Conservation of latex Foams

Boob Jobs: Marcel Duchamp and Enrico Donati’s “Priere de toucher” 999 foam breasts: conservation treatment of latex foam
Martha Singer / Kate Wight Tyler

In 1947, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp organized an exhibition to celebrate the return of Surrealism to Europe after the Second World War. In collaboration with Enrico Donati, Duchamp prepared catalogs for this exhibition. The “deluxe” edition, known as Prière de Toucher, featured a latex foam breast adhered to its cover and surrounded with black velvet. The breasts were falsies, hand-painted by the artists to resemble real breasts. This work was intended to be fondled as “Prière de toucher” translates to “Please touch”. The book was sold in a protective slipcover, which applied pressure onto the foam breast. Reportedly, Duchamp and Donati produced 999 versions of Prière de Toucher.
When asked to conserve a degraded version of Prière de Toucher, the authors first conducted a literature search, revealing that several examples had been conserved in the past. This led to a survey of 15 editions of painted and unpainted foam breasts from the Donati Foundation, private collectors, and other institutions in the greater New York City area. Finally, the research culminated in extensive materials testing and the development of innovative treatment methods, which we will present at the meeting.
Latex foams are known to degrade rapidly through a combination of thermal or photo-oxidation. Consistent with this, our survey and literature search revealed that while foam breasts in ideal storage conditions fared better than others, most had decayed badly over time. Many, including our example, presented deep cracks, large areas of loss, were brittle and crumbled easily. One edition that had decayed badly was treated by natural history conservators and received a trusted method to preserve organic materials (Parylene). This was combined with an anoxic housing, leaving the piece inaccessible. In Italy, a breast was re-cast in latex rubber, destroying the damaged original in the process. Although extreme, this approach allows for present-day handling, as intended by the artists. Another crumbling breast was not treated but instead replaced by an additional unattached breast.
We carried out various tests to determine if and how the foam could be consolidated, which materials to use in fills, and how to integrate the fill with the original breast by applying various in-painting mediums. Using aged latex foam samples, provided by Thea Van Oosten, the authors determined the amount of consolidant that could be applied via a nebulizer to the foam breast. Two layers of fill were designed. The first was a coarser fill, applied to the deepest areas of loss and under the breast to support a space which had developed as the breast started to pull up from the book. A second fill, much finer, was easier to refine mechanically and shape to imitate the foam. Finally, pastels and gouache were used to integrate the fills with the original material.
Since the original treatment, two other breasts have been treated. We will discuss what aspects of the original treatment we have retained and abandoned.