Art, Behind the Scenes, Conservation, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

Waxing and Waning of Summer in Decorative Arts & Sculpture Conservation

Applying a protective wax coating to Jack Zajac's Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II

Applying a protective wax coating to Jack Zajac's 1963 bronze Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.123. Gift of Fran and Ray Stark. Artwork © Jack Zajac

Every Monday—when the Museum is closed to visitors and Getty staff soldier on despite the closure of the coffee carts—the Getty’s outdoor sculptures get washed and rinsed of the week’s helping of dirt, pollution, bird guano, and spider webs.

This was one of my jobs this summer, along with grad intern Raina Chao, who has seen me get drenched at the hose spout on more than one occasion. The Stark collection of 20th-century outdoor sculpture is maintained by the Museum’s Department of Decorative Arts & Sculpture Conservation (DASC), where I’ve been an undergraduate intern for the last 10 weeks. During this time, I’ve gotten an in-depth look at the ways in which conservators examine, maintain, and restore works of art in order to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. Sculpture conservation is a fascinating field because it involves getting to know all of the ins and outs of an object—what it’s made of (right down to the elements), how it was constructed (which may involve many feats of engineering), how the materials age, and how they react to the environment.

Outdoor sculpture is a particular challenge because of constant exposure to the elements. This is why every summer, the sculptures are coated with wax, then buffed to form a protective seal that can also be removed later on. The heat of summer aids this process by keeping the wax melted while it is being brushed on, but can be difficult to work in especially while wearing a respirator and gloves. Though the wax is harmless when hardened, we want to avoid contact with the chemical solvents that are used to dilute the wax in order to make it easier to apply. There are many different types of wax that vary in thickness and color, as well as various solvents that can be used to dilute them. The overall wax-to-solvent ratio is yet another variable to consider. It quickly became apparent that the search for the perfect wax mixture—one that brushes on well, offers effective protection, and brings out the beauty of the metal without looking too opaque—is never-ending in the world of conservation.

This summer, under the supervision of associate conservator Julie Wolfe, we experimented with microcrystalline and carnauba wax recipes as well as several commercial products, recording our observations and making adjustments along the way. By the end of the summer, we arrived at an almost perfect wax recipe that was used on Jack Zajac’s Big Skull and Horn in Two Parts II with great results. The true test will be revisiting the waxes next summer and seeing how they hold up on the sculptures over time.

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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? 


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