Variable States

Intention, Appearance and Interpretation in Modern Sculpture
The Nasher marked its first anniversary with an interdisciplinary conference focused on issues of interpretation and meaning surrounding the variability of physical states in modern sculpture. Co-organized with the J. Paul Getty Museum and funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust, the conference brought together over 130 art historians, conservators and curators for a fruitful exchange of ideas and information.

The conference explored the following issues:

  • How multiple casts and mutable physical states influence perception and interpretation of a work’s basic character and meaning.
  • Artistic intent toward change in a work’s appearance.
  • Appropriate conservation in light of artistic intent and change.

Initial meetings to plan the Variable States conference began in the fall of 2002 at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Participants in early discussions included Raymond Nasher and Steven A. Nash from the Nasher Sculpture Center and Barry Munitz, Peggy Fogelman and Claire Fronville from the J. Paul Getty Trust and J. Paul Getty Museum. In subsequent meetings, discussions expanded to include other members of both institutions.

Under the direction of Steven A. Nash and Peggy Fogelman, a conference advisory committee was formed including preeminent scholars and conservators in the field of modern sculpture. The committee included: Malcolm Baker (Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum; Professor, University of Southern California; and Special Advisor, Getty Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance), James Coddington (Chief Conservator, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Penelope Curtis (Curator, Henry Moore Institute), Peggy Fogelman (Assistant Director for Education, J. Paul Getty Museum), Pamela Franks (Curator of Education, Nasher Sculpture Center), Carol Mancusi-Ungaro (Founding Director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard University Museums; and Director of Conservation, Whitney Museum of American Art), Steven A. Nash (Director, Nasher Sculpture Center), Derek Pullen (Head of Sculpture Conservation, Tate), and Kirk Varnedoe (Professor, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton). Claire Fronville, Assistant to the President for Special Projects at the J. Paul Getty Museum, was named administrative coordinator for the conference.

Center Director Steven A. Nash acted as curator for the supporting exhibition, Variable States: Three Masterworks of Modern Sculpture. Included were multiple casts of the following works: The Age of Bronze by Auguste Rodin, Bust of Diego by Alberto Giacometti, and Louis XIV by Jeff Koons. The sculptures in the exhibition served as a springboard for dynamic, object-based examinations and discussions during the entire conference, offering a rare opportunity for close comparison and analysis of related works. The casts differ from one another in important ways, such as materials, patinas and appearance due to weathering.

The program included prepared introductory papers, gallery discussions, video broadcast into the auditorium, and an interactive dialogue between participants and the audience representing multiple viewpoints. The conference yielded new perspectives on the subjects involved and pointed toward new areas for future research. We encourage you to read the transcriptions provided.

The conference began on Friday evening, October 22, with the keynote lecture Why Matter Matters by Adam Gopnik, author, art critic and writer for The New Yorker. In his lecture, Gopnik addressed the secular human ritual of viewing art and, in particular, the impact and meaning for viewers of the physicality of sculpture. Gopnik highlighted the uniqueness of sculpture and opined that its scale, materiality and three-dimensionality acted more effectively even than other art forms in “changing actual time to cultural time” by inducing, through confrontation with objects, a consciousness of self and historical/cultural place. The lecture led into Saturday’s discussions, in which physicality and time figured prominently as factors in the analysis of changes and inherent differences in the variable states of sculptures, and the different conservation issues involved. (By request of the lecturer, a transcription of the keynote presentation is not available.)

The transcription begins with the conference proceedings on Saturday, October 23. After a brief introduction by Steven A. Nash, the morning session began with two papers, presenting an introduction to the discussion. A Curator’s Point of View was presented by Penelope Curtis, andA Conservator’s Point of View presented by Derek Pullen. Curtis and Pullen completed their presentation with a discussion session with the audience.

These presentations were followed by discussions in the gallery among a group of specialists focused on each of the groups of sculpture in the exhibition. The gallery discussions were broadcast into the auditorium for the audience to hear and observe. Each gallery session was followed by a discussion session with the audience.

The conference was concluded with a panel discussion including all conference panelists, moderated by Steven Nash. A full list of conference panelists is listed at the end of this summary.

The innovative spirit of the conference also included a last-minute addition to the conference proceedings. Jed Morse, Assistant Curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center, gave a PowerPoint presentation highlighting a digital scanning project developed between the Center and Van Duzen Archives from Dallas, Texas. For the presentation, the digital scanning focused on Rodin’s The Age of Bronze. It was shown how the scans create a computerized and highly accurate 3-D image of the sculpture, which can be used for different diagnostic purposes. The scanning project is a safe, hands-off technique that captures subtle differences between different casts. The application of the digital scanning can be used in many ways and representatives from Van Duzen Archives were available during the lunch break to demonstrate the 3-D software. The text from this report as well as the images from the presentation are included in the transcription.

Conference Transcript

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The conference was made possible through the generous support of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We also wish to acknowledge the generosity of the lending institutions that have participated and allowed the reproductions of works of art as part of this conference website.

