Photo: Abigail Mack

The In Detail series brings together curators and conservators to take a close look at an artwork, exploring specific details about its making and meaning that might otherwise be hidden to us.

Cara Manes: We’re looking at Man-Eater with Pennants, a sculpture Alfred Barr commissioned Alexander Calder to make for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden in 1945. It is made up of several different painted metal components affixed to rods that are counterbalanced with one another. They move around a central post by means of air currents. We’re thrilled to have been able to revitalize this work in our collection after an extensive conservation treatment, but also to understand a very critical point in Calder’s career through this object. Maybe we can begin by talking a little bit about that day in Queens, a long time ago now, when we began to explore what it would take to conserve Man-Eater.

Lynda Zycherman: Man-Eater was on view for about four or five years in the late 1940s, one other time in MoMA’s garden in the ’60s, and it also traveled once or twice to other venues. When a work of art has been painted and exposed outdoors for years, the paint will inevitably deteriorate. This sculpture had been repainted a number of times, but you don’t necessarily repaint it before you put it away in storage. You wait until it’s ready to be exhibited again, and then you start your conservation campaign.

The last time this was put away it was not in pristine condition, and that’s what we faced when we saw it in storage for the first time. The paint was missing in many areas, rust had penetrated through the paint, the long rods were bent, and even some of the shapes were bent. It was a bit of a shock when we saw it, but you do have to work on outdoor sculpture repeatedly, so we knew that was going to happen and we proceeded from there.

Man-Eater with Pennants in storage. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

Man-Eater with Pennants in storage. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

Megan Randall: When you see Man-Eater in its packing, it’s just disassembled strips of metal and difficult to understand. Some of the bends were really obvious, but not all. We weren’t sure what it would look like when it was put together, so we arranged to install it. It was a key moment to understand the scope of the sculpture and its departure from what it looked like in the ’40s.

As Lynda pointed out, there were records indicating that it had been repainted. To understand the colors, we took small samples of the paint and mounted them in resin. You polish the sample perpendicular to the layers of paint and see all of the layers of paint that had come previously. This allowed us to look back in history to see what might have been original campaigns of paint and determine how the color had changed over time, and how the top layers in particular had aged poorly or been misinterpreted by painters.

LZ: The first thing you look at when you start to research complex sculpture like this are the museum records. We are fortunate to own the maquette for this work, so we had some idea of the original colors. When you look at the pieces prior to restoration, you can see how faded the red is, and the blue looks pale gray. Even in the written records, it is referred to once or twice as light gray, because they had come so far away from the original color of deep blue. It’s like an archaeological dig—each layer represents a paint campaign and the bottom layers represent the earliest campaign.

From top: Rods and shapes from Man-Eater with Pennants prior to reassembly; A cross-section of a paint-layer sample taken from the sculpture. Photos: Megan Randall

From top: Rods and shapes from Man-Eater with Pennants prior to reassembly; A cross-section of a paint-layer sample taken from the sculpture. Photos: Megan Randall

Alexander Calder. Mobile with 14 Flags (Model for Man-Eater with Pennants). 1945

Alexander Calder. Mobile with 14 Flags (Model for Man-Eater with Pennants). 1945

CM: Maquette-making was a vital part of Calder’s practice because scale, for him, was a very complex subject. Sometimes, he’d make a tabletop-size sculpture with the intention specifically of scaling it up right away, so in those instances the tabletop-size work serves as a maquette for a larger-size sculpture. Other times, works existed in small scale for decades and then, ultimately, were enlarged. And sometimes they were never scaled up.

In the case of Man-Eater, the maquette was created specifically with the idea that the work would be made at a larger scale right away for the garden. In that sense it can be a guide, yet we also noticed very clear differences, maybe most strikingly in the precise paint colors and in the fact that in the final sculpture, some of the upper metal elements are perforated, whereas they are not in the maquette. I’m curious, as conservators, how do you reckon with a maquette? How useful was it as a guide?

