As we prepare to reopen the Asian Art Museum to the public on May 28, we’re sharing some of the work that has happened inside the museum while it has been closed. The Asian Paintings Conservation Center will not be open when we reopen, but there will be a monitor outside of it where you can learn more about what SAM staff is doing to ensure that Asian artworks are cared for and can be enjoyed by generations to come.
Though limited due to the pandemic, conservation activities have continued at the Asian Paintings Conservation Center. With generous, multi-year funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the staff has used this time to ensure the new center operates and is fully stocked with the specialized tools and materials required for the conservation of Asian paintings. Grant funding allowed the team to acquire pigments, tools, adhesives, technical furniture, and many different types of paper in anticipation of reopening.
While waiting, the studio has been used extensively by SAM’s conservation team. Chief conservator Nick Dorman used our new Leica stereo-binocular microscope to examine and document a late 14th-century Tibetan thangka painting scheduled for display. Consisting of pigments painted on a cotton support, the thangka depicts four mandalas, universes of Buddhist deities. To ensure the painting can withstand exhibition, Dorman examined it for evidence of flaking and lifting pigments, as well as delicate areas. He also examined and documented the condition of the cotton fabric support. Given the painting no longer has its original textile mounting fabrics, this work, as in many Western museums, is in a frame with a blue silk-covered mat. The current treatment constitutes the minimum necessary set of measures to ensure the painting is safe for display. The staff looks forward to doing more comprehensive research once the studio is fully operational. In the meantime, we can all look forward to exploring the dense imagery and exquisite detail of this thangka when the Asian Art Museum reopens.
Image: Four Mandalas, Late 14th Century, Tibetan, Watercolor on cloth, 27 x 23 1/4 in. (68.58 x 59.06 cm) Overall h.: 34 5/16 in. Overall w.: 29 5/8 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 66.120.
“And for the most part, things were surprisingly normal. Traffic in the museum flowed easily. Between a pair of spectators chatting casually on a bench and the lack of windows, time passed easily, and aside from the masks and the crowd level, it didn’t seem all that different from visiting a museum pre-COVID.”
The Seattle Times’ Paige Cornwell recently profiled Edy Hideyoshi Horikawa, a decorated veteran who served with the celebrated 442nd Regiment while his family lived in an incarceration camp and who became an artist and teacher upon his return. He celebrated his 100th birthday in August and was fêted with a drive-by parade.
Crosscut’s Agueda Pacheco Flores interviews Seattle conductor Paula Nava Madrigal about how she’s “disrupting the traditionally white, male discipline of conducting.” Madrigal will once again conduct a Mexican Independence Day concert, which this year is going virtual.
“‘There’s an energy that comes from the orchestra that I’m communicating to the public,’ she explains. ‘It’s like a time machine where I am bringing the past into the present and creating the future.’”
Artnet is out with its annual Intelligence Report on the art market, which this year launches an “Innovators List”: “a group of 51 entrepreneurs, artists, dealers, and others who are lighting the way toward the future with vision, chutzpah, and grit.”
“Vote.org CEO Andrea Hailey believes that art may hold the key to educating and mobilizing citizens across the nation to exercise their right to vote…‘If we lower the barriers to political engagement and turn more people out to vote, together, we can paint a more representative democracy.’”
Brangien Davis of Crosscut notices that Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, the monumental sculpture that perches in the Olympic Sculpture Park, has its own protective covering these days. She spoke with SAM Chief Conservator Nick Dorman about the conservation and repainting of the steel sculpture, thanks to a grant from Bank of America. Look for “the big reveal” sometime around Labor Day.
“Her subject, Devan, stares openly at the viewer, seemingly aware of our gaze on his body, our intrusion on his space, our sussing out of his mental state…Devan projects an openness, a sort of straightforward vulnerability that makes this painting compelling.”
The American Alliance of Museums is out with another survey on the impacts of COVID-19; Valentina Di Liscia of Hyperallergic outlines the major findings, including that 12,000 institutions may close permanently.
