the Town Hall’s placement on the Dam.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Inherent to sustaining this freedom is the economic and civic activity that we see depicted in a variety of forms in Berckheyde’s painting. The Weigh House, where imported cargo of more than 50 pounds was weighed upon entrance to the city, is the locus around which men roll barrels of wine [Fig. 2], horses pull heavy loads, and money exchanges hands. In front of it, a small fruit market marks the morning, while the buildings on the square’s south side (at the left of the painting) bear signs indicating a printseller and a notary [Fig. 3]. Even the pockets of magistrates chatting before heading into their chambers in the Town Hall suggest a thriving society. Berckheyde, who has animated the square here with more citizens than in most of his other versions, demonstrates the Dam to be a vibrant, essential location in the city.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

A more enlightening painting could not inaugurate the new gallery hanging. An expression of Holland’s new identity as a prosperous republic of the North, Berckheyde’s scene records the physical and cultural topography of Holland’s most important city. The artist’s brilliant sense of light and color, however, captivates the eye as it informs the mind, making the painting a welcomed temporary addition to our museum. Be sure to come see the new installation and admire Berckheyde’s painting!

 

Filed under: Art, Conservation, History, Installation, The Collection

 

Creating an Autoportrait: Marc Anderson

Obscured beneath the simple words, numbers, shapes, and colors found in much of Robert Indiana’s work are essential memories and symbols of the artist’s life. Indiana’s visual vocabulary is encrypted with personal symbolism. This is particularly evident in his long series of Autoportraits.

To complement The Essential Robert Indiana, on view through May 4, the IMA invites visitors both on-site and online to Create Your Autoportrait using some of the same elements that Robert Indiana incorporates in to his. During the run of the exhibition, IMA staff members will be creating their own Autoportraits and blogging about it.

The eighth post in this series features Marc Anderson, the IMA’s preparator. For those not familiar with the term “preparator,” that means Marc is part of the team that builds and installs exhibits and displays.

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Here are a few things about me: I really like working here installing art, and I also enjoy eating/making food, groovin’ to music, petting cats, doing math in my head, recording sound effects, and taking pictures.

"Art Hero" Josh at work on Julianne Swartz's "How Deep Is Your."

“Art Hero” Josh at work on Julianne Swartz’s “How Deep Is Your.”

As an installer of art, I have the privilege of working behind-the-scenes with the rest of the collection support staff/art heroes. The amount of effort and energy that goes into preserving and displaying artwork is pretty incredible! Most of it goes sight unseen, and much of it is not very glamorous, or all that interesting to most people. Though sometimes we face unique challenges that are REALLY far removed from our normal duties. They are opportunities only made possible in the name of art. I like to capture those ridiculous moments; included here is one of Josh going above and beyond.

So, on to my Autoportrait:

  • 8: musical notes on my tiny xylophone and the best visual shape.
  • 617 & 314: Boston and St. Louis are places I once called home.
  • Resonance:  The physics of how sound is made fascinates me to no end!
  • Sugar: My favorite food group and Stevie Wonder song.
  • I used these colors because navy blue was not a choice. They also look really good together.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions, IMA Staff, Installation

 

The IMA in Egypt, Part 3: ‘Wrapping up’ our Mummy Coffin Research

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in an exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

Fig. 1.  A portion of a painted headdress from a Late Period wooden coffin. The annotations provide the unique data label, the chemical elements identified by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and the most likely pigment inferred from the elements found.

Fig. 1. A portion of a painted headdress from a Late Period wooden coffin. The annotations provide the unique data label, the chemical elements identified by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and the most likely pigment inferred from the elements found.

A year ago this week, I boarded a plane for Egypt carrying a small “mobile lab” to take part in a collaborative fieldwork project studying ancient wooden funerary objects. As I reported earlier, the goal was to determine better conservation methods for stabilizing these beautiful, but fragile painted artifacts, which include decorated sarcophagi and statues. As the group’s chemist, my job was to use portable analytical instruments to identify the pigments, adhesives, and binding media used in the surface decoration of these deteriorated objects. On this one year anniversary, I wanted to wrap up my blog series by presenting some of our results from this exploratory season in the field at Abydos.