MR: The perforations do differ between the maquette and Man-Eater. The bottom pennants on the maquette spin, and the ones on Man-Eater are fixed, which was an interesting discovery when we pulled it out of storage. I think the main thing in looking at it is just seeing the overall position of the components. The thickness of the bars is very different because there’s different structural considerations for the scale of Man-Eater over the maquette, but the straightness of the elements was really important to see and discuss in order to understand how bent some of the rods had become.

Slight bending in one of the shapes from Man-Eater with Pennants. Photo: Abigail Mack

Slight bending in one of the shapes from Man-Eater with Pennants. Photo: Abigail Mack

One thing that surprised us, from Abigail Mack and Ellen Rand of Monumenta Art Conservation, the conservation firm who performed the treatment, is that the metal itself is extremely soft. They straightened out the metal, both the bent shapes and the rods themselves. Some of the bends in the pennants and the shapes had to be hammered out, but some of the bends in the rods could be manipulated almost by hand. That made it easier for them to actually do the reshaping. And it was also a really important piece of information for us for future care because improper handling of the work for installation or crating could cause future bends.

When we’re making these decisions around treatment, we’re consulting and collaborating with a large team that includes the curators, our registrars Kathleen Hill and Jessica Nilsen, our conservation scientists Ana Martins and Abed Haddad, Monumenta Art Conservation, and the Calder Foundation. We’re all looking at this data we’ve acquired in order to make the best decision for this artwork.

CM: It truly was a collaborative process. I worked with MoMA curatorial fellows Zuna Maza and Makayla Bailey on this project, and we relied on essential guidance from Alexander S. C. Rower, president of the Calder Foundation and the artist’s grandson, at every step along the way. We used data, the cross sections, and historical records, but ultimately we also had to rely on a more subjective understanding of history. This particular sculpture is an outlier in that it is visually different from many other works that Calder was making at the time, or, really, that he ever made.

Reshaping an element of the sculpture at Monumenta Art Conservation. Photo: Abigail Mack

Reshaping an element of the sculpture at Monumenta Art Conservation. Photo: Abigail Mack

This particular sculpture is an outlier in that it is visually different from many other works that Calder ever made.
Cara Manes
A number of paint coupons used in color selection. Photo: Abigail Mack

A number of paint coupons used in color selection. Photo: Abigail Mack

LZ: Abigail started out with a basic color provided to her by the paint company that specializes in this outdoor paint—it’s a little bit more permanent and fade-resistant than what you can buy in the paint store. For example, to determine the yellow color, we started out with a greener color, based on the lower levels of the cross-section, and kept moving further away from that, and closer to that sunshine yellow, which ended up as the final color.

Those rectangles of color are called paint coupons. We’ll keep those in the archives from now on so that there’s always a reference sample as to what the color decision was, and should that paint company no longer exist the next time this work needs a repaint, it can be matched by another paint company.

MR: The treatment by Monumenta Art Conservation had three major steps. The first was to fill areas of metal loss in the kinetic hooks and loops that had worn away. The second was to position and reshape the elements, which was done using a variety of tools to make sure the bends were resolved. Monumenta then partially installed sections of the work to check the progress and make further adjustments. This process was repeated many times, accompanied by visual consultations with Rower, to bring the elements back to the correct alignment. Then there was a final test install with everyone from the team to check all of the positions of the elements and to make sure everything was working as it should. This final install also included Tom Kruger from our Art Handling team and Matthew Cox from Exhibition and Design to ensure MoMA’s team understood the installation process in terms of the preparation of the underground mounting system in the Sculpture Garden.