“I have stood in a gallery hung with Asawa’s wire sculptures, where the movement of my own body has caused them to sway, the shadows of the woven wire dancing against the floor. For a moment, I was quietly transported elsewhere — to the deep sea, to a forest or maybe to someplace altogether unearthly.”
One of the most unique features of the newly remodeled Asian Art Museum is the Asian Paintings Conservation Studio. As the only conservation studio on the west coast entirely devoted to the care and conservation of Asian paintings, the studio provides new opportunities to care for SAM’s Asian art collection. Once it is fully operational, the studio will also accept conservation projects from regional museums and private collectors. Designed so that the public can view the studio through large glass doors, the studio is located on the lower level of the Asian Art Museum. When you peer through the glass doors, you will immediately notice a beautiful tatami platform enclosed with sliding shoji doors. This platform will serve as a dedicated work area for a small team trained in the care and conservation of Asian paintings.
The tatami platform and shoji doors were built by a local master craftsman, Koji Uchida. Mr. Uchida’s company, Wafu Builders, designs and builds indoor and outdoor spaces using traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. Based on research conducted by our Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman, on research trips to Asian paintings conservation studios in Asia, North America and Europe, Mr. Uchida and Mr. Dorman collaborated on the design of the studio. We are so lucky that Mr. Uchida lives within driving distance of the museum!
Mr. Uchida built the tatami platform and shoji doors from the ground up. Before the remodel, this area housed staff offices and is part of the original building footprint. As you would expect in an old building, the floor and walls are not completely square or level. To create a level foundation for the tatami, Mr. Uchida built a two-by-four frame. As you can see in this photo, he used hundreds of custom-cut shims to level the platform.
Once the substructure was complete, Mr. Uchida began to build out the visible elements of the platform. The platform features 12 tatami mats, which are surrounded by a border of fine-grained Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The next image shows the beautifully interlocked corners of the platform. Creating this careful fit required precision cuts and impeccable measurements. Mr. Uchida’s workmanship is meticulous, and he spent many hours carefully fitting and refitting the various pieces of wood until the final composition met his high standards.
Though Mr. Uchida used power tools to rough cut the wood, many details were executed with hand tools. In the image below, you can see that the slot in the vertical beam is hand chiseled. Be sure to notice the unique grain pattern of the vertical post. Made of Kitayama cedar, this post was strategically cut to showcase the wood’s wavy grain. A building material often used in traditional Japanese architecture, Kitayama cedar grows in and around the Kitayama area of Kyoto. The wavy grain is created by pruning branches from the trunk as it grows and tightly binding the trunk with pieces of plastic and wire. Left in place for several years, this wrapping creates a distinctive and highly prized grain pattern.
Below is another view of the same corner. With the horizontal support in place, you can see how careful measuring and cutting creates a perfect fit.
Once the platform and the shoji framing were complete, Mr. Uchida returned to his studio and began making the tatami mats. Using tatami omote (the woven facing) imported from Japan, Mr. Uchida constructed each mat. The blue edging, or heri, is made from hemp and is also imported from Japan. Tatami heri vary from plain colors to subtle patterns. Mr. Uchida felt that for such a unique and special space, hemp heri would be appropriate and signify its importance.
Sliding shoji doors were the final component. Working from his home workshop, Mr. Uchida built the lattice for the doors and carefully glued the paper facing to the lattice. Faced with mino paper from Japan, the doors can be left open for public viewing or closed for when a conservator is working on a tricky treatment. Both the lower shoji and the upper ranma slide smoothly and quietly.
It was a pleasure to observe the work of Mr. Uchida throughout the process. Every day, I feel lucky that my desk is adjacent to this beautiful space. Once the Asian Art Museum can reopen, be sure to stop by and take a peek at the studio. When we are ready, we will offer opportunities for the public to come inside the studio and learn more about Asian paintings conservation and current studio projects. In the meantime, we are making plans for future conservation projects and looking forward to reopening the studio. We can’t wait to welcome you back to the museum!
– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Paintings Conservation Studio Associate
“Without the periodic conservation of these works, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore. So this work is really critical and we are conserving our collections so that they are lasting in perpetuity for generations to come.”
– Nick Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator
When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you’ll be able to stop by to learn about the conservation of Asian paintings by peeking through the public viewing window into the conservation space to see the progress! Through a $3.5M challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the conservation, mounting, and study of Asian paintings. The new conservation center serves the museum’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region. This is the first museum center of its kind in the western United States. We hope to have it completed by 2021.
If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.
The recent renovation and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum allowed SAM to evaluate and conserve artworks we have previously been unable to display. One such work is the seated Buddha Shakyamuni which is on view for the first time in over a decade. Cast in the late 8th to early 9th century in Kashmir, Buddha Shakyamuni is seated in the dharmachakra mudra, a gesture that signifies the sharing of spiritual teachings. The sculpture is one of only a few examples known in Western collections. It is featured in the inaugural exhibition Boundless: Stories of Asian Art—a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological exploration of art from the Asian continent—celebrating the historic renovation of the museum’s 1933 Art Deco building located in Seattle’s Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park.
In 2009, during a condition assessment for a multi-venue international traveling exhibition, it was discovered that large white drips of zinc hydroxychloride corrosion product were seeping down the sculpture’s back. Independent conservation scientist John Twilley had identified the corrosion product in 1988 and the object was then treated for chlorides, however corrosion had reactivated in the intervening years.
Due to the severity of the problem and the importance of the sculpture, Twilley was engaged in 2009 to perform a technical study that included, among other techniques, x-radiography and metallographic study, including electron microscopy. Twilley determined that the metal contains 34-39% zinc, which is an extraordinarily high percentage of zinc to copper even for Kashmiri production. Twilley states that “a critical technological value of 28% zinc… is believed to be the highest value normally achievable by cementation methods” (Twilley 2003: 144), in which vaporized zinc is directly absorbed by copper metal to form the alloy. This finding has great technological implications: it identified the Shakyamuni as a rare, surviving example of brass produced from the earliest actual smelting of zinc, achieved by Kashmiris approximately 1,000 years before Western Europe.
However, the sculpture’s stability is inherently compromised as a result: the presence of two phases (or different crystal microstructures of copper and zinc) in the alloy creates the potential for galvanic corrosion in the presence of chloride contamination and moisture. Above 5% relative humidity, moisture penetrates the alloy’s higher zinc component causing dissolved corrosion products to migrate through the sculpture’s porous casting network.
Conservation treatment options are limited. Chemical treatments can control chloride corrosion in copper alloys, and were tested for this sculpture and previously performed locally, but the high zinc level of Buddha Shakyamuni renders the figure particularly susceptible. Immersion of the sculpture is impractical due to the surface ornamentation and extant casting core. Therefore, controlling the environment in which the sculpture is stored and displayed remains the preferred preservation approach.
For the last decade, the sculpture has been successfully stabilized by storage at <5% relative humidity; a micro environment was fashioned from a glass bell jar packed with oxygen scavenger and silica gel, sealed to a plywood board (covered with aluminized polyethylene and nylon barrier film) on which the sculpture is mounted.
Construction of a low-oxygen, low-humidity case was required to enable display and to ensure its survival in long-term storage, as even a controlled museum environment provides ample moisture for the corrosion process to occur. A glass vitrine, rather than acrylic, was necessary to minimize the rate of air exchange. The sealed display enclosure is composed of inert materials including the 5-sided 8.8mm UltraVue laminated glass vitrine, powder-coated aluminum deck, and ample conditioning chamber located below. The case is intended to passively maintain a relative humidity below 5%, however two ports in the sub-deck are designed for dry nitrogen flushing if necessary. A glass and gasket access door in the sub-deck enables live-view of the temperature and humidity loggers inside the display area, and enables periodic replacement of the silica gel, oxygen scavenger, and temperature/relative humidity sensors.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum is thrilled for the opportunity to display the Buddha Shakyamuni, and to share both its innovative creation story and present-day preservation plan with the public. If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!
