Making and Doing with the DAM

Conserving Outdoor Sculpture: Big Sweep by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Part 2 of 2

In part one of this series, we discussed assessing what needed to be done to conserve Big Sweep by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

The next step in the conservation process was to meet with specialists in automotive painting and refinishing to refine the treatment plan and find the right specialist for the job. Custom automotive painters were expected to be a good fit for the job as the sculpture had been painted with a paint similar to automotive paints. Also, custom automotive painters frequently undertake complex repainting projects that must be executed to extremely high standards. Four companies were interviewed and Steve Aigner and his company Body Works Custom Painting were selected. With Steve, the treatment plan was refined to include partial repainting of four of the broom bristles and the front edge of the lower white paper wad, as well as buffing of scratched and abraded areas on the other bristles to minimize the appearance of damage.

This treatment plan was sent to Claes Oldenburg and his studio for their review, comments, and approval.

Some research was needed into the original colors used on the sculpture to provide specifications for purchasing the paint. The paint samples prepared when the sculpture was made were sent back to the paint manufacturer, Matthews Paint, to be matched again to be sure the color formulas were correct.

Once these were finalized, Steve and his company obtained the various paint materials needed–primer, top coat (the pigmented paint layer), clear coat, and additives–and prepared mock-ups in his shop so that they could learn the properties of the paint and make sure the color matches were correct. Arrangements for fencing, sidewalk closure, and renting lift equipment were also made in the weeks prior to the work.

The first step of the treatment itself was for conservation staff to wash the entire sculpture. Steve Osborne, conservation technician, Caitlin Whaley, conservation assistant, and I worked from lifts to reach all of the surfaces with a brush and pressure washer, as you can see in the image at the top of this post.

From there, Steve Aigner and the lead painter from his company, James Lamarr, took over.

The first steps were filling deep chips in the surfaces and careful sanding to recreate the perfectly smooth surface. A crack in the surface of the fiberglass paper wad was also repaired. All of the areas with minor scratches and abrasions that did not go all the way through the paint were then lightly sanded and buffed to minimize the appearance of the damage. I worked together with Steve to determine an appropriate level of sanding and buffing and to make decisions about which areas to treat.

The next step was to mask off all the parts of the sculpture that were not to be painted with paper, tape, and plastic to prevent overspray from the paint application from depositing on the surfaces.

All areas to be painted were sanded to allow the new paint to adhere well and were wiped down with solvents to remove any dirt or grease. Primer was applied first to areas that had been repaired and was allowed to dry. Then the top coat was applied, followed by the clear coat. Applying these coatings with a spray gun is a specialized skill that takes years of experience to develop. Check out the video in the slideshow below of James Lamarr spraying the clear coat onto the front brown bristle.

Finally, the masking was removed and some final buffing and finishing was carried out.

As you can see, although this outdoor sculpture and others are made of durable materials meant to withstand the outdoor environment, these materials are still highly vulnerable to activities like climbing and skateboarding and can be easily damaged. As with the conservation of Big Sweep, repairing them, when possible, can be very involved. Help to preserve outdoor sculptures for everyone by avoiding such activities and spreading the word!

Image credit: Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Big Sweep, 1999-2006. Washing the sculpture. ©Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Denver Art Museum: Purchased in honor of Tom and Noël Congdon with funds from 1998 Collectors’ Choice, with support from the estate of Richard H. Bosworth, Cyprus Amax Minerals Company, Charles and Diane Gallagher, Jerry Gart Family Foundation, Frederic C. and Jane Hamilton, Hines, Jan and Frederick R. Mayer, Paul and Lilly Merage, Larry and Carol Mizel, Ken and Judy Robins, Titanium Metals Corporation, Carl and Lisa Williams, Ginny Williams, and an anonymous donor.

Additional funding was provided by Mark and Polly Addison, Joan Anderman, Bruce and Marcy Benson, Nancy Lake Benson, Jim and Janice Campbell, Howard and Beulah Cherne, Steven and Robin Chotin, Tom and Noël Congdon, Peter and Philae Dominick, Suzanne Farver, Leonard and Kay Gemmill, Dorothy Strear Goodstein, Robert and Diane Greenlee, Heidi Hamilton, Mark and Diana Hayden, Harley and Lorraine Higbie, A. Barry and Arlene Hirschfeld, Grafton and Sue Jhung, Glenn Jones and Diane Eddolls, Mariner and Megan Kemper, Bill and Alma Kurtz, Ed and Margaret Anne Leede, Susan and John W. Madden III, Caroline Morgan, Trygve and Vicki Myhren, NBT Foundation, Denny and Judy O’Brien, Andrea Singer Pollack, and an anonymous donor, 1998.496.

Kate Moomaw is assistant conservator for modern and contemporary art in the conservation department at the Denver Art Museum. Kate has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Geneviève and the May Wolf by Kiki Smith.