Examining Robert Rauschenberg's Copperhead metal paintings with Michelle Barger. Image courtesy of Thomas Roach.

In June 2019, I examined and documented nine Copperhead metal paintings from the ROCI Chile series that remain in the collection of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Each report includes a summary of the object’s biography; discussion of media and process; condition assessment; recommendations for storage, shipping, and display; recommendation for future research and conservation intervention; glossary of terms; condition diagrams; and colorimetry and glossimetry measurements.

The documentation produced from this multifaceted condition and collection survey is the first conservation for these works, which have largely been in storage since their return from the international ROCI tour in 1991. Present circumstances, including a renewed interest in Rauschenberg’s metal paintings and the Foundation’s commitment to increase collection access to researchers and students, necessitated baseline documentation and condition assessment.

I completed this work as a Fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) and as a participant in a year-long education supplement to teach Contemporary Art Conservation to select students. Since 2015, the program has taken the form of a partnership between WUDPAC an outside institution, in this iteration Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA) and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF).

Sampling select ROCI-Chile Copperheads. Image courtesy of Jennifer Myers.

This multifaceted condition and collection survey is the first conservation record for these works, which have largely been in storage since their return from the ROCI tour. Present circumstances, including a renewed interest in Rauschenberg’s metal paintings and the Foundation’s commitment to increase collection access to researchers and students, necessitated baseline documentation and a condition assessment. Varnish and bloom samples were taken from select works to better understand its chemical composition and degradation.

All nine metal paintings are monumental; they are executed on 8x4ft copper sheets, which Rauschenberg and his team of studio assistants polished, and selectively tarnished with industrial acid solutions. After chemically developing the surface, he silkscreened enlarged original photographs in acrylic ink, sometimes adding several layers or distorting with other means, such as adding gestural paint layers, then finished the surface by sealing with clear lacquer.

Michelle Barger viewing ROCI-Chile Copperhead metal paintings

The works hang on the wall from their aluminum strainer and patinated copper strip frame. Installation images from the ROCI CHILE exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago de Chile, Chile 1985 show that they were hung relatively close together. Their highly reflective, mirror like surfaces implicate the viewer in a sort of performance, or public dialogue with the artwork, where the compositional balance and color-palette respond to the shifting light, objects, and people within the gallery space. This responsiveness creates a mandatory experience