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.
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.
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.
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!