Conservation, J. Paul Getty Museum, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

The Case of the Broken Wax Banana

This is the third in a series of conservators’ reflections on artworks in Pacific Standard Time.

Robert Graham’s sculpture Untitled came to the Museum last October for Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970. It’s a small wax banana resting on top of a clear base, with a separate plastic blow-molded cover. Though it traveled across town on a smooth air-ride truck, it arrived with two of the banana peels broken off. So I pulled out the optivisor and started the process of repairing the breaks.

Untitled / Robert Graham

Untitled, 1967, Robert Graham (1938–2008). Polyurethane resin, 8 5/16 x 11 7/16 x 11 1/8 in. Collection of Ed Ruscha. © Estate of Robert Graham

The banana is delicately sculpted of toned wax, and it arrived with two broken pieces of peel overturned and resting next to the banana.

I have experience working with wax sculptures, but not specifically a structural break—or in this case, a broken one-inch wax banana. This was a great example of some of the unexpected challenges I took on during the Pacific Standard Time installation, and a solution required fast research, consultation with other colleagues, and testing.

In this instance, the choice of adhesive to use for reattaching the peels wasn’t immediately obvious. What to test? What properties were we looking for in the adhesive? The banana peel was small and soft. To manipulate the peels back into position, I had to use a stereo microscope. The fact that a fingernail or a metal tool could make a mark in the surface was a matter of major concern, and even warm-blooded finger could soften the wax, risking distortion when I handled it. The scale and delicate nature of the broken peels demanded a fast setting adhesive to limit the amount of touching and handling. Also, the beeswax has a very dull surface, so low-gloss adhesives would be needed to limit the amount of touch-up after the repair.

Untitled with broken peel / Robert Graham

Detail of the wax banana, before treatment

We carried out low-tech testing of three different possible adhesives in the conservation lab using small blocks of beeswax: an ethylhydroxyethylcellulose (3% Ethulose 400 in 5:1 ethanol:water), a polyvinyl butyral (15% Butvar B-98® in 1:1 ethanol:acetone), and an aldehyde resin (20% Laropal A-81 in isopropanol). We evaluated their adhesive properties and gloss levels, and chose the B-98® to readhere the peels. It was easy to apply, had good strength, and good gloss—which could be easily dulled down with the dab of an ethanol swab if needed. As we hoped, it also dried fairly quickly.

Chart of adhesive gloss temps! / Julie Wolfe

The day of the repair, I postponed my usual cup of coffee. I kept a jar of ice next to me to cool down my steady but sweaty fingers. But the adhesive worked: the banana was back in one piece within an hour, and to everyone’s relief, it was ready to install!

Untitled with fixed peel / Robert Graham

Detail of the wax banana, after treatment

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      It’s been 125 years since Van Gogh’s death, today we celebrate his life’s work.


      5 Ways to See Van Gogh’s Irises

      Through observations, visitor conversations, and some sneaky eavesdropping, we’ve compiled the top 5 ways people enjoy this painting.

      1. In a Crowd
        One of the most obvious ways that people see the painting is in a crowd. The gallery is almost always filled, and you might have to wait before you can get up close. The anticipation builds as you start in the back row, and slowly move until you are close enough to see the brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s thick paint.

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        David from Colorado said that this was his first visit, but he had already seen the painting online. In addition to being available through the Getty’s Open Content program, the painting is often seen on social media. Just search #irises on Instagram for a taste of the painting’s popularity. 

      3. Alone
        If you arrive right at 10 a.m. when the museum opens, the quiet gallery provides a perfect backdrop to really examine the painting. Solitude and seclusion gives the gallery a sense of intimacy. 

      4. Multiple Times
        Repeat visits can give rise to multiple interpretations. Is it a melancholy or joyous painting? Expressive or depressive? 

      5. Internationally
        Visitors from all across the world viewed this famous Van Gogh. In just one hour you can hear multiple languages—French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, German, and more. Irises seems to rise above cultural boundaries—a Dutch painting inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints—to strike an emotional resonance amongst all viewers. 

      What is your favorite lens to view Van Gogh’s work through? 

      07/29/15

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