DIA conserves a modern masterpiece inch by inch
Detroit — You'd think moving a painting would be no big deal.
Not so with Anselm Kiefer's "Das Geviert" at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a monumental work completed in 1997 that's so richly textured it's downright three-dimensional. In this case, conservators have to invest well over a hundred hours before they can be certain the fragile artwork can be transported without danger.
"In order to get it stable enough for our art handler to move," said Becca Goodman, DIA painting conservator, "first we dust it because dust can cause cracking if it remains on the surface. And now we're adding an archival grade adhesive in certain places with a syringe and brush to keep the materials together."
Dusting alone took Goodman and Blair Bailey, a conservation fellow, two full days of nonstop work — no surprise when you realize that "Das Geviert" is more than 24 feet wide and 9 feet tall. As rough and gnarled as the surface is, there are a million places for dust to hide.
Art at the museum is routinely dusted, of course, but moving a work as potentially fragile as "Das Geviert" requires special attention.
The wall-sized artwork, which was inspired by an ancient brick wall the artist saw in India, has to move because the museum is emptying out all the contemporary galleries to make room for "Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950-2020," which opens June 13.
The painting's complexity becomes clear when you consider the hodgepodge of materials that went into it — among other elements, acrylic paint, shellac, burnt clay, regular clay, charcoal, wire, straw, a great deal of sand, and, in one place at least, according to Bailey, a screw that's sticking out.
But back to that dusting, which has advantages beyond cleanliness.
"While dusting," Goodman said, "it's apparent what's likely to move on the painting. We did triage on pieces that were broken or coming off, and now we’re doing another passive second-tier examination as to what needs stabilizing."
Indeed, one bit about the size of a pencil eraser flaked off when Goodman was working, and was promptly placed in slot No. 29 in a box reserved for fragments. Interestingly, artist Kiefer is apparently adamant about not reattaching anything.
The museum has a note from the original 2004 installation that reads, "If something falls off, it’s off. If it’s loose, glue it on," Goodman said. "So the artist is pretty on board with the idea that the work will change and age."
All 13 contemporary galleries will be vacated by about the end of February when the monumental project of installing "Detroit Style" will begin.
But don't despair — while "Das Geviert," like most of the collection, will go into storage — not all postwar art will disappear. The contemporary African-American galleries will remain, and a limited number of the collection's greatest contemporary hits will be exhibited elsewhere, including in the museum's Great Hall.
The contemporary collection will be reinstalled sometime in 2021 or 2022 — date as yet uncertain.
Does the institution run a risk in eliminating an entire epoch of art from an encyclopedic museum? Yes and no, said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons.
"It's always a challenge to have visitors' favorite artworks off view," he said, "but it happens often for a number of reasons — loans to other museums, conservation work, gallery rotations for works on paper and textiles." Nevertheless, he added, "several contemporary works that are important for our guided field trips will continue to be on display in other locations."
Intrigued by the conservation process? Goodman and Bailey will answer visitors' questions Thursday and Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in front of the painting. The public is welcome to watch their work both days from 10 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m.-3 p.m.
But act quick, next week's the last opportunity to see them in action.
Public viewing of conservation work on 'Das Geviert'
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodard Ave., Detroit
10 a.m.-noon; 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Jan. 9 and Jan. 10
The conservators will answer questions each day at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
(313) 833-7900 and www.dia.org