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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      #ProvenancePeek: July 31

      Every art object has a story—not only of how it was made, but of how it changed hands over time until it found its current home. That story is provenance.

      This small panel by Dutch master Gerrit Dou (photographed only in black and white) is now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. It was sold to American collector Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, in the summer of 1922.

      How do we know this? Archival sleuthing! A peek into the handwritten stock books of M. Knoedler & Co. (book 7, page 10, row 40, to be exact) records the Dou in “July 1922” (right page, margin). Turning to the sales books, which lists dates and prices, we again find the painting under the heading “New York July 1922,” with its inventory number 14892. A tiny “31” in superscript above Clark’s name indicates the date the sale was recorded.

      M. Knoedler was one of the most influential dealers in the history of art, selling European paintings to collectors whose collections formed the genesis of great U.S. museums. The Knoedler stock books have recently been digitized and transformed into a searchable database, which anyone can query for free.

      Girl at a Window, 1623–75, Gerrit Dou. Oil on panel, 10 9/16 x 7 ½ in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

      #ProvenancePeek is a monthly series by research assistant Kelly Davis peeking into #onthisday provenance finds from the M. Knoedler & Co. archives at the Getty Research Institute.


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