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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.


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.


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.


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


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 …

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Contemporary, Guest Bloggers, Installation, Uncategorized


Making eye contact with Rembrandt

Today's guest blogger is Haohao Lu, the Allen W. Clowes Fellow, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800


rembrandtThe self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most acclaimed paintings at the IMA. Painted when the artist was in his early 20s, this portrait appears to be his first attempt to render the human face as faithfully as possible. He included pimples on his chin and jaw-line. His parted lips add to the complexity of his face, making the likeness all the more compelling. Half shadowed by the beret, he looks at the viewer, as if inviting us to study the subtle topography of his face. Our returning gaze, however, was not made easy: a close study usually involved standing on one’s toes, as the self-portrait was hung above the mantelshelf in the Clowes study. This summer, however, this portrait is brought down to eye level.

A group of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces are now on view in the courtyard of the Clowes Pavilion. In addition to Rembrandt’s self-portrait, there are Jan Brueghel the elder’s river landscape, a portrait of Frans Hals, and Rubens’s oil sketch depicting the life of Constantine the Great. At eye level and in the softly illuminated courtyard, these paintings reveal their usually masked details and texture.

This temporary reinstallation is an effort to make available the most important paintings from the Clowes Collection, as its galleries are currently closed for renovation. Visit the IMA this summer and enjoy the unprecedented closeness to the masterpieces, before they all go back.

Filed under: Art, Installation


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