Museum of Art seeks help restoring two artworks

PULLMAN – The Museum of Art at Washington State University is seeking public donations to help restore two significant pieces of modern American art by internationally recognized artist Eva Hesse.

One of the two pieces, entitled “Stratum,” is currently on display in the museum as part of the exhibit “Art & Context: the ’50s and ’60s,” which runs through Dec. 15.

Donated to WSU in 1977 by Anne Gerber, a Seattle philanthropist who is now deceased, Hesse’s “Stratum” and “Sans I” (1967-68) have deteriorated to the point they must be conserved immediately if they are to be permanently exhibitable.

The museum intends to restore the works through conservation treatment, preservation and analysis at the Elise S. Haas Conservation Studio at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

According to the Lucy Lippard monograph on Hesse, “Stratum and Sans I” were last known to be in the collection of Gerber, but were “No longer in existence.”

“The importance of ‘Stratum’ is that it represented a bridge between painting and sculpture during the historically significant 1960s,” said Museum of Art Director Chris Bruce.

Hesse died of brain cancer in 1970 at the age of 34. In the later stages of her short artistic career (1960-1970), she experimented with nontraditional materials and techniques to creating sculpture. The two pieces received by the museum were made using natural latex rubber. The condition report done at the time of the donation noted that the two pieces were already beginning to degrade.

Oxidation is the main enemy of natural rubber. The first step towards stabilization has been to place the works in secure environments. At SFMOMA, testing would add to the body of knowledge of what happens to rubber over time. Work would then begin toward the final configuration of the pieces, which would include lining the pieces, consolidating and repairing cracks and tears, re-attaching pieces that have become separated and re-enforcing grommets. Mounts for each piece would be fabricated to reduce handling of the works between storage, travel and display.

Museum of Art Curator Keith Wells said “What has happened to these works of art has happened with many of the fragile sculptures by Hesse, after going into collections, they were stored and their condition tracked. Eventually, most are deemed unexhibitable, never to be seen by the public again.”

Hesse’s work with unique materials such as fiberglass, papier-mâché, rope and latex presents manifold challenges to conservators and curators alike.

“With such works, the museum field faces a series of questions,” said Bruce. “If the artist intentionally used fugitive materials, what is in the best interest of these sculptures and the legacy of the artist? What is in the best interest of the students, scholars and public, now and in the future, for their understanding of the artist? When is a work of art no longer a work of art? If the original intention of the artist is no longer present, but you still have something that is visually interesting, how do you present that?”

These artistic concerns were shaped by Hesse’s sensitivity to disparate materials. An SFMOMA website release on Hesse states, “In all of her works, the artist explored the tensions between order and chaos, rigidity and pliability, geometric and biomorphic form, series and singularity, and continuity and change. Associated with both the conceptual and minimalist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Hesse’s primary interests lay in the organic, the absurd, and the irrational.”

“This restoration effort is intended to preserve the arts for future generations,” said Associate Museum Director Anna-Maria Shannon. “We must be mindful of our responsibilities as guardians of the public trust – these works are part of that trust. Efforts to repair these sculptures demonstrate the museum’s continued commitment to conserve culturally significant works of art for the people of Washington state.”

To make a donation to help conserve these special works of art, contact the Museum of Art/WSU at (509) 335-1910. Visit the WSU Museum of Art website at: www.wsu.edu/artmuse.

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