Not So Fantastic: Decaying Constructivist Sculpture Shows Plastic’s Precarity

Luke Barley Luke Barley

What remains of  “Construction: Two Cones in Space,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Brittle, brown, and crumbling, Naum Gabo’s sculpture “Construction: Two Cones in Space” is a harbinger of what is to come for artwork fabricated out of plastic. The sculpture, part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has so deteriorated that it is no longer feasible to display.

Gabo was a key member of the Russian Constructivists, an avant-garde group active in the beginning of the 20th century. The Constructivists had many radical ideas: the autonomy of material, imbuing everyday objects (such as chairs and utensils) with aesthetic concerns, and using contemporary materials and technology to wipe away the past. Gabo’s use of plastic was rooted in another of their beliefs: in using contemporary materials to create a new art.

What the statue is supposed to look like. Model for “Construction in Space: Two Cones,” 1927. Photo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2011 via the Tate Museum

Ironically, Gabo’s insistence on making use of new materials has led to the greatest damage to his objects. Notably: “Construction in Space: Two Cones,” which was fabricated using the early plastics cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate.

Plastics are made of long lines of cellulose polymers, the same structures that make up plant walls, with plasticizers placed in between each polymer. Much like the magnets in a set of wooden toy trains, the plasticizers allow the polymers to slide and move around each other.

However the chemical arrangement is not a happy one, and the plasticizers are constantly trying to break free of the bonds. Once the bond is broken many changes in a plastic object occur. The surface of the object can appear to be sweaty or powdery, the color can change from clear to brown, and chemical the structure itself becomes fragile, eventually fracturing and breaking down. The evaporation of plasticizers can also give off distinctive odors such as vinegar for cellulose acetate or mothballs for cellulose nitrate.  If encased in a vitrine, as many pieces of artwork are, the evaporated acetic acid can mix with any moisture in enclosed environment, causing small short instances of acid “rain” further damaging the piece.

This chemical breakdown can occur rather quickly. In the case of “Construction in Space: Two Cones,” it took ten years after entering the PMA’s collection. Curators noticed a change in the color and look of the sculpture. The Museum contacted Gabo for instructions on how to restore the sculpture. Gabo blamed the Museum for the deterioration of the object, and took the piece back in order to restore it.  However there was nothing he could do to repair it—once the chemical process has occurred it is irreversible.

Gabo never forgave the Philadelphia Museum of Art for what he saw as negligence resulting in the destruction of his creation. While the piece was in his possession, before returning it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gabo made an exact copy. He donated the sculpture to the Tate Museum in London, possibly as a demonstration to the PMA and the rest of the art world on how to properly care for his sculptures. The replica Gabo fabricated has also deteriorated to a point that it can no longer be displayed. However it is part of the Tate’s online Gallery of Lost Art, which is a virtual of collection of artworks that no longer exist.

Gabo’s “Construction in Space: Two Cones” is one example of the conservation problems museums will face in the futures. With many objects in collections having either plastic parts or being completely made of plastic, ways to conserve these objects will need to be devised. Unfortunately, as exemplified by Gabo’s sculpture, the future of plastic artwork may be a slowly atrophying pile of brown cellulose slowly turning to dust.

Photos by Luke Barley, unless otherwise noted