Many of the artworks in SFMOMA’s collection have changed since they were first created, perhaps because the artist intended for there to be variation as part of the concept, because the materials have shifted with age, or, in the case of Jean (Hans) Arp’s bronzes, due to the way they’ve been treated by art dealers or owners throughout their histories. Museum conservators are charged with the material care of artworks in their institutions’ collection, and in many cases, this includes grappling with the actions of past caretakers. In these situations, our first step is always to delve a bit deeper to find out if the decisions of those caretakers aligned with the artist’s directives.
SFMOMA has three metal Arp sculptures: Concretion humaine sans coupe (Human Concretion without Oval Bowl, 1933, cast 1961), Seuil aux créneaux végétaux (Threshold with Plant Crenellations, 1959), and Poupée-Basset (Dachshund Doll, 1965). When they first came into the collection, all three had polished surfaces, and that shiny appearance was maintained until the late 1990s, when a better understanding of Arp’s practices emerged. Our research into the artist’s patinas revealed that his sculptures were often intentionally patinated to darken the surfaces and make them less reflective. At that time SFMOMA conservators stopped polishing the sculptures and allowed them to slowly oxidize and become less reflective. This year, 2018, will be a key moment in confronting their histories as we make an active intervention to bring their appearances closer to our understanding of Arp’s concept.
Surviving historical letters and interviews with the artist’s former assistants and wife indicate that Arp did not like brightly polished surfaces for his sculptures, particularly for midsize and larger works. He felt that shiny surfaces interfered with the perception of the sculpture’s form, as the object’s depth and contours are less clear when the viewer can see their own reflection.
Arp’s preferred patinas were silky, thin, and slowly built up, sometimes through outdoor exposure. There is a fair amount of variation among his known original patinas—some can be reddish brown or dark brown, others green over dark brown. This variation is explained by the composition of the metal alloy as well as different environmental conditions, for instance if a piece was kept outside.
No matter the color, Arp preferred very thin patinas that allow the tone of the metal to come through, giving a sense of it as a material. André Mounier, Arp’s assistant from 1958 to 1966, described the artist’s technique for patination as follows:
The patina solution was prepared from a sulfur containing stone found in the city of Barèges, a small town in the Pyrenees known for its mineral baths. The stone was dissolved in water and the solution diluted until it became a dark brown color. The solution was applied in one pass using a cotton cloth because touching the same area twice would lift off the layer of patina and/or leave marks.1
Although Arp preferred a less reflective patina, the tastes of the American market at the time ultimately shaped the appearance of his works. By the mid-twentieth century, many American clients expressed a desire for a more “modern” look, in part inspired by the popularity of Constantin Brancusi’s gleaming works, which led dealers to polish Arp sculptures to meet popular demand.
At least two galleries representing Arp are known to have polished his works with steel mesh pads and kitchen cleanser. To our knowledge, at least one sculpture was sold during Arp’s lifetime (he died in 1966) without the application of a chemical patina, even though we suspect the artist would have vigorously objected. In a 1962 letter to a gallery regarding an imminent sale, Arp’s second wife, Marguerite Hagenbach-Arp, wrote:
[The sculpture has] a high polish, as your client seems to wish it, which we find atrocious and which Arp has not seen, he would get furious, but François [Arp’s brother] wanted to fulfill your wish, and so I close my eyes, because unfortunately I know that other American collectors themselves destroy our carefully created patinas with a “mirror” type!2
This comment indicates that not only were the artist’s clearly stated preferences sometimes disregarded, but he was at times intentionally kept in the dark when unpatinated works were sold.
In fall 2018, SFMOMA will loan Concretion humaine sans coupe to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for its Arp retrospective exhibition. In preparation, we recently examined the work to ensure that it was in presentable condition, an opportunity that served as the impetus to revisit our understanding of Arp’s patinas. We examined two other casts of the same sculpture in Germany and Switzerland that still have their original patinas. Working closely with our curatorial colleagues in the paintings and sculpture department, we also reached out to the curator organizing the exhibition; the Stiftung Arp (the artist’s foundation); and Hauser and Wirth, the gallery that represents Arp, for advice and guidance. After much discussion, we decided to repatinate the sculpture before shipping it to Dallas. This in turn inspired us to take a closer look at our other two Arp sculptures, both of which we ultimately decided to repatinate as well. Although we had long since ceased our practice of polishing the sculptures—a step in the right direction—the works required specific treatment to make them look the way Arp intended.
Repatination is a major intervention and fairly unusual for a museum to undertake, particularly for indoor sculptures. We decided to work with the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State, as they are renowned for working collaboratively with artists to produce very fine quality works.
Poupée-Basset was selected to go first due to the relative simplicity of its form and small size. It was originally made at the Godard Foundry in Paris and is the first cast in an edition of three.
In November 2017 the sculpture traveled to Walla Walla with Michelle Barger, SFMOMA’s head of conservation, and was treated over two days. Contemporary patineurs no longer apply patinas in the same way as Mounier did with his washes of dissolved stone, but after multiple tests on bronze tiles, the Walla Walla patineurs were able to create an appearance that we think is very close Arp’s preferences. Their layered process involved heating up the sculpture and then alternating various chemical sprays with washes of water.
This treatment was a great education for us in contemporary patination processes, and the experience prepared us well for treating our other two Arp sculptures, which will happen this spring. While Concretion humaine sans coupe and Seuil aux créneaux végétaux are familiar sights in our galleries, Poupée-Basset has never been shown until now.
At long last, this work appears the way we think Arp would have wanted, and it can be viewed on Floor 2 in Open Ended.