Sunday, July 7, 2024

Art Accidents

A fact of life is that from time to time art is destroyed. Sometimes it is intentional as with the Nazi’s bonfires for what they considered degenerate art. Sometimes it is the result of war as in Ukraine. And, of course, there are natural disasters like floods and fires.

What I am looking at today is the destruction of art by stupid accidents… then again there are no smart ones. What brought this to mind was something you may have heard about recently. It was a six-foot-tall replica in wax of the Lincoln Memorial sculpture titled “40 ACRES: Camp Barker” (2024). It was to be installed at an elementary school in Washington D.C. which is on the site of a Civil War contraband camp where liberated slaves formed a community. The artist, also an art professor, is Sandy Williams IV. Though the artist was aware that the work would not last he did not expect it to melt so quickly with climate change. It has been suggested as a metaphor for the current state of the Union.

Last year at Art Wynwood, a contemporary art fair in Miami, Florida an older woman bumped into an acrylic stand for a version of Jeff Koons’ ceramic “Balloon Dog” that fell to the floor smashing into hundreds of pieces. As acrylic is a clear plastic, I see how this could happen, but it seems to me that the gallery could have better protected a very valuable artwork. Personally, I won’t miss it! Here is an image of the Dog in the installation and after its demise.

Having mentioned an incident where I was ambivalent about a work’s destruction, here is one involving a work by an artist I care very much about, Lucian Freud. The Guardian reported in April of 2000 that a crate containing a Freud still-life was delivered to Sotheby’s, London and placed in an area of disposable crates. Two workman crushed the crate without checking for contents, which happened to include that painting. I have not been able to identify the painting as no image has been published, but Sotheby’s played down its value as an early work.

Another unfortunate incident occurred at the Fitzwilliam museum when a 42-year-old man with loose shoelaces tripped down the stairs and knocked 3 important Kangxi vases (1662-1722) off their stand. Happily, the museum conservator, Penny Bendall, said she was well acquainted with hard past porcelain and did not think it would be a problem restoring them and when she had completed her work they went back on view.

In 2006 there was a story that made a lot of headlines. Real estate developer and major art collector, Steve Wynn, was showing off part of his collection to some illustrious friends including Nora Ephron, Luise Grunwald, and Barbara Walters. He had just made a deal to sell his Picasso, Le Reve (The Dream) - a portrait of Picasso's mistress Marie-Therese Walter, to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. As he was telling his friends about its provenance his elbow accidently went into the painting creating a 2-inch tear in the canvas at the sitter’s elbow. The immediate result was that it wrecked his deal with Cohen but in 2013 when the restored painting came up at Christie's Cohen bought it for $155 million, which was more than he had offered in 2006.

My father gave me a softcover book called “A Child of Six Could Do It”. The book had cartoons and jokes about modern art. In this case, it was a child of 5 who didn’t create, but rather demolished a work. The artist R. Zhao created a Lego sculpture, valued at $15,000, of the Disney character, Nick Wilde. What would your small child do if he or she saw a big Lego figure? The children I know would touch, hit, or push it resulting in its destruction. Wouldn’t you expect that the exhibitors might have used something more than stanchions and a rope that a child could easily get under to protect it?

There are so many examples of accidents causing damage to works of art. Some are unavoidable but in others, with just a little bit of forethought could protect the art to survive another day.

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