Isamu Noguchi: Watering the Art

Abigail on December 27, 2016
Isamu Noguchi's The Well

Objects conservators have a challenging job. On any given day Ariel O'Connor, an art object conservator at SAAM, might be asked to research, examine, document, and treat works of art made with bronze, wood, plastic, stone, plaster, glass, and many, many other types of materials. The Isamu Noguchi exhibition Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern perfectly exemplifies this material diversity, with sculptures ranging from heavy stone obelisks to feather-light delicate bamboo and paper lanterns. Even with years of training and experience, one sculpture is proving to be a unique challenge for Ariel: a 3,000 pound basalt stone fountain titled The Well.

The Well is normally on view at The Noguchi Museum in New York, with a twist: it's usually outside. The dirt that accumulates on rocks outside does not harm the stone, but is not ideal inside a museum where we must follow strict guidelines for environmental conditions within the galleries.

Noguchi Washing Rocks

Washing the trap rock before taking it inside museum.

Before the piece could be brought inside SAAM, Ariel first had to clean the stones which surround the base of the fountain. Twelve buckets full of two inch trap rock were shipped on pallets from New York City to Washington, DC On a warm sunny day on a loading dock outside the museum's storage area, with Exhibit Specialist Nick Primo's assistance, the rocks were spread out, washed with brushes and soap, and dried in the sun before their journey inside the museum. Sometimes a conservator's day involves complicated analytical research, but sometimes they're scrubbing large piles of rocks!

Installation of The Well

Installing The Well in SAAM's gallery.

With the trap rock clean and dry, The Well and its many components were brought inside the gallery. Riggers, or specialists who install large and heavy artwork, worked with SAAM staff to lift the fountain and place it carefully inside a steel catch pan. The fountain had to be perfectly level, or the water wouldn't flow evenly across the top. Three fountain pumps were placed in the catch pan, and plastic tubing was fed up through a hole in the stone.

Pouring water into Noguchi's The Well

Water being added to The Well.

With everything in place, 18 gallons of tap water were added to the catch pan and the pumps were turned on. The water filled the sculpture and trickled down all sides of the stone, filling the galleries with soothing sounds of flowing water. The catch pan and pumps were neatly hidden below pounds of freshly-cleaned trap rock.

Usually a conservator's work would finish at this point after an installation, but The Well requires ongoing attention and maintenance throughout the exhibition. One challenging issue in the dry winter months is that the running water slowly evaporates. To check the level of the water, Ariel uses a low-tech but effective solution: a hidden ruler. When the levels get below the specific marker, water is added.

The water chemistry is also extremely important to the safe exhibition of The Well. Each week, Ariel and conservation intern Anna Ersenkal check the water chemistry to make sure it is safe for the basalt stone. A sample is collected and the water pH and alkalinity are tested and recorded. If any of the levels are off, Ariel and Anna adjust them by adding small amounts of deionized water, or by draining the water completely and refilling the fountain. Algae growth inhibitors called "polyquats," are added when necessary to prevent algae from forming on the surface of the artwork.

It's a delicate balance and unique challenge to keep an artwork which also functions as a fountain running safely inside a museum, but the sculpture is a highlight in the gallery for all of our visitors. Besides, fountain chemistry can now be added to Ariel's diverse and interesting conservation job description at SAAM.

Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern is open through March 19, 2017. Ariel O'Connor contributed to this post.