In conjunction with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Calder: Hypermobility (June 9 – Oct 23, 2017), I had the opportunity to collaborate on the art conservation treatment of a few of Alexander Calder’s motorized artworks with Reinhard Bek (Bek & Frohnert LLC Conservation of Contemporary Art) and Alexander “Sandy” S. C. Rower (President of the Calder Foundation). Among other artworks in the exhibition, the group of motorized artworks from 1931–41, which I think of as kinetic paintings, stand between Calder’s abstract paintings and mobiles. For more on Calder’s development, see the Calder Foundation’s website (Calder Foundation/Calder’s Work/Life Period). The artworks employ electric motors, drive belts, worm gears, and cog wheels to activate elements in front of a panel. The Calder Foundation did extensive research on the original display of these works and confirmed they were hung like paintings, vertically with the motors attached to the back. While displayed behind the panels, the motors and associated mechanisms were often designed to be accessed, and thus seen, from the sides. Because of this, it was essential that the mechanical systems were in keeping with the age and appearance of the artwork, meaning that modern looking motors would be distracting. A study of the mechanical systems revealed an ingenious yet modest assemblage of materials used to create the kinetic movement. In places there is evidence of adjustments (shims, makeshift tensioning, and cushioning materials), all to further perfect the artworks’ movement. Additionally, since many of these artworks had not been functioning for many decades and no recording or video is known, the “adjusting” gives clues as to the rate and character of the movement. For example, a revived artwork entitled Square (or Green Panel) was set in motion for the first time in decades by bringing the stalled historic motor back to working condition. This provided an understanding into the reasons behind the existence of seemingly rogue nails, the purpose of the rubber padding under the motor, and a curious handcoiled steel wire. The coiled wire provided the spring necessary to coax the white and black disc element (seen on the front) back up from its more prone position through its ballet-like movement without stuttering or stalling.
In order for the artworks to function, all materials need to be in working order. This is absolutely essential since the movement of the elements is the very essence of the art. As mentioned, the materials that make up the mechanical system mostly date from the 1930s. While some are relatively durable, being made of metal and wood, others are less durable being made of leather, rubber, and fabric-encased electrical cords. This necessitated exchanging some organic materials that were too fragile to operate or, in other cases, the full replacement of materials that are now missing. Black rubber bands, for instance, that were used as tensioners were long ago degraded. For art conservation, a field that is ethically bound to value the preservation of original materials, replacement and refurbishment is a bold step, yet it became clear that it is the only option to appreciate the artwork. Furthermore, running the artwork intentionally puts the materials in jeopardy, risking wear and even breakage. The conflict between preservation and appreciation is a curious dynamic that, for me, heightens the focus on movement initially conceived by Calder.
While correlations exist with other types of artworks by Calder, such as painted outdoor sculpture or sound sculptures, the implication of refurbishment is not so explicit as with the motorized works. Close collaboration, many times elbow to elbow, on the conservation of these artworks between Sandy Rower, Reinhard Bek, and myself was essential to their success. In the end, a balance of restoration, refurbishment, and conservation was undertaken to create an authentic replication of the artworks’ movement—a blend of an intimate understanding of Calder’s intent, a keen understanding of mechanical systems from the 1930s and 1940s, and traditional structural and surface conservation treatment.
The motorized artworks are run under the supervision of trained museum personnel on a schedule throughout the duration of the exhibition.