Comparing paint coupons to cross-sections of samples from the sculpture. Photo: Abigail Mack

Comparing paint coupons to cross-sections of samples from the sculpture. Photo: Abigail Mack

Sculpture elements hang in the “spray booth” at Monumenta Art Conservation. Photo: Abigail Mack

Sculpture elements hang in the “spray booth” at Monumenta Art Conservation. Photo: Abigail Mack

The third aspect of the treatment was the repainting of the sculpture. Monumenta Art Conservation carefully removed the old layers of paint, making sure to avoid texturing or changing the metal in any way. They then applied a zinc primer, followed by an epoxy primer, both high-performance coatings formulated to be thin so that the character of the metal is not obscured. A superior grade “top coat,” or colored layer, was then applied in two steps. First by spray in a really elaborate spray booth to make sure all of the surfaces are coated evenly. Then the last layer of paint on the pennants and the flags was applied by hand with a brush. Because this was an early work of Calder’s, we could see in some instances brush work remaining on the surface. Monumenta Art Conservation was advised by the Calder Foundation and MoMA to replicate that final layer of brush work. The primer used for the yellow, red, and blue flag components is white, and the primer used for the rods and the horizontal shapes, which are all black, was black.

CM: We did bring the sculpture back to life and it seems like it could now become one of the candidates for inclusion in any number of thematic exhibitions in the Sculpture Garden going forward. What do you see as the challenges or considerations for caring for this work in the future?

LZ: This sculpture is quite large: it’s approximately 30 feet across in full rotation. There are only two locations in the garden where this could actually go: the central plaza, where it’s currently installed, and then where we have Broken Obelisk. There is a sub-ground system in place ready to receive this sculpture at any time. Should you want to move it or show it in a different location, this sub-ground work would have to be done over again in another location.

The sub-ground sculpture-support system beneath MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

The sub-ground sculpture-support system beneath MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

Man-Eater with Pennants installed in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, 2021. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

Man-Eater with Pennants installed in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, 2021. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

CM: As we were saying earlier, Man-Eater was on view for about four years, and it actually was deemed unsuccessful by a variety of people, including Barr, who ultimately made the decision to remove it from view. The comments were that it was clumsy. Dorothy Miller said “it was too heavy to blow around much except in very strong wind.” Barr said it was, “successful when seen from above...unfortunately few people saw it from this angle.” [In the black-and-white image at bottom right] you can see an image of it from above. From eye level, the lower elements are not as visible. I wonder what you both feel about these statements, especially in terms of its functionality and the fact that it didn’t move around enough.

LZ: It still doesn’t rip around in the wind. It is so heavy and also there are not enough pieces to catch the wind. The only pieces that are pushable by the wind are the pennants on the top, which are vertical. But the large lily pad shapes that are horizontal to the ground aren’t. You would need a very, very big wind force to turn this. It does bounce, but I don’t think it’s going to make a full 360-degree turn.

Installing the sculpture at MoMA, 2021. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

Installing the sculpture at MoMA, 2021. Photo: Lynda Zycherman

CM: Calder’s work is often described as joyful, really easy to access, but in fact, this work is called Man-Eater with Pennants. “Man-eater,” in a certain regard, is a bit menacing. The public was supposed to be able to let the elements clang into each other and move it around. That’s obviously not something that’s possible anymore but I wonder what you, from a conservation standpoint, make of Calder’s work, which is really completed by a viewer in space: having an experience in proximity to the work, watching it move, relating one’s body to it. Should a museum visitor be afraid of Man-Eater with Pennants?

LZ: You know, the reason that this photo has a stanchion set all the way around in a large circle is because of previous curators. Dorothy Miller was worried the sculpture would actually attack people. I have to say that yesterday, during the outdoor installation, one of the art handlers called out to me and said, “Lynda, watch it!” because a very small triangle piece was heading right for my jugular. If a wind picks up and you are standing in the wrong place, it can hit you. I think that’s why in the previous installation, they did set up those guard railings around it.

CM: But that’s part of our work—we do our best to anticipate how a public might engage with the art that we present, and then evaluate from there.

Man-Eater with Pennants installed in the Sculpture Garden, circa 1948. The stanchion surrounding the sculpture prevents visitors from running into the floating elements.

Man-Eater with Pennants installed in the Sculpture Garden, circa 1948. The stanchion surrounding the sculpture prevents visitors from running into the floating elements.

Conservation of Man-Eater with Pennants was made possible by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.