Conservation of Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz

Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Today, we celebrate, along with colleagues at the National Museum of American History, the rededication of Gwenfritz, a 40-foot tall abstract sculpture by the esteemed American artist Alexander Calder. The artwork was recently conserved and relocated to the site originally selected by the artist. American History intern Auni Gelles shares five behind-the-scenes pieces of information about on the sculpture's recent restoration.

Calder had a deep relationship with the Smithsonian. Heeding First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson's 1965 appeal for the beautification of the nation's capital, the philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz commissioned Calder to create a sculpture to be placed outside what was then known as the Museum of History and Technology (which became the National Museum of American History in 1980). Although he had criticized the Johnson administration's policies surrounding the Vietnam War, Calder accepted this commission, which would become part of the collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


This letter from "Sandy" (Calder's nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968. Smithsonian Institution Archives accession 96-135, boxes 1 & 2.

Calder valued his relationship with the Smithsonian and solidified his commitment to public art in America by creating other works for this national collection. In a 1968 letter to David Scott, then the director of the art museum, Calder mentions his progress on both Gwenfritz and another stabile, Nenuphar.

The pool that will again surround the sculpture was an important part of Calder's vision. He originally envisioned high jets of water surrounding the stabile—that's the opposite of a moving sculpture, a mobile—but it was determined that the fountain would be too difficult to maintain. Water would no doubt come into contact with the metal, accelerating its deterioration. The water feature, however, remained part of Calder's idea for this site-specific work: the sculpture was designed to be surrounded by a reflecting pool.

The water feature disappeared when the sculpture was moved to a new location on Constitution Avenue in 1984, to make way for a bandstand. A major component of the stabile's restoration is its move back to its original location, where it will once again stand above a pool of water. Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision."

Like an archaeological dig, removing layers of paint on the sculpture exposed information about the object's past. When Calder created this enormous structure in his studio in France, he instructed metal workers where to cut with markings on the material. Individual pieces were then assembled to form this massive abstract shape, disassembled, and shipped to the museum in crates. Once it was reassembled on the west side of the museum in 1969, Smithsonian staff covered Gwenfritz in matte black paint in accordance with Calder's suggestions, concealing the original markings. It wasn't until 2013, when conservators removed the sculpture's surface coatings, that Calder's guide marks resurfaced. Conservators gained insights from these previously hidden marks. "It's as if we returned to Calder's hand," Lemmey said. "The piece reveal[ed] itself in the course of conservation and tells us a lot about Calder's creative process."

Gwenfritz received a new coating of high-tech, military-grade paint. Calder gained technical expertise as he studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a rich black tone for Gwenfritz, he shipped the metal pieces in a primer coat and advised the Smithsonian to add layer of low-gloss paint.

After careful consideration, the team chose to re-cover Gwenfritz in a new, military-grade paint developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Gallery of Art specifically for outdoor sculptures. Lemmey believes that Calder would have approved of this cutting-edge paint had it been available to him. "We would hope that the criteria that we used to guide this project would have been sympathetic to the way that Calder would have approached the problem himself," she said. In order to protect the metal for another 50+ years, the Smithsonian's conservators will check on its condition regularly and touch up the paint as necessary.


Gwenfritz as it appeared in 2013

The sculpture is held together by more than 1,200 bolts, which were all replaced. When the stabile was assembled in 1969, the individual pieces were connected by 1,270 bolts that came in different sizes to fit various angles. Each of the bolts faced the same way, creating a uniform aesthetic. During the 1984 move to the north side of the museum, however, this detail was lost. According to Richard Barden, American History's preservation services manager who oversaw this recent conservation, records from both the original installation and the move 15 years later do not provide sufficient insights into how exactly the sculpture was actually set up. Before the stabile was temporarily deconstructed last fall, the staff had to better understand how it was originally put together. In 2010, Ashley Jehle, an intern in the American History's objects lab, created a detailed study of each of the 71 irregularly shaped pieces.

Using this as a guide, the conservation process could begin. The only parts of Gwenfritz that were replaced were the bolts, many of which had corroded over the years. Thin washers were placed between the bolts and the metal planes, and special attention was paid to ensure that all of the bolts would once again be facing a single direction, a fact that Barden is particularly proud of. Barden has made an effort to maintain more detailed records so that future conservators do not face the same challenges when caring for this sculpture. American Art conservator, Tiarna Doherty, stated the museum is saving the old bolts for future reference.

Fitted with this durable new hardware and a fresh coat of black paint, Gwenfritz is now back in its original location in a new reflecting pool on the west side of the museum. I can only imagine that Calder would be delighted to see this landmark work today, as it is more striking than ever before.

For more pictures of Gwenfritz, check out American History's Flickr album.