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Thursday, June 1 • 10:30am - 11:00am
(Book & Paper) Sidewalks, Circles and Stars: Reviving the Legacy of Sari Dienes

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History is being re-written to include critical artists that have been forgotten over time. Conservators play an important role in the revitalization of neglected objects that exemplify such visionaries. Sari Dienes is an unsung, yet pivotal, female artist of the 20th century. She was an innovative artist who countered self-expressive Abstract Expressionism with images of found objects stemming from an acute awareness of her environment. She created large-scale rubbings, often over 12 feet in length, on a medical material called Webril. Jasper Johns recalled her uninhibited nature as she unrolled the Webril in the streets of New York City and transferred the textures of manhole covers and subway grates with an inked brayer in the early hours of the morning. Both Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were greatly inspired by Dienes, describing her as a principal influence. After Dienes introduced the two, Johns and Rauschenberg collaborated on installations of the Bonwit Teller department store windows to include Dienes' sidewalk rubbing series along with one of Johns' flag paintings and one of Rauschenberg's first combines. Despite her impact, museums did not invest in Dienes' work in the 20th century. However, friends of Dienes recognized her significance and conceived the Sari Dienes Foundation in New York. There, her rubbings and sculptures, works in process, materials, and archives are housed with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, many of Dienes' most important pieces have deteriorated and become too fragile to be considered for acquisition or exhibition by many institutions. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently acquired two rubbings by Sari Dienes, one of which appears in photographs of the Bonwit Teller windows designed by Johns and Rauschenberg. Sadly, both pieces suffered numerous condition problems rendering them unfit for exhibition. These seminal pieces were not acquired in spite of their condition, but because the museum hoped to right certain wrongs of time. The delicate Webril supports were creased, torn and lacked physical integrity. Numerous spots, stains and accretions were scattered throughout due to corrosive staples, acidic housing materials and poor storage conditions. One piece was mounted to canvas which further contributed to unsightly discoloration, planar distortions and physical insecurity. The novelty, scale, translucency and fragility of the objects demanded innovation throughout the project. A collaboration between Samantha Sheesley, VMFA Paper Conservator, Sarah Eckhardt, VMFA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Barbara Pollitt, Curator of the Sari Dienes Foundation, identified key questions surrounding the artist's work. The goal of the investigation was to better understand Dienes' materials and techniques through analysis of the objects and contextual clues found in the archives. The pooled information guided stabilization and compensation efforts culminating in the display of objects previously thought to be unsalvageable. As Dienes claims her rightful spot on the walls of museums and in the records of art history, this timely endeavor honors her philosophy and aesthetic while restoring and preserving the artifacts crafted by her hand. The VMFA's findings will benefit multiple institutions, conservators and scholars as interest in Sari Dienes work heightens through various exhibitions worldwide.

avatar for Samantha Sheesley, [PA]

Samantha Sheesley, [PA]

Paper Conservator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Samantha Sheesley was hired in 2015 as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' first Paper Conservator. Sheesley has established the paper conservation department, purchased equipment, and defined and implemented best practices for the preservation of works on paper at the VMFA. Prior to... Read More →

Thursday June 1, 2017 10:30am - 11:00am CDT
Regency A-B Ballroom Level, West Tower