Behind The Scenes

Step inside the Conservation Lab: The Menil carefully restores crushed car sculptures

Step inside the Conservation Lab: The Menil carefully restores crushed car sculptures

"John Chamberlain would see these works break constantly throughout his career," conservator Shelley Smith said as she inspected a colorful six-foot tangle of auto body parts called Artur Banres. "That's really just the nature of how they're constructed. Every time they were moved, they would shift a little."

Under the bright lights of the Menil Collection's conservation laboratory, the 1977 sculpture appeared to be stretched across an operating table as Smith examined one of the piece's many broken welds.

"There's a degree of stress and collapse that happens over time, just from the weight of the metal," Menil chief conservator Brad Epley chimed in from the far end of the artwork.

Under the bright lights of the Menil Collection's conservation laboratory, the sculpture appeared to be stretched across an operating table. 

Chamberlain worked with a range of materials until his recent death last December, but it was his sculptures of automobile steel that put his name in annals of 20th century art. Monumental knots of Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, these works were viewed by critics as a sort of three-dimension take on Abstract Expressionism.

Armed with a generous grant from Bank of America's new Art Conservation Project, Smith and Epley are now trying to stop the passing of time for 12 iconic metal Chamberlains held by the Menil Collection. Two pieces have already been restored and sent to the artist's 100-work Guggenheim retrospective, which will be on view in New York until Sunday.

"We've already learned so much about just how to handle the works with the ones that went to the Guggenheim," Epley said, adding that the first step is always a thorough photography session to document each piece's current condition (see video above).

"These are incredibly delicate pieces, to say the least, and so much can happen when they travel."

The Breaks

"He was very aggravated by any 'car crash' readings of his sculptures," Smith laughed, noting how Chamberlain thoughtfully creased and folded the metal rather than crushing or mangling it into a shape that might resemble an auto wreck. Much of the paint around these folds slowly peeled and flaked, leaving conservators to secure the delicate pieces as much as possible without altering the aesthetic.

"We have piles of archival records, so we have a history from the time when Chamberlain made them," Smith said. "Each one was made differently, depending the how the artist worked at a given time."

"There's a degree of stress and collapse that happens over time, just from the weight of the metal," Menil chief conservator Brad Epley said.

"We know that the parts were bent and painted in advance and then collaged to interact with one another," Epley said. "The welds just held things in place, really. They were done quickly almost as an afterthought to confirm how each piece was put together."

"When he became very successful and ramped up his production, Chamberlain would lay out the metal parts and have his assistants splatter paint on them," Smith explained. "Then the welds would be made on top of the paint, which would bubble up in a very particular way that's difficult to replicate."

With the help of conservator Catherine Williams of Austin's Silver Lining Art Conservation and Houston-based welding expert Guido Schindler, the Menil team was able to strike that delicate balance between art and craft needed to recreate a sloppy-but-sturdy weld over paint.

"What we love about the project is that it brings all these people together and pools their expertise," Epley said. "Through this collaborative process we've been able to analyze the history of each weld and use Guido's understanding of how the steel will react to get the right look."

News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_tallest_part_of_american_tableau
The Menil conservation team prepares the tallest section of American Tableau for detailed photographic documentation. Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197705
Artur Banres [detail], 1977   Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_02
Tobin Becker and Shelley Smith with Rooster Starfoot. Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197702
Artur Banres [top view], 1977 Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_03
1976's Rooster Starfoot goes under the camera lights before its journey to New York City for the Guggenheim's Chamberlain retrospective. Photo by Shelley M. Smith
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197701
Artur Banres [elevation], 1977   Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
NewsJohn Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_01
Conservators document the piece's current color condition. Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_clytie_II_1976_01
Clytie II [top view], 1976 Courtesy of Hester + Hardaway Photographers
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_tallest_part_of_american_tableau
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197705
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_02
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197702
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_03
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_artur_banres_197701
NewsJohn Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_rooster_starfoot_1976_01
News_John Chamberlain_sculptures_restoration_clytie_II_1976_01