Friday, March 20, 2009

MOORE or less

Billy Apple has never been one to shy away from controversy. The last time he used public sculpture as subject matter (or in the case of The Wrestlers, the absence of it) a good number of people in Wanganui, appropriately, lost it. Now Apple is going to take a swipe at Henry Moore’s Bronze Form that stands in the Wellington Botanic Garden. From what we have read, it seems that Apple intended to have the work’s protective coating removed, hence the title of his One Day Sculpture event, Less is Moore. It also lines up with his cleaning themed exhibition due to open to the public at the Adam Art Gallery on the same day. We say intended because we have now heard that Apple will not be stripping the protective coating but hiding the sculpture with a billboard.

That certainly makes more sense, in conservation terms anyway. It is hard to imagine any conservator in New Zealand who would be bold enough to agree to remove the protective covering from Bronze Form in one day and then walk away leaving it unprotected. There is afterall a virtual industry around the protection of Moore’s many sculptures located around the world.

For instance once a year the National Gallery in Washington “completes an intensive maintenance treatment that preserves the artist's vision and protects the sculpture from the detrimental effects of an outdoor environment “ by rewaxing its Moore sculpture. You can read a description for cleaning and removing the protective layer (“In order to treat every inch of the sculpture, at least six people must work a minimum of three days”) from the National Gallery’s Moore sculpture Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece here, and details on the rewaxing of the J Paul Getty Museum’s version of Bronze Form here.

It appears that to these institutions and their experts that patina is not something that arbitrarily builds up over time, but rather the term used to describe the finish established by the artist when a sculpture is first completed. This patina is then protected from the elements and corrosion. Henry Moore himself was famously hazy on the effects of weather on bronze and his lasses-faire approach was debated at length at the 1995 London conservation conference From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture and his opinions on the effects of weather on bronze have become an historical footnote in the light of contemporary conservation practice. Like other Henry Moore's the world over, Wellington’s Bronze Form was waxed by an institutional conservator and is probably long overdue for a clean and a new coating.

Bronze Form is a bit of an oddity. Made in the last couple of years of Moore’s life, it is one of three elements that initially made up the monumental sculpture Large Figure in a Shelter. Moore never saw the work cast or the patina selected by his one-time studio assistant (1936-39), sculptor Bernard Meadows (himself 70 at the time), who oversaw the work’s production. There are two copies of the complete sculpture – one at the Henry Moore Foundation and another at the Peace Park in Guernica – plus three other stand-alone forms including the one we have already mentioned at the Getty in Los Angeles.
Image: Left Wellington’s Bronze form waits its turn. Top right, Getty Museum conservators clean Henry Moore’s Bronze Form cotton bud style while below conservators give the Washington Moore its annual rewaxing.