March 8, 2011 — Alexander Calder's sculpture, "Tripes," returned to the University of Virginia Grounds Tuesday after undergoing an almost-three-month restoration under the supervision of conservator Abigail Mack at a steel foundry in Northern Virginia.
Calder created the 12-foot-tall stabile, or sculpture, in 1974. On loan from the Calder Foundation in New York City, it again graces the lawn in front of Peabody Hall.
Like all works of art – and especially public, outdoor works – "Tripes," which is made of black painted steel, requires some preservation work. The weather had taken its toll and some of the black paint was lifting around the bolts that connect the sculpture's pieces.
The preservation work provided a unique opportunity for students in the College of Arts & Sciences taking art history professor Elizabeth Hutton Turner's seminar on Calder to witness first-hand the process and issues involved in restoration work. They visited the foundry to witness firsthand the restoration process. The sculpture was disassembled and pieces were in various states of restoration. Some were taken down to the bare metal while others were painted and drying.
Calder was constructing a new mechanism for perceiving conjunctions of space and movement in the world.
"What we learned ... is just how precise and beautiful the demand of this kind of mechanism is; namely, that the form and color become one, so that the contours move the eye and interact with the light at all times of the day and that we become cognizant of the forces of movement and gravity that are all around us," said Turner, a Calder expert and vice provost for the arts.
The visit was "essential for understanding Calder's art," she said. "He was working in a new kind of process with new materials. It was an opportunity to gain new insights into how he shaped and used steel. He was creating a new definition of what sculpture is and what it can be."
Educated as an engineer before he studied at the Arts Students League in New York, Calder embraced materials that are ubiquitous today, but were mainly relegated to the building and industrial uses at the time.
"The sculpture is made of materials of our built environment. You come to see that steel can be made to perform all kinds of structural things," Turner said.
Third-year English and art history student Nejla Izadi appreciated "the opportunity to see the work as we normally do not see it," she said.
With the sculpture completely disassembled, each piece suspended – even the nuts and bolts – the students began to glimpse Calder's process and how he thought about the separate elements and their ultimate relationship to each other.
"Seeing the work disassembled, you can see more about how Calder put it together and created the sculpture," third-year art history and economics major Christina Theodore said. "That's important as a student of Calder."
"Restoration is not something you normally hear about in an art history class," Theodore said. "It was a good overview of an important aspect of art history: keeping the works intact."
The students learned about the level of care and detail that goes into restoring a work of art.
When the students met with Mack, the conservator, she talked with them about the chemical process of stripping down the steel and repainting the artwork.
The steel surface was repainted with a durable type of matte paint used for military camouflage that Mack had researched extensively while working at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. She discussed the zinc metalizing and paint adhesion testing involved in the restoration and other science-related issues that had to be considered during the process and helped bring a perspective about what Calder intended when he was creating "Tripes."
"The students witnessed cutting-edge research," Turner said.
Art history doctoral student Jennifer Stettler Parsons assists Turner with various research projects and accompanied the undergraduates on their visit to the foundry. "The worlds of the conservator and the art historian are very different, and yet overlap and inform each other in crucial ways," she said. "Learning the science behind Calder's materials helps us better understand the reasons for his choices."
Calder's choice of a matte black paint for its non-reflective was intentional, Parsons said.
"The matte quality of the paint gives a flatness which allows it to become part of the environment, something a reflective surface would not," she said. "The shapes disappear and reappear as you move around the piece. From a certain angle it almost disappears completely, an illusionary effect Calder no doubt anticipated. Your perception of it is entirely determined by its environment and your relationship to it in space."
Shape, color, plane and line are major parts of the dynamic perceptual experience Calder created, according to Turner. She plans to add a descriptive plaque near the sculpture that will provide insight into Calder's intentions of how the sculpture plays with the natural environment – the sun and moon and the way it encounters light.
"I want people to understand it as a mechanism for seeing and how it becomes a perceptual tool that increases our understanding of the environment," she said.
For Izadi, witnessing the restoration process has already had changed her perception of art. "I had no idea a black metal sculpture had so much behind it. How much effort went into making it look as Calder intended more than 30 years later," she said. "Now when I look at outdoor art, I appreciate all that goes on to preserve it."