Our analyses showed that the ancient Egyptian artists used natural materials to decorate the tombs of their dead (Fig. 1). The binding agents for their paints included glue made from boiled animal skins and resinous gums exuded from plants. The colorants were also largely natural minerals including white chalk, yellow and red earths, soot black, and the poisonous arsenic containing yellow mineral orpiment. The primary blue pigment, however, was synthetic; Egyptian blue, a copper-containing glass frit was first made in Egypt as early as the 4th Dynasty around 3000 BC. Armed with this information about the paint composition, conservators are able to choose the most appropriate consolidants to stabilize these often disintegrating artifacts.

Fig. 2. A composite “eye” from a Ka statue composed of copper sheet, marble, and obsidian. The left eye is shown in pieces while the right one has been reassembled by conservators.

Fig. 2. A composite “eye” from a Ka statue composed of copper sheet, marble, and obsidian. The left eye is shown in pieces while the right one has been reassembled by conservators.

We also encountered other decorative elements including the inlaid eyes (Fig. 2) from wooden Ka sculptures found in the chapels associated with royal tombs. These are composite structures that include metal eyelids identified as pure copper sheet soldered together with lead and limestone whites of the eyes carved around a central black pupil of imported volcanic obsidian. The black gemstone was held in place with a plug of beeswax. Future work might include using chemical analysis to trace the foreign source of these luxury trade items.

Fig. 3. A display panel from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World showing the Abydos wood project team onsite.

Fig. 3. A display panel from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World showing the Abydos wood project team onsite.

One further outcome of this highly successful exploratory field season is the exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan.  The work of the conservation team was included in the exhibition’s didactics to show the diversity of disciplines that contribute to our understanding and preservation of archaeological materials (Fig. 3). All of those who were part of this field season are extremely grateful to our home institutions for the latitude to come together to participate in this exciting project, and to the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) who along with the University of Michigan funded the expedition. Aside from being a fascinating study with components of ancient technology, complex biodeterioration, and delicate preservation interventions, our work in Egypt was a lot of fun (Fig.4)!

Fig. 4. Team leader and Kelsey Museum conservator Suzanne Davis shows off the Ka statue inlaid eyes after reassembling the excavated pieces.

Fig. 4. Team leader and Kelsey Museum conservator Suzanne Davis shows off the Ka statue inlaid eyes after reassembling the excavated pieces.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Technology, Travel

 

Getting “To The Point”

What do Brussels and Indianapolis have in common? Belgium spawned several artists who fell under the spell of Georges Seurat, the French artist who invented the technique of Pointillism (also known as Neo-Impressionism) upon seeing the ground-breaking painting “Sunday on the Grande Jatte” (The Art Institute of Chicago) at an exhibition in Brussels in 1886. These artists carried on Seurat’s innovative style, and the IMA is proud to have masterpieces in its collection by several of these Belgian masters as well as our own painting by Seurat and his French and Dutch followers.

Photo by David Miller.

Photo by David Miller.

However, our finest pointillist portraits are not on display now because they have made a trip to Brussels to be included in the IMA organized exhibition To The Point – The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904. Angie Day, Associate Registrar for Exhibitions, and David Miller, Chief Conservator and Senior Conservator of Paintings, also made the trip to Brussels to accompany the IMA paintings and install the exhibition at the ING Cultural Center.

Angie was responsible for managing the arrival of the paintings and works on paper that had been lent to the exhibition from prestigious collections in the US and Europe: including transport, unpacking, safe handling, and installation according to the lenders’ requirements and international

ING lighting designer with IMA’s "Portrait of Père Biart" by Henry van de Velde, 79.320. Photo by David Miller.

ING lighting designer with IMA’s “Portrait of Père Biart” by Henry van de Velde, 79.320. Photo by David Miller.

exhibition standards. David performed detailed condition reporting of each artwork to ensure that they had travelled safely and were stable for exhibition, and monitored that light levels, temperature and humidity settings, and security of the artworks were correct. The IMA team worked with Belgian customs brokers, contract art handlers and conservators, lenders’ couriers, and the ING co-curators over six long days to prepare the exhibition for its gala opening on February 17.

Angie and David will return to Brussels to bring the exhibition to the IMA, where it will open on June 15 as Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904.

Here it will include some fantastic artworks not shown in Belgium, including a Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh – not to be missed!

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions, Guest Bloggers, IMA Staff, Travel

 

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