The Age of Bronze Digital Scanning Project

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Conference Panelists

Malcolm Baker, Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Professor, University of Southern California

Michael Brenson, Independent Critic

Ruth Butler, Professor, University of Massachusetts at Boston

Penelope Curtis, Curator, Henry Moore Institute

Richard Deacon, Artist

Valerie Fletcher, Curator, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Peggy Fogelman, Assistant Director for Education, J. Paul Getty Museum

Pamela Franks, Curator of Academic Affairs, Yale University Art Gallery

David Getsy, J. Paul Getty Postdoctoral Fellow

Andrew Lins, Conservator, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Hanspeter Marty, Conservator, Kunsthaus Zürich

Steven Nash, Director, Nasher Sculpture Center

Derek Pullen, Conservator, Tate

Joel Shapiro, Artist

Véronique Wiesinger, Director, Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation, Paris

Julie Wolfe, Conservator, J. Paul Getty Museum

Variable States Symposium Introduction Video
Variable States Symposium Rodin Gallery Discussion
Variable States Symposium Rodin Panel Discussion
Variable States Symposium Giacometti Gallery Discussion
Variable States Symposium Giacometti Panel Discussion
Variable States Symposium Final Panel Discussion
Installation view of Variable States exhibition showing four casts of Auguste Rodin's The Age of Bronze.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze (L'Age d'airain), ca. 1876. Plaster, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas.
This is one of the few surviving full-size plaster casts of The Age of Bronze. It belonged to the Rudier family, proprietors of a famous bronze foundry in France, and undoubtedly was used to make molds for bronze casts. A surface coating applied to the plaster as protection from the mold material is now visible as a golden translucent patina. Close examination of the figure’s sides reveals short, vertical marks, the result of cuts made to remove the rubbery mold. Rodin regarded his plasters highly, often exhibiting them in important venues and working with them in his studio to experiment with new compositions.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze (L'Age d'airain), ca. 1876. Bronze, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Gift of B. G. Cantor Collection.
This cast of The Age of Bronze was produced in the decade after Rodin’s death by the Rudier foundry. It almost certainly was made from a plaster dating from Rodin’s lifetime and possibly from lifetime molds, and very likely was cast by technicians who worked for Rudier since before Rodin’s death.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze (L'Age d'airain), ca. 1876. Bronze, , Philadelphia Museum of Art,Bequest of Jules E. Mastbaum, 1929.
This cast has been exhibited outdoors for part of its life, and the results are clearly evident in the weathering patterns on its surface. The areas of light green developed through a chemical reaction of the copper in the bronze alloy to atmospheric conditions. Its surface is spotted and streaked by rain, its original patina eroded. A barely visible roughness of the bronze is also the result of weathering.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze (L'Age d'airain), ca. 1876. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.
This beautifully preserved cast was made during Rodin’s lifetime by the Alexis Rudier foundry, favored by Rodin during his later years. Very little restoration work has ever been done to its form or patina. Hence, the sculpture’s smooth flow of contour and even, dark-brown patina over green and brown undertones is presumably very close to its original appearance.
Installation view of Variable States exhibition showing three casts of Alberto Giacometti's Bust of Diego.
Alberto Giacometti, Bust of Diego (Buste de Diego), 1954. Painted bronze, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas.
Giacometti was one of the few leading modernist sculptors who regularly painted his bronzes. As compared to his use of different colored patinas for the same work, painting gave him a wider variety of colors and, importantly, more control over the effects. Close examination of this sculpture’s surface reveals a muted but nonetheless diversified palette, with greys, browns, pink, and white interspersed.
Alberto Giacometti, Bust of Diego (Buste de Diego), 1954. Bronze, Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1957.
The color of this bust is by far the darkest of the three casts, with a chocolate-brown patina layered over lighter brown and green undertones.
Alberto Giacometti, Bust of Diego (Buste de Diego), 1954. Bronze, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966.
The complexly colored patina on this cast of Giacometti’s Bust of Diego results from the application of different chemicals to the raw bronze after the casting process. Variegated light and dark greens covering the bust are interspersed with an ochre color that predominates on the face and chest. Dark, almost black areas appear where the patina has flaked away, exposing oxidized bronze underneath.
Installation view of Variable States exhibition showing two casts of Jeff Koons' Louis XVI.
Jeff Koons, Louis XIV, 1986. Stainless steel, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas.
The finest grades of stainless steel are exceptionally hard. They can present technical challenges in the casting process but also offer the potential for very precise replication and extremely stable finishes. Koons has noted that silver would have been completely unacceptable for his Statuary series, presumably because of its soft and easily oxidized surface, as well as Koons’s symbolic attachment to the “false luxury” of stainless steel. No material, however, is immune to change and the possible effects of environment and atmosphere. This cast of Louis XIV was installed outdoors for many years and, as a result, its surface has lost some of its luster and developed tiny specks of corrosion in certain areas.
Jeff Koons, Louis XIV, 1986. Stainless steel, Stainless steel, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.
This cast of the Louis XIV is nearly pristine in condition. Its brilliant, unblemished surface is central to Koons’s project of aggrandizing plebian subjects – in this case, a routine antique bust of the great French monarch – to create pseudo-icons of celebration and admiration
Installation view of Variable States exhibition.
Installation view of Variable States exhibition.
Installation view of Variable States exhibition.