Regroomed: Restoring Red Grooms’ "Philadelphia Cornucopia" for Exhibition

The recent opening of Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics marks the first time in nearly 30 years that the larger-than-life sculptures of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin from Red Grooms’ Philadelphia Cornucopia have been presented together publically. During the past few months, I have helped PAFA’s curatorial and conservation staff by conducting archival research and collecting information relevant to the conservation and subsequent exhibition of several central figures from Grooms’ work.

Philadelphia Cornucopia, including the four historical personalities, was an immersive installation/large-scale spatial environment—or what Grooms coined a “sculpto-pictorama.” This work, which the artist created on invitation, was consciously designed to fit the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia’s (ICA) gallery space in University City. As part of the “Century IV” celebration in 1982—a citywide event honoring Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary— Philadelphia Cornucopia was intended to highlight and pay tribute to the city’s wealth of socio-cultural and architectural history. In true Grooms fashion, however, Philadelphia Cornucopia was also designed to serve as a work of social commentary, by and through which visitors would confront the various myths, legends, stereotypes, and clichés surrounding his featured cast of high-profile personalities. Despite the overall size and scale of Philadelphia Cornucopia—its original configuration boasted an array of both painted canvases depicting various historical and contemporary scenes and sculptural figures and forms that in combination comprised a 50 by 50 square-foot space—only nine components and a selection of their associated props exist today. As such, no longer is it possible to interpret Philadelphia Cornucopia as anything other than a fragment.

Preparing the selected Philadelphia Cornucopia figures for exhibition required a significant degree of conservation intervention. Each was exceptionally dirty as a result of not having undergone any conservation treatment since its original construction. Also, because Philadelphia Cornucopia was re-exhibited and reconfigured on two occasions in the 1980s—following its original installation at the ICA—the Washingtons, Jefferson, and Franklin had each suffered some structural strains. Furthermore, many of the figures’ respective accoutrements went missing as Philadelphia Cornucopia was moved to and stored in various locations between its last public appearance at 30th Street Station in 1987 and 2010, when it was accessioned by PAFA. For example, by the time the Philadelphia Cornucopia figures arrived at PAFA, gone was the wreath that Martha held, and notably missing were Jefferson’s quill, George’s telescope, and Franklin’s glasses, his kite, and even the legs to the chair on which he is seated.

I recently spent time speaking with both PAFA’s painting conservator, Mary McGinn, and Philadelphia-based objects conservator Adam Jenkins about both the work and the details of their collaborative involvement with this project. In particular, I was curious to learn more about the construction of the pieces. I also wanted to know if, on working closely with the colossal likenesses of three of our nation’s forefathers and one of its foremothers, they had encountered anything unusual, or of particular interest.

According to McGinn and Jenkins, Philadelphia Cornucopia presents a highly unusual conservation case. On detailed investigation, they have found these sculptures to be very roughly constructed. In contrast to all other works of art that he has conserved throughout his career, Jenkins shared that a sense of craftsmanship and intention for creating artworks meant to endure the test of time is missing when one looks beneath the purposeful, highly gestural, and clearly skilled application of brushstrokes that Grooms applied to the face and other exposed areas of skin of each Philadelphia Cornucopia figure. Jenkins explained that in addition to undergoing cleaning and documentation, and to having missing, broken, or delaminating parts and pieces reattached or fabricated, conserving Philadelphia Cornucopia and readying the figures for exhibition necessitated that each undergo a significant amount of internal stabilization.

Discovering that Philadelphia Cornucopia’s figures possess an ephemeral quality is not surprising. Philadelphia Cornucopia was precisely designed to fit the space of the ICA gallery; the work in its entirety was originally to be returned to the artist’s New York City studio following the September closure of the show; and it was only the immense popularity of the piece that prompted a group of philanthropic individuals to raise the funds necessary to purchase the work from Grooms and keep it in the city. In reality, it seemed that no one—not even Grooms—intended for Philadelphia Cornucopia to really have a life following the 1982 show at the ICA.

Jenkins also said that three of Philadelphia Cornucopia’s figures—each of which is constructed of two or more pieces that are joined together using a series of metal brackets and screws—have literally held some fabrication surprises up their sleeves. In the case of Thomas Jefferson the surprise was, ironically, in his head. It was within that cranial cavity that Jenkins found a torqued metal bracket that appears to have been twisted following its mounting atop Jefferson’s body. Since Grooms intended Jefferson to look pensive—to appear as though he were contemplating the writing of one of the many historical documents for which he was famous—it is very likely that either he or one of his assistants simply twisted Jefferson’s head into place during the installation process (and thus bent the structural bracket) in order to have this character achieve the preferred pose.

Another interesting story and unexpected find involves a missing button on George Washington’s coat. When closely investigating and documenting this figure, McGinn and Jenkins noted that each of Washington’s buttons was constructed of a Ball jar lid—featuring a cornucopia design—and ring. In an effort to restore the look of Washington’s attire, McGinn tracked down a modern replacement lid featuring the same design. Then, Jenkins contributed an old, rusted brass ring from his studio (as new Ball jar rings now come only in a silver tone), and rusticated the replacement lid so that it would better match the look of the originals.

By the time Happiness, Liberty, Life? opened, McGinn, Jenkins, and several additional textile conservators together had spent well over 100 hours administering various conservation treatments to these four Philadelphia Cornucopia figures. Their work was informed and directed by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ “Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” As such, they first aimed to stabilize the sculptures and then made reversible or “retractable” all interventions, meaning they can be removed using heat or mild solvents. The conservators also documented the figures before, during, and after treatment. Of course, in order to aid in the interpretability of these figures, a certain number of the lost or missing elements had to be fabricated and replaced.

Central to each conservator’s respective ability to perform the treatments deemed necessary to the conservation and interpretation of the Philadelphia Cornucopia figures was my work in uncovering specific types of historical documents related to this greater artwork and its original fabrication. With regard to the fabrication of the various, missing components and to the stabilization and re-posturing of the figures, photographs from the 1980s played a pivotal role. In terms of surface treatment and cleaning efforts, contracts, correspondences, and especially retail receipts that list names of paint colors, types of canvas, and wire purchased for the creation of Philadelphia Cornucopia’s various components proved pivotal. For example, thanks to a selection of historic photographs found in the archives at Independence National Historical Park, Jenkins was able to fabricate a copy of each Jefferson’s quill, Martha Washington’s wreath, and Franklin’s glasses. Photos also revealed that George Washington’s coat was once decorated with epaulets and guided textile conservators in making a set of newly attachable copies.

(The restoration of Philadelphia Cornucopia was made possible by special support from Bowman Properties.)

Written by Sharon Reid

June 30, 2016

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