This project would not have been possible without the leadership of Nicholas Dorman, Head of Conservation at the Seattle Art Museum; Mike Dunphy, Sales and Marketing Manager at SmallCorp; John Twilley, Independent Conservation Scientist; and Yadin Larochette, Museum and Conservation Liaison- Americas, Tru Vue, Inc.
Thanks to funding from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, a pair of important 17th-century Japanese screens, Scenes in and around the Capital, are currently being restored by specialists at Studio Sogendo, a private studio in California. The screens, likely created by a machi-eshi, or “town painter,” present a panoramic view of Kyoto during the Edo period. They show both Kyoto’s center and its periphery, and give insight into the daily lives of different social classes, in addition to representing seasonal festivals.
When the screens first arrived at SAM in 1975, they were already in fragile condition and by the time this conservation work began in 2017, extensive repairs were desperately needed. Painted using ink, color, and gold, and mounted on wooden frames, the screens are being restored using traditional Japanese methods and materials. I was able to visit Studio Sogendo while one of the panels had been stripped of its backings and laid on a light table, allowing a rare perspective of the materials and quality of the painting. The conservation treatment has been invaluable, not just in terms of preserving the paintings, but also in offering opportunities for examination and study. The internal frames must be replaced and expert craftsmen in Japan made new custom frames for the work. The incredibly precise joinery of the new frames can be seen in these images. The conservation phase of the project is nearing completion and the reassembly of the structure, replacement of the mount fabrics, and retouching of the areas of loss is underway.
This crucial project would not be possible without Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, one of few programs dedicated to preserving historically or culturally significant artworks. We look forward to the return of Scenes in and around the Capital, which will be on view among SAM’s extensive Asian art collection when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019!
A brilliant conservator once noted that “art conservation is a fight against entropy.” This is especially visible for works sited outside which require conservators, artists, and stakeholders to carefully consider what is essential for an outdoor sculpture to continue to exist for future generations. When the carved cedar elements of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture Bunyon’s Chess were no longer structurally stable, di Suvero and his studio worked closely with the Seattle Art Museum to explore the artwork and discover solutions.
Bunyon’s Chess was created by Mark di Suvero in 1965 for Virginia and Bagley Wright’s residence in Seattle. The family’s documentation of the creative process provides wonderful insight into the artwork.
In 2006 the Wrights promised the work to the Seattle Art Museum and it was moved to the Olympic Sculpture Park. The cedar elements had begun to show degradation in their original site but this accelerated at the park partially due to the exposed location and partially due to the natural deterioration of cedar. As cedar ages in an outdoor setting a number of events occur: the natural biocide slowly migrates out with water, the wood absorbs water at an increasing rate as it deteriorates, fungal deterioration is common, as well as insect and wildlife damage. The logs of Bunyon’s Chess were treated annually with a fungicide to slow the fungal deterioration but without major visual interventions such as end caps or moving the sculpture to an interior location, deterioration continued at a fairly rapid pace.
In 2009 an in-depth condition assessment was performed which determined that the deterioration, particularly on the interior had progressed to a state where the logs were in danger of falling. In 2010, the logs were consolidated, the large losses filled and the exterior coated to prolong the life. During this period research and conversations with di Suvero regarding the replacement were begun as this treatment could not prolong the life of the cedar indefinitely. Di Suvero determined that new logs could be carved to replace the original cedar, as it is the visual integrity of the work that is important.
After much research, new cedar of the similar dimensions and tight ring growth was sourced for carving. Seattle artist Brian Beck peeled the logs in preparation for carving.
Kent Johnson and Daniel Roberts from di Suvero’s studio traveled to Seattle and carved the new logs using the original cedar elements as a guide.
