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Thursday, June 1 • 4:00pm - 4:30pm
(Objects) “Do what’s right”: The conservation of a David Hammons mud sculpture

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"Do what's right,” said the artist, without looking at the sculpture or asking what treatment we proposed. During a surprise visit to MoMA's conservation studio, the infamously laconic artist David Hammons uttered these three words that encapsulate decades' worth of conservation theory and ethical debates. What does it mean to do the right thing in art conservation? The 28-inch tall, unbaked clay sculpture with wire, human hair, and black-eyed peas presents a plethora of conservation concerns. In 2013, MoMA acquired the sculpture in what appeared to be a deteriorated and unstable state. It required a Plexiglas® bonnet for its inaugural exhibition at the museum in 2015. As the work was being de-installed from that exhibition, a small piece of clay fell from the sculpture and landed on its base. This event, in addition to the work's condition, led us to question its overall structural stability and basic conservation maintenance. An interview conducted with Hammons yielded some helpful information, but left us with even more questions. When asked how involved the museum should be in order to conserve the piece, Hammons deferred to the conservators: "they are the professionals.” However, he went on to say that, "if they do too much it will not have the spirit." But how do conservators ascertain "the spirit” of an object without assistance from the artist? If we do nothing and the piece falls apart, how much spirit will remain then? How far can we go to save "the spirit” without losing it? Without the artist's explicit guidance, distinguishing between his intentions and the natural deterioration of the sculpture's inherently fragile materials was challenging. However, finding a solution that would stabilize the work without diminishing its spirit was a challenge that we eagerly accepted. To protect the spirit we needed to attempt to define it, which we did by combining tools such as X-Radiography and technical facsimiles and research into the artist's oeuvre. Hammon's artistic practice combines bits of street flotsam and debris that in a way responds to the urban society to which Hammons is attuned. As an African American artist he also relates his work to African traditions and spiritually protective sculpture. In the end, our desire to respect the artist's wishes and to follow our own instincts to "do what's right” in preserving the work for future exhibition and study guided our treatment decisions. So, did we "do what's right?” As with most conservation treatments, universal agreements are unlikely. Opinions and trends in art conservation are often conflicting, and a single conservator could choose to treat an object in a number of ways depending on the circumstances. When David Hammons instructed us to "do what's right,” we were not sure if he knew what he was asking. But then again, maybe he did.

avatar for Sasha Alexandra Drosdick

Sasha Alexandra Drosdick

MSc Student in Conservation Studies, University College London in Qatar
Sasha Drosdick is currently finishing the last year of her MSc in Conservation Studies at University College London Qatar. From April through July, she was a graduate intern in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture conservation department. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art... Read More →

avatar for Roger Griffith

Roger Griffith

Associate Conservator, Museum of Modern Art
Roger Griffith is an Associate Sculpture Conservator at The Museum of Modern Art since 1998. He received his MA from the Royal College of Art/ Victoria & Albert Museum London England in 1997. Prior to MoMA he was an inter/fellow at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation... Read More →
avatar for Lynda Zycherman

Lynda Zycherman

Conservator, Museum of Modern Art
Lynda Zycherman is Conservator of Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art. She received a BA from the City College of New York, an MA in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and the Advanced Certificate in Art Conservation from the Conservation Center, Institute... Read More →

Thursday June 1, 2017 4:00pm - 4:30pm CDT
Crystal Ballroom B Lobby Level, West Tower