The Problem of Paint
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The Problem of Paint

Franz West, Sitzwuste, 2000. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

“It’s the symbol of Minneapolis, and blasting it down to metal so it looked like a golf ball? It was like: ‘uh-oh.’” That’s how Joe King remembers the “extremely nerve-wracking” experience of leading the team that stripped–down to a pocked, irregular-shaped sphere–the aluminum orb at the center of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s Spoonbridge and Cherry.

As the Walker’s registrar, King oversees restoration, maintenance, and conservation of artworks in the Walker collection. To say that the job requires keen attention to detail understates the precision required of King’s vocation, which sends a steady stream of documents, photos, and invoices across his desk each day, from historic and contemporary paint samples to spectral analysis reports on coatings to visual documentation of mineral deposits on what is arguably Minnesota’s most beloved outdoor sculpture.

Repainting begins on the stem of Spoonbridge‘s cherry, 2009

King’s job presents myriad preservation challenges, not limited to how to store a fur coat worn by the late Merce Cunningham in a 1958 dance performance (it’s since been frozen and now sits in cold storage) or how to stabilize works by Joseph Beuys made using PVC, a medium known to degrade over time in an affliction dubbed “weeping Barbie syndrome.” But even less exotic concerns cast light–glare-inducing, sculpture-fading, UV-rich light–on the complexities of the art registrar’s job. For one, the problem of paint.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry

Undoubtedly the most visible–and likely the most complicated–of projects King has been involved with was the 2009 refinishing of the Garden’s iconic cherry. Since its installation in 1988 in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the fountain-sculpture has sprayed water all but six hours each day, three seasons a year, leaving a sheen of deposited calcium to dull the original paint job. But cleaning the work, as is done three to four times each summer, didn’t restore the cherry’s shine, so the registration team, aided by outside contractors and experts, began the daunting task of removing the cherry, abrasive-blasting it down, and recoating it. But a simple repainting it wasn’t.

“When you weld aluminium, it tends to dent and do funny things,” says King. “The surface is more like a walnut. There are lots of dents in it, so the whole thing is covered with fairing compound, like body putty or Bondo. After 22 years out there, the Bondo was starting to release and it was beginning to look like potato chips on the surface.”

The fairing compound–which measured a quarter-inch thick in spots–was sandblasted off. Working with artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the team switched to a different kind of compound, “immersion-grade” fairing compound typically used for sealing the hulls of ships.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1985–1988

The Registration department also contracted with a coating engineer to determine why the layers of paint and Bondo buckled to such a degree. They measured indices such as the humidity level when the paint was originally applied and the manufacturer’s batch numbers of coatings used. A report in a manila folder on King’s desk offers a glimpse of the precision; its abstract reads: “Computer-aided microscopic examination and FTIR spectral analysis helped determine what may have occurred. Microscopic analysis of this sample showed what appeared to 12 distinct layers.” It then listed two layers of beige–the first layers of primer from the original fabrication of the cherry–then layers of brown, white, red, gray, red, and more gray, followed by three layers of red and topped by a final layer of clearcoat.

The restoration of the cherry took several months, from late February to early May, and saw the orb change complexion from gray (after sandblasting) to yellow (epoxy primer) to green (fairing compound) to gray again (more epoxy primer) to its final red. (Justin Heideman chronicled the process well on the Walker blog and our Flickr page.)

Mark di Suvero’s Molecule

Mark di Suvero’s massive sculpture Molecule, the bright red work made from steel I-beams, was gifted to the Walker by its previous owner, Honeywell. But when it arrived–and for several years thereafter–its red hue didn’t match the sculptor’s original intent.

Mark di Suvero, Molecule, 1977–1983

“The urban legend is that it was painted by Honeywell to match their logo,” says King. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that the artist didn’t think that red was the right color.”

After hearing the urban legend, King and Walker staff approached di Suvero and asked him to identify the correct color. It’s a custom mix by the paint manufacturer Tnemic dubbed Ulalulu Red, a specific mix created for the artist, which now coats the three-ton work.

Franz West’s Sitzwuste

When they were first installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2000, Austrian artist Franz West’s Sitzwuste sculptures–three sausage-shaped works designed to be sat on–were painted in eye-popping pink, orange and green. West said that with the scatological shape and fluorescent paints, he “wanted to insult the taste of nature.” But perhaps it was nature that did the insulting: The colors couldn’t withstand the sun’s glare.

“His choice of how to paint these pieces failed,” says King. “West wanted to use Day-Glo colors, which just are not UV-fast, so they faded to white–literally within months.”

Franz West, Sitzwuste, 2000

After a series of repaintings over the years, King and Walker curators approached West about selecting new colors, arriving at the more subdued–yet more weather-resistant–hues currently coating the works.

Alexander Calder’s The Spinner

The process of repainting works like Sitzwuste and Molecule is relatively simple, given clear communication between artists, registrar and curators. But how are color changes made when the artist is no longer living? That’s the dilemma faced with an iconic work now installed on the Hennepin Avenue Sculpture Plaza.

The Spinner, a kinetic piece by Alexander Calder, recently was repainted, but the results were still unsatisfactory to King. Two factors have complicated the project: the artist has been dead since 1976, and the paints used on the piece–both the originals specified by Calder in 1966 and the replacement colors indicated by his estate in later years–are no longer in production.

For instance, the original red, called Signcraft Red, is from the Japan Colors line of Ronan paint, a company that has since gone out of business. The replacement paint specified by the artist’s estate, likewise, is no longer manufactured, leaving King with a conundrum. How, with ever-changing environmental standards, can a suitable paint be found that matches the color and gloss Calder intended?

The original paint was “flat as flat can be,” says King, a quality difficult to replicate now that lead, a “terrific flattening agent,” is banned from paint, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are limited in new formulations.

Alexander Calder, The Spinner, 1966Photo: Paul Schmelzer

After working with the paint manufacturer Tnemec to arrive on an acceptable new series of paints to match Calder’s original Signcraft Red, Ultramarine Blue, and Chrome Yellow, the registration department contracted with the commercial outdoor painting company Swanson & Youngdale to have it applied.

But it still didn’t rise to King’s exacting specifications: “It’s shinier than it’s supposed to be,” he said. “It’s annoying.”

He then instructed his team to spray out leftover paint from the job on a sample piece of metal to send back to the manufacturer for analysis. The result: the company had made a mistake in the formulation.

Today, King can hold his drawdowns–metal pieces painted with the original paint to compare new coatings with–up to the sculpture and rest assured he’s finally nailed a match. “I don’t have nightmares about that blue anymore,” he quipped.

Ronan paint samples, with arrows indicatingthe original colors specified by Alexander Calder for The Spinner. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Another element to contend with: Visitors’ memories

While the outdoor conditions of sun, spray, and snow present surmountable challenges for King and his team, there are other conditions–internal ones–he has little power to control: the color-coded memories of sculpture garden visitors. On several occasions, he’s received complaints that, following repainting, beloved sculptures are the wrong color.

“There was an e-mail that came in,” he recalls. “A woman was rather upset that the cherry was ‘dusty maroon.’”

King seems pleased that sculptures like Spoonbridge and Cherry hold such a prominent place in visitor’s minds and hearts. But he pleads for some understanding about the effect of constant moisture on the surface of the work.

“I think people have a tendency to project the color they last saw on it as being original,” he says, adding that the “pink and flat” hue was the result of water streaming from the fountain-sculpture for 18 hours each day. “It’s inevitable for a polyurethane to fade and lose color, or the surface to be covered with minerals when they see it. And that’s what goes into their visual memory.”

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