When you think of the art world collaborating with various other industries, the military may be the last one you’d imagine. Alexander Calder, who famously rejected the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 as a form of protest against the Vietnam War, would be extremely surprised to learn that the conservation of his outdoor sculptures is increasingly a result of a collaboration between art conservators and the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL). For the past several years, they’ve have been working together on developing a longer-lasting matte paint system to use not only for outdoor Calder sculptures, but also for works by Louise Nevelson and Tony Smith, in collaboration with all three artists’ estates and foundations.
The conservation partnership with the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) started in the early 2000s, when conservator Abigail Mack, who was working with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC at the time, cold called the US Army to see if the museum could use their weatherometer machine — an accelerated simulation of years of environmental degradation caused by UV rays, wind, precipitation, and the like — to test commercially available paint samples they were considering for repainting outdoor sculpture. Mack told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that she was fortunate enough to reach Army chemist John Escarsega, who developed camouflage paint for military vehicles. In part because Escarsega also has an interest in art, he offered to help in creating an entirely new paint system for the works.
Conservation of outdoor painted sculptures is unique in that it involves taking the pieces apart and stripping them of all of their paint, before repainting and putting them back together. It’s often difficult to find a paint that will both last for longer than a couple of years and adhere to the artist’s original intent in terms of color, texture, and levels of gloss. The matte paints popular with the likes of Calder, Smith, and Nevelson are particularly problematic in that they contain a minimal amount of resin and lots of pigments and flattening agents, making the paint more vulnerable to degradation and fading than glossier varieties. Matte paints also happen to be popular in the Army, often used for camouflage paint, which explains Escarsega’s enthusiasm in offering to help.
“John had this paint he thought we might be able to use,” Shelley Sturman, head of object conservation at the National Gallery of Art, told Hyperallergic. They tried five different black paints, then moved into colored paints, matte for Calder and “dull semi-gloss” for Smith.
“I left the National Gallery in 2006,” Mack said. “And in my private practice, I started working directly with the Calder Foundation, the army, and a paint factory.” Later, Mack started working with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). “I’m kind of their field conservator, running the project that develops new paints and does tests on sculpture. Part of the mission of the GCI is identifying holes in conservation. We’re educating conservators about industrial techniques, bringing that back into the field.”
The GCI and ARL’s newest partner in the paint project is the Storm King Art Center, working on a very specific “Nevelson black” paint. “If things go well, the paints will be available commercially,” the GCI’s Rachel Rivenc told Hyperallergic.
“Once you start down this road, the number of artists grows,” Mack said, to include works by people like Claes Oldenburg and Ronald Bladen. The new paint system not only saves a lot of time and money, but it’s also more environmentally sound. “The army has the leading edge on environmental practices for coatings. They take environmental issues very seriously.”
Back at the National Gallery of Art, Sturman is very happy with the new paint system, which they’ve already used to repaint a few of the museum’s Calder and Smith sculptures. “The system has proven to be quite successful,” she said. “For us the most exciting is Calder’s ‘Tom’s,’ which was repainted in 2003/2004. It’s now 2018, and the paint looks amazing!”