Alight Anew in Indian Yellow

March 19, 2012

Conservator John Hirx immersed in Jesús Rafael Soto's Penetrabile, 1990.

The Jesús Rafael Soto sculpture, Penetrabile, a favorite of visitors posting to Flickr, has a new look. The piece invites one to plunge into the colorful soft plastic tubing and regard the world from within a forest of glowing color.

Head objects conservator John Hirx recently oversaw the transformation of the piece. The original chartreuse tubing was replaced with new tubing in a shade that one of John’s colleagues described as “Indian yellow.” (Conservators are precise about such things, and John notes by way of historical interest that the term “Indian yellow” is derived from a color popular in traditional Indian miniature painting made by feeding mango leaves to cows, then collecting and drying their urine to extract the pigment—today, the pigment is synthetic, as the original method was hazardous to the cows. The tubes are not made with this pigment, but the color is a close approximation.)

Exchanging all of the tubes was no small task. John estimates that the piece requires 20,000 linear feet of the specially manufactured plastic tubing, and a complete back up set is on hand to facilitate ongoing maintenance. There are between 2,000 and 2,500 tubes suspended from the overhead grid. It took two teams working 2.5 full days just to swap out the tubes, each of which was precut to the perfect length to rest lightly on the ground, resulting in a gentle bend that catches the light. John noted that, right now, between about 11 am and 1 pm, when the sun passes across the sky overhead, those tubes sparkle and glisten in the midday sunlight.

Penetrabile, on loan from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, is on view on the LA Times Central Court at LACMA for at least another year.

Amy Heibel


What’s Your Sign? Installation of Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads

August 18, 2011

The twelve monumental bronze sculptures from Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads arrived at LACMA earlier this week. LACMA’s art preparation and installation teams have been working hard to unpack and wake these sleeping giants–some of which weigh nearly a ton.

The animals arrived two by two...

Unfastening the first of the sculptures--the ram.

Four installers plus one crane slowly lift the ram.

Repeat x 12

Ta-da!

Next step is to unwrap and place the sculptures into position.

The dragon, snake, and horse stand tall next to the Resnick Pavilion, awaiting the arrival of their zodiac counterparts.

Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads opens this Saturday at LACMA. A general admission ticket is not needed to see the work, so come by, take a picture in front of your zodiac sign, and enjoy the magnitude of these brilliant sculptures.

Alex Capriotti

Photos by Yosi Pozeilov


Magnificent Octahedrons Get Dusty Too

August 15, 2011

Passing through the Ahmanson Building atrium the other day, I came across senior conservator John Hirx in his lab coat. He was slinging what, from afar, looked like Buddhist prayer flags over Tony Smith’s monumental Smoke. The multicolored pieces of cloth dangled from the 8-sided modules that make up the sculpture, which rises 24 feet into the air. John explained that he was dusting the piece.

Conservator John Hirx at work.

Conservation technology at LACMA is state-of-the-art science; one prominent project (Watts Towers) includes a method utilizing “a 10% solution of Paraloid B72 in Toluene”, and it’s not unusual for conservators to speak this kind of Vulcan. But John got his materials at Pep Boys auto parts shop. He was proud to let me know that all three types of cloth included in his homegrown dusting apparatus came in a single jumbo pack for just $3.99. He attached them using a sewing machine in the conservation storage lab, and intended to wash them afterwards in the lab’s own washer/dryer.

Mark Gilberg, director of the conservation center, hastened to point out that the three types of cleaning cloth included in the Pep Boys jumbo pack do have just the right unique physical qualities required to dust the monumental work of art: a smooth chamois, a soft terry of medium texture, and a shaggy number with long fibers.  This combination of textures designed for washing your car just happens to be perfect for cleaning the painted aluminum surfaces of Smith’s masterpiece.

Amy Heibel


David Smith: Lineage

April 5, 2011

Working on the exhibition David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy over the past six years has caused me to muse more than once on “lineage”—the many relationships each of us has to history.  Let me explain.

Renowned American sculptor David Smith (who was born in 1906) briefly attended the University of Notre Dame and worked one summer at the Studebaker automobile factory, both in South Bend, Indiana.  I was born and grew up in South Bend and my father was on the faculty at Notre Dame.  Pure coincidence, but it makes me feel connected, a part of a historical trajectory.

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy is the first major exhibition on the West Coast devoted to this outstanding sculptor in over forty-five years.  The last one, also at LACMA, opened in November of 1965.  It was organized by Maurice Tuchman, who was the head of my curatorial department (then known as Twentieth-Century Art) when I first arrived at the museum as a curatorial assistant in 1984.  Another personal link in a historical chain.

cover, David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition, published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965

The two exhibitions are very different, however.  Cubes and Anarchy is a thematic exhibition—including not only Smith’s sculptures but also his drawings, paintings, and photographs—tracing the sculptor’s use of geometry from the very first years of his career in the early 1930s to his unexpected death in 1965.  LACMA’s 1965 show, by contrast, started out as an exhibition of then-recent large-scale sculptures—a dozen from the Cubi series and two from the Zig series—all made between 1961 and 1965.  On May 23, 1965, in the midst of the preparations for that show, Smith was killed in a car accident at age 59.  As a result, the show became David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition.  As Anne M. Wagner writes in the Cubes and Anarchy catalogue, “The [1965] catalogue…took up the task of mourning, its cover speaking…of tragic martyrdom, and its concluding photograph—the artist’s welding helmet, still sitting where he had left it in the studio—offering a more subtle and immediate evocation of bodily loss.”

Since 1965 David Smith has ascended into the artistic pantheon, not only of great American artists but of all great artists.  So, for the art historian and curator—for me, that is—as well as for the visitor to Cubes and Anarchy, the sense of a personal connection to this remarkable artist is now enhanced by a broader cultural perspective.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art


Installing David Smith: Q&A with Brenda Levin of Levin and Associates Architects

March 30, 2011

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy opens at LACMA this Sunday (on view starting tomorrow for members). Curator Carol S. Eliel calls Smith one of the greatest American sculptors of the twentieth century—we’ll have more from Carol next week on Unframed. First, we asked Brenda Levin of Levin and Associates Architects for a sneak peek at her design for the installation.

David Smith installation at LACMA

In what ways did Smith’s work inspire your design?

Our design was inspired by Smith’s own exploration of space and form. He often layered the placement of his sculptures in relation to each other to create a new art form through photography and what he called collages in space.


Geometry is an important theme in this exhibition. Does it play a role in the installation design as well?

Smith wanted to exaggerate and exploit the pictorial quality of his geometric sculptures when he placed them in groups. We attempted to replicate that experience.

The scrims are a notable feature of the design. How are they intended to affect the visitor’s experience?

The scrims, in effect, create the context of landscape, sky, and light that Smith used to explore these techniques of producing three-dimensional collages, documented in his photography and drawings. We looked at these same
ideas through the use of the translucent scrims in a naturally lit space, creating the illusion of sculptures layered in space.

After having such intimate access to Smith’s work, what’s your impression? Anything you would suggest a visitor look out for?

Make sure you study the photos and drawings… they are a wonderful surprise.

Photos courtesy of Yosi Pozeilov


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