Now you see it, now you don’t. Conservation of Larry Bell’s glass sculpture ‘Shadows’

Megan Randall, Ellen Moody, Lynda Zycherman, Ana Martins
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, USA

On a sunny day in 2016, a MoMA visitor turned away from the window overlooking the museum’s garden and walked directly into Larry Bell’s 1967 sculpture ‘Shadows’. The partially mirrored, transparent, glass cube, sitting atop a transparent acrylic pedestal, plummeted to the floor. The impact shattered two sides of the sculpture.

This was not the first time the sculpture was damaged. In 1992, a museum electrician working above the work dropped a pair of pliers, breaking the top pane. After that incident, in consultation with MoMA’s Conservation Department, Bell chose to replace the shattered pane with one newly fabricated by his studio, also supplying the museum with two additional panes. This decision — to replace rather than to repair — is not an uncommon one in the conservation of modern and contemporary art, wherein the original concept is sometimes privileged over the original materials. Though Bell’s minimalist sculpture is made of glass and metal, he considers the light that it reflects and transmits his primary medium. To achieve this interaction with light, the artist vacuum-coats the interior surfaces of his glass panes with a micro thin layer of metal, giving them a gradient of both color and reflection. Though there are established conservation methods to attain nearly-invisible repairs in glass, Bell’s work evades convincing local loss compensation.

The panes created in 1992 were greyer and lighter than the amber-tinged 1967 panes. At that time, the artist had deemed this difference acceptable, especially since it was minimized when the work was assembled with the replacement pane positioned on the underside. When consulted again in 2018, the artist remained unbothered by this discrepancy of color and value, advising the authors to use the extra two grey replacements for the recently broken panes. However, the authors remained hesitant; replacing two additional panes would change the appearance of the work more dramatically than the previous, single-pane repair. Additionally the cause of the difference was unclear: was it a result of differential aging and oxidation, or of disparate materials? To answer this question, the authors performed elemental analysis on the works, which showed that the original 1967 panes were coated with pure chromium, unlike the 1992 replacements were coated with an alloy of nickel, iron, tin, and chromium. Upon sharing this discovery with the artist, he proposed creating new replacement panes with the same materials as the original.

This paper will outline the discussions between curatorial, conservation and artist’s studio in deciding the steps to take in restoring this work, which include the artist’s evolving opinion and the institution’s reevaluation of the essential qualities of the sculpture, and the approach taken to execute the treatment. This included an evaluation of possible adhesives and handling methods for aligning the miter joins, as well as an assessment of techniques for achieving the low RH interior environment required to prevent condensation from forming on the inside of the sculpture. We hope that our experiences will help guide future decisions for conservators tasked with treating one of the hundreds of similar Larry Bell sculptures around the globe.