Beck worked with Johnson and Roberts to create the same join between the two logs. Much of the original hardware such as the 36” bronze bolts and galvanized steel eyehooks were presevered and reused on the newly carved elements.
If you look carefully, at the top of the sculpture you will note a slight bend in the top tube. Di Suvero wanted this natural bend to remain but believed this opportunity should be used to reinforce the structure.
Fabrication Specialties Ltd. worked with the di Suvero studio to create an interior support which was welded in place.
The logs were strung with new stainless steel cabling and were carefully measured and marked to the lengths of the original cables to assist with the rigging. Larry Tate, Andrew Malcolm, Tracy Taft, Ignacio Lopez, and Travis Leonard of Fabrication Specialties placed the new logs within the original steel frame working closely with images and a model of the original. The di Suvero studio generously participated in video calls throughout the day.
Special thank you to: Mark di Suvero and Studio, Virginia Wright, Fabrication Specialties Ltd, Equinox Studios, Alta Forest Products, Brian Beck, Christian French, and Catharina Manchanda for helping preserve this public artwork free for everyone to enjoy at the Olympic Sculpture Park year round.
Stroll through the Olympic Sculpture Park on a summer day, and you’ll find yourself immersed in an overload of the senses. The Puget Sound scents the air around Alexander Calder’s towering sculpture, The Eagle, with a salty freshness, while the waves below lap in the wind. Uninterrupted sunlight warms the curving, concrete benches of Roy McMakin’s Love & Loss to the touch. Bike commuters coast along the Elliott Bay Trail, an urban artery connecting bustling downtown Seattle and the neighborhoods to the north. But while visitors enjoy the natural and manmade beauty of the park, the outdoor sculptures on view are constantly under attack by the very elements that makes the park so special.
This coalescence of elements within the Olympic Sculpture Park provides a different sensory experience when your job is to preserve its works of art. SAM’s Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman explains, “It’s a pretty aggressive environment out there. When the sun does shine, it’s unimpeded and bounces off the Sound, creating very intense light levels. Unhindered wind also comes through, carrying salt and lots of pollution. All of these elements break down the sculptures’ materials over time.”
Love & Loss
Care for each sculpture in the park requires attention to a range of factors that include its materials and fabrication, the artist’s or foundation’s intentions, and SAM’s curatorial and exhibition design philosophies. It’s easy to understand that the illuminated ampersand in Love & Loss requires upkeep in order to keep glowing. However, even its concrete benches and paths are prone to deterioration. Once a sculpture requires intervention, the conservators must consider many questions before deciding on a solution. Liz Brown, SAM’s Objects Conservator, describes, “When I’m looking for a treatment system, I have to keep in mind everything from how the public might interact with the piece, to the artist’s intent, to how the sculpture and the materials we apply are going to react to the environment.”
Coating the surface of Love & Loss is one part of its conservation treatment. When the conservators found that the original acrylic-polyurethane coating wasn’t performing well within the interactive environment of the installation, Brown worked with artist McMakin to replace it with a water-borne acrylic paint designed for pools, which she reapplies every year in order to preserve the aesthetic he originally envisioned for the piece. By comparison, sculptures painted with matte, highly pigmented paints, such as The Eagle and Tony Smith’s Stinger, are susceptible to damage by human touch because oils and contact more easily mar and break down the underbound coatings. The park’s proximity to the Puget Sound also brings the problem of chloride corrosion, making the coatings’ maintenance essential to the preservation of the metal sculptures.
As summer approaches, much of the conservation work at the park moves from behind-the-scenes to more publicly visible processes. Brown will soon begin cleaning all of the art and treating areas where corrosion has appeared. Several larger projects will also take place. This year, she hopes to manage refabrication of the Love & Loss ampersand and to determine a painted surface that will work for that portion of the sculpture in the long term. The next time you’re at the park, sitting on Love & Loss may feel a bit different, knowing more about the care that lives both within and beneath its surface.
—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager
This post is the fourth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.