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When an Artwork Needs a New Coat of Paint

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When an Artwork Needs a New Coat of Paint


By Samantha Springer, Portland Art Museum Conservator

Welcome back to our s.a.m@PAM blog post series on art conservation, where Science and Art Meet @ the Portland Art Museum. As conservation begins this week on the monumental Roy Lichtenstein sculpture Brushstrokes outside the Museum’s Mark Building, Conservator Samantha Springer discusses the steps involved in repainting a large scale outdoor sculpture.

Listen to a Portland Art Museum Podcast about the conservation.

I am always a bit on edge those mornings that I need to check the Lichtenstein Brushstrokes sculpture from top to bottom. There is a lot of preparation, which means time to mull over what I might find, and things to forget. Early in the morning, it is cool with the sculpture still shaded by the tall Elm trees of the South Park blocks. I step into my safety harness and pull it up over my shoulders, making sure the straps are straight and tight. Ensuring the lanyard is attached to the cage of the boom lift, I drive the lift into position and raise the boom 29 feet into the air, almost 3 stories, to get access to the top of the sculpture. The bucket bounces around the further the boom extends, so getting close to the sculpture without hitting it is tricky and can be anxiety inducing, but I’m accustomed to taking it slow and I quickly get into the rhythm of the work.

Once a year, we clean and document the condition of all the outdoor sculpture as part of our annual maintenance routine. We have started to notice several condition problems since the sculpture was installed in 2005 to commemorate the opening of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, but particularly in the past few years. On the uppermost areas the paint is fading and appears chalky, particularly the black and yellow. It is also starting to crack in recesses revealing the metal substrate and peeling on flat surfaces. These are all signs that the industrial polyurethane coatings are failing, which could ultimately lead to a more problematic issue—corrosion of the half-inch-thick aluminum plate from which the sculpture is constructed. Originally fabricated in 2003 by Polich Tallix, a company in upstate New York, these industrial coatings are typically expected to last 15 to 20 years. I have taken measures to lengthen the life of the current paint coating with short-term repairs that you can read about in a previous blog post. However, with the developing condition issues, it was time to address the state of preservation holistically, particularly because of the potential for permanent structural damage to develop.

First, we decided to extract it from the concrete platform and then repaint the entire thing. Doing so allows us to access the entirety of the sculpture for repainting and makes it easier to move the sculpture in the future.

In preparation for this project, one of the most often asked questions is: how will we choose the new paint? Fortunately, there has been some collaborative work in this area between the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. A standard color palette and paint system was developed for Lichtenstein sculptures, ensuring that conservation and touch-ups on sculptures reflect the artist’s intent now and in the future. You can read more about their first project on the iris, which details the preservation of Three Brushstrokes, an early work from 1984 in the Getty Museum collection.

To carry out our project, we hired a company that specializes in high-quality paint finishes and uses high performance industrial paints similar to the ones that were used by Roy Lichtenstein. Unfortunately, some of the original colors that Lichtenstein preferred are no longer manufactured. This is one of the reasons the Lichtenstein Foundation has been working closely with GCI scientists to find suitable alternatives. From a preservation standpoint, Awlgrip and Imron, the paints that Lichtenstein used, are difficult to touch up if they are damaged. Luckily paint technology has progressed significantly over the past two decades. The new paints being used by the conservation and fabrication communities are much easier to work with and conserve. In this way it makes preserving them a more sustainable effort.

During the month of June, you may see scaffolding around the sculpture to create an enclosure for all of the work to take place. Now you know there is no need to worry—the sculpture is not going away, and hopefully you won’t notice much of a difference once we take the scaffolding down. There are many ethical standards that conservators stand by, but a main goal of this treatment is for it to look like I was never there.

Watch a video from March 2019, when the sculpture was lifted with a crane for the first phase of this conservation work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWn-O0TAVx8?feature=oembed


Brushstrokes FAQ:

What is the sculpture made out of? The sculpture is fabricated out of pieces of aluminum that are one-half-inch thick and welded together at the joints. The aluminum is coated with a primer coat and then the various paint colors of Imron and Awlgrip, which are two-part polyurethane industrial paints.

When was the sculpture made? It was fabricated in 2003 by Polich Tallix in Beacon, New York.

How did we get the sculpture? Brushstrokes was a gift of Prudence M. Miller and her family to the Museum and was installed to coincide with the opening of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art in 2005.

How is this conservation treatment being funded? As you might guess, there are many costs associated with this project. We are thankful that funding for the conservation of this artwork was generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

The Bank of America Art Conservation Project is a key element of Bank of America’s program of arts support worldwide. The project provides grant funding to nonprofit cultural institutions throughout the world to conserve historically or culturally significant works of art that are in danger of deterioration. Twenty-one major art restoration projects across six countries and in 11 U.S. cities are receiving grant funding through the 2018 Bank of America Art Conservation Project, including the conservation treatment of Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes here in Portland.

Why is this sculpture important? This monumental sculpture has become a familiar icon in downtown Portland. A central figure in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Roy Lichtenstein became best known for his paintings of comic-strip figures rendered in hand-painted Benday-dot patterns. Later in his career, Lichtenstein shifted his focus to three-dimensional media; he produced several large-scale sculptures for public places, including several based on the Brushstrokes paintings.

Can I see this sculpture anywhere else? No. It is an edition of one.

When will the work take place? The repainting will start on June 5. The sculpture was extracted from the concrete in March, and you can see two lighter squares of concrete where the sculpture was previously installed. These will slowly blend in with the surrounding concrete over time.

Lichtenstein died in 1997—how did this artwork get made in 2003? Large sculpture that requires a specialized fabricator or foundry is often not made on the date of conception by the artist, but rather when there is buyer or patron who can afford to cover the cost of making the work. Often this is while the artist is still alive so that they can oversee the making of the work. In this case, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation oversaw the fabrication based on a maquette, or model, and specifications made by the artist.

Can I see the sculpture online? View Brushstrokes in the Museum’s Online Collections.

Samantha Springer is Conservator at the Portland Art Museum. While she specializes in the preservation of sculpture and three-dimensional works of art, her role at the Museum is to oversee the direct care of the entire collection, including works on paper, photographs, paintings, and textiles. This entails carrying out conservation survey assessments and hiring conservators in other specialty areas. In addition, Springer works towards increasing the visibility of the department through public outreach, community awareness, and fundraising efforts such as this project.





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