One on One: Michelle Barger on Robert Overby
Alongside our weekly in-gallery curator “One on One” talks, we post regular ‘one on one’ bits from curators & staff on a particular work or exhibition they’re interested in. Follow the series here. This week and next, Michelle Barger, SFMOMA deputy head of conservation, & Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, assistant curator of architecture and design, together take on Robert Overby’s Hall painting, first floor.
Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: I was so excited to learn that Robert Overby’s large latex rubber cast of Hall painting, first floor from 1971 would be on view, because I had been working on an exhibition proposal that would incorporate this work that, to my knowledge, had not been on view at SFMOMA since it was acquired in 2003. When the One on One opportunity came up, I knew I wanted to talk about this piece, but only recently noticed that Michelle Barger, Deputy Head of Conservation, has also selected this piece. As luck would have it, the talks were scheduled one week apart: a great opportunity to highlight on the blog the many different interpretations and voices within an institution on a single work of art.
Michelle, we know that Hall painting, first floor was a cast from the Barclay House, which was a recently burned and abandoned building in Los Angeles. As a conservator, what do you think of Overby’s attempt to preserve an imprint of house surely slated for demolition?
Michelle Barger: It’s interesting to explore Overby’s Barclay project as a sort of preservation project. I often think of the surfaces of Hall painting, first floor as topography maps—literally a one-to-one record of every hill and valley in the flaking paint and loose plaster. In the field of conservation, we are always attempting to document the life of a work of art: what are the materials, how did the artist manipulate them and create the work of art, what are the best display conditions, are those conditions variable, how will the materials age, and is this acceptable, etc. It’s interesting to think of Hall painting, first floor in the way one can think of documentation for performance art—a record that proves or confirms that an event existed and happened. It becomes a second-hand version of the real thing. But in this case, one can consider Overby’s documentation as the performance.
JDF: I imagine that the fashion for entropy in artworks from the 1960s and 70s can complicate a conservator’s role in preserving a work that is supposed to “fade away’ eventually, especially if it is a valuable work in a museum collection. In contrast, Overby appears to be attempting to capture the house before its demise, yet the material—latex rubber—used for the casts must be particularly hard to maintain, especially as it is embedded with bits from the house—the paint, plaster and even charred wood. How do you treat such a piece? Are the artist’s intentions taken into consideration, even when there is no documented conservation plan from the artist?
MB: The conservation staff here is very committed to understanding artists’ intent for their work; we consider this information to be an integral part of developing a preservation plan for works in the collection. Yet, as you note, we don’t always have the luxury of knowing an artist’s thoughts for how a work should age over time, particularly when the artist is no longer alive. In such cases, we may work with our curators, colleagues at other institutions who are familiar with the artist’s work, and family members and studio assistants to better comprehend the best course for treatment.
On the subject of Overby’s material specifically, we were fortunate to have spent many hours studying and examining the work of Eva Hesse—so much of her later sculptural work incorporated latex rubber—in preparation for our 2002 retrospective of her work. During the subsequent tour of the exhibit to Wiesbaden, Germany, and London, I had the wonderful privilege of handling and installing her work, and observing the qualities and limits of aged latex rubber. One very basic thing I learned is that you can extend the life of an artwork made with rubber by simply storing it in the exact configuration in which it is displayed. In other words, rubber will eventually become hardened and brittle, causing the work to “freeze” in whatever position it happens to be in at that point in time. Many of Overby’s rubber wall paintings from the Barclay House are so large that they must be stored rolled on a cylinder—in much the same way that large tapestries or rugs are stored. Luckily, Hall painting, first floor is small enough that we can store it completely flat and still fit the crate into our freight elevator, through gallery doorways, and into storage.
As for the bits of paint, plaster, charred wood—and even a telephone wire—in this work, they are remarkably well-adhered to the rubber surface. Flexing of the work during handling and installation could compromise this, especially as the rubber continues to become more brittle. But we’ve worked out an excellent system where the storage crate also serves as a tray to support the work when moving it from a horizontal to vertical position.
I’ll be speaking about Hall painting, first floor in a One on One talk this Thursday the 29th at 6:30, and will specifically address the challenges we face in preserving works made from latex rubber. I’ll bring some show-and-tell items—including some samples of rubber and cheesecloth panels—so please come on by!