After speaking with Tiffany Shea in the registrar’s office about identifying objects by number at museums, I knew that I’d see a sticker on the back of this Theodore Robinson painting, currently in storage. What I did not expect was eight stickers. It was a veritable passport for Valley of the Seine, Giverny.
In a glance, I could track its travel all over the world as part of exhibitions. There was even a sticker belonging to a gallery that once owned it. Before seeing these stickers, I had only really considered the meaning of the front side of a painting—of the actual art. For the first time, looking at the back of the Robinson, I considered the flipside—the history of the painting itself, and how each of the places the painting has been adds to its legacy.
As I mentioned yesterday, seeing the “tracking numbers” painted on the back of sculptures at the Hermitage left me with a few questions about the practice of ID’ing art, and associate registrar Tiffany Shea has lent her insight on the topic. As she told me, there are many methods of marking art depending upon the medium, the advances in marking technologies, and the procedures for each institution. All works are marked where they would be least seen when viewing the work straight on. (Of course, there’s no accounting for people like me who circle sculptures, then snap pictures of the back of them.) A few recordkeeping guidelines:
2-D works on paper are usually marked with a soft pencil on the back of the work.
Paintings have a sticker affixed to the backside of the frame.
Textile works have their number written on a piece of cloth which is then sewn on to its underside (if it is a carpet, for example) or its inside (like the inside of a sleeve or collar).
The last method of marking involves writing the object number with an archival pen onto a transparent protective barrier that is painted onto the art. Small 3-D works like chairs and vases will have their number written on the bottom or underside of the work.
Larger or heavier works which can’t be lifted or tilted may be marked on the back side of the work at the bottom edge. Of course some objects are intended to be viewed from all sides or are made of clear or sensitive materials, so marking these works would not be beneficial to their aesthetics or preservation. In those cases, a paper tag with the object’s number can be tied to the work by string (very old school!) or, if the work is too small or unusual to mark successfully, the bin in which the artwork is stored is labeled. Another option is taking a photograph of a small object, like the earrings below, which is placed in a small baggie with the object’s number on it.
Tiffany took me into a couple of storage areas for the photographs above but the most interesting to me was certainly seeing the back of a painting. I’ll share that experience with you tomorrow.
Last month I fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. When I was there, I noticed a number of large notations applied directly on the backs of some of the sculptures on view.
Marks like those pictured above are used for recordkeeping purposes at museums, but these seemed particularly bold to me. When I returned to Los Angeles, I asked Tiffany Shea in our registrar’s office about what I saw, and her responses were so interesting that we thought we’d do a short series about keeping tabs on a museum’s permanent collection.
To kick things off, a little background on museum recordkeeping. The system itself of writing collection numbers on artworks stems from a time well before photography. (Imagine—no websites to determine what was in a storeroom or even hard copies of images to reference in files.) Not surprisingly, each and every artwork in a museum’s collection must be marked with its own number so that it can easily be identified, tracked, and located in perpetuity. These marks are often used to signify good provenance (ownership history) of the artwork and can thus increase the value of the work itself. Some numbers refer to important, old European private collections while others refer to exhibitions at prestigious exhibitions to which the artworks were lent. Still others refer to the year an object was brought into a museum’s collection, or “accessioned,” as we like to call it.
So, back to those sculptures I noticed at the Hermitage. Tiffany told me that what I saw is common practice, and that the style of marking is bolder at some museums than at others. I was fascinated to learn that at other museums, older markings were sometimes even made using red nail polish that was painted directly on the objects. With advances in modern conservation work, museums now use a removable and protective barrier coat between the artwork and the number, which is applied in very small numbers in a discreet location. Thus art is identified but not damaged in the process.
Now we know about the markings on the back of those sculptures. But what about other objects, like furniture or textiles? And prints and paintings? How do we bestow those with IDs? We’ll tell you tomorrow.
Here’s a suggestion for a good double-feature on Saturday: come to LACMA in the afternoon to take in Your Bright Future for the first or last time—it closes on Sunday—and then stick around in the evening for the Los Angeles premiere of Night and Day, the new film from Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. This will be the conclusion of an eight-film retrospective of Hong’s films (tonight: Turning Gate and Tale of Cinema). Best of all, Hong will be in attendance for a Q&A after the film.
To whet your appetite, here are a couple peeks at the film. First, the trailer:
Second, a short news report that ran when the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, giving you a bit more of an idea what the film is about:
Hélio Oiticica is one of the most important Brazilian artists of his generation. In the 1950s, he was part of the Grupo Frente, a circle of abstract artists whose work was based on European constructivist movements. He later joined the short-lived neo-concrete movement in Rio de Janeiro, which emphasized the value of experiencing a work of art over artistic theory—a subject that Oiticica continued to explore throughout his career. Profoundly interested in color and space, in the 1960s he invented his series of penetrables, chromatic and dynamic environments meant to be experienced by the viewer who penetrates them. After moving to a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, where he became a lead samba dancer, Oiticica made ephemeral three-dimensional installations based on the housing of those communities. These architecturally scaled structures are intended to be traversed bodily and experienced by all the senses.
Hélio Oiticica, "Nas quebradas," 1979, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, JoAnn Busuttil, the American Art Deaccession Fund, and anonymous donors
In 2004 I traveled with former contemporary art curator Lynn Zelevansky to Brazil. One of our main priorities during the trip was to acquire a group of works by Oiticica for the collection. We spent several days with the Oiticica estate looking at a selection of works—an exhilarating experience. During the trip we acquired Nas quebradas, which at the time consisted only of a set of instructions outlined by Oiticica on how to build the work, all neatly packed in an envelope that we brought back with us to the museum. Nas quebradas was first installed by Oiticica in 1979—it is one of a few large-scale projects that he was able to construct before his untimely death in 1980. This past week, with the help of the estate, we rebuilt Oiticica’s penetrable. The work is made of the same cheap materials of the hundreds of shanty town houses scattered throughout Rio: bricks, gravel, corrugated roofing, chicken wire, yellow vinyl, and burlap. Viewers are invited to walk into the piece and experience it. The work is mysterious as it twists and turns, intimidating in its use of unstable materials… and so undeniably beautiful.