The highly realistic sculpture Linda by Colorado artist John DeAndrea has been a visitor favorite at the Denver Art Museum since it became a part of the collection in 1984. Linda is also an important work of contemporary art in which DeAndrea made innovative use of a material that was fairly new to art at the time: plastic. This is why Linda is of such interest to us in the museum’s conservation department. This is a material that has not yet stood the test of time, and we watch Linda carefully to understand how the plastic is aging.
DeAndrea started using this plastic material, which he refers to as polyvinyl, when he realized that it could help him attain the perfectly realistic effects he sought to achieve in his sculptures of people. He creates the sculptures by first taking plaster molds directly from people’s bodies, a process called life casting. The polyvinyl material can be melted with heat and poured into the molds to create hollow or solid casts with very fine surface detail. The material is soft enough to allow hair to be directly implanted into it. DeAndrea implanted hairs one by one or in small clumps to create realistic effects. Glass or plastic eyes can also be embedded in the polyvinyl.
The sculptures truly come to life via the painting process used by DeAndrea. Oil paint and glazes are built up in thin layers to achieve a translucent, skin-like effect. Details including veins, moles, and even reddish impressions in the skin from articles of clothing are meticulously reproduced.
Plastics in general are a somewhat problematic class of materials in terms of their longevity. Some like Plexiglas are relatively stable but easily scratched. Others, like cellulose nitrate, which was used as early film stock, are highly unstable and can degrade quickly to a pile of crumbs or even spontaneously combust.
Switching to Bronze
The polyvinyl material used by DeAndrea has proven to visibly deteriorate, at least under certain conditions. Sculptures that were made as hollow casts in polyvinyl have had problems with severe cracking, but the solid casts, like Linda, have fared much better. Because of the problems with the polyvinyl, DeAndrea turned to bronze as his preferred medium later in his career. The sculpture Nude with Black Drape on view in Starring Linda is an example of his later work in bronze. The third sculpture in the exhibition, Clothed Artist and Model, was actually originally made using hollow, polyvinyl casts. It was remade by DeAndrea in bronze in 2010 due to cracking of the original casts.
The Future of Linda
Linda fortunately remains in very good condition. We in the conservation department monitor her carefully and work to keep her environment stable and supportive of her preservation. Exposure to light can accelerate deterioration, so her time on view is limited, and she is stored in a completely dark compartment within the museum’s storage rooms when not on view. Heat also speeds up deterioration, so the storage temperature is controlled.
Three-dimensional digital scanning is a documentation technique that has been used by museums such as the Tate in London for plastic sculptures that are known to be deteriorating. This non-damaging technique can be used to create a 3-D digital model of an object that can be viewed and interacted with on a computer. Combined with 3-D printing, it can also be used to create a physical replica of an object, though there are limitations to the size and level of detail that can be reproduced. As we observe Linda and learn more about the polyvinyl material, three-dimensional scanning may be another step we take to ensure that we have documented the original Linda as carefully as possible and perhaps even to be able to share a digital replica of Linda with broader audiences over the web.
Jessica Fletcher, Kristine Jeffcoat, Carl Patterson, and Sharon Blank, “The Works of John DeAndrea: An Evolution of Techniques, Materials, and Stability,” Modern Art, New Museums: Contributions to the Bilbao Congress, 13-17 September 2004, IIC: London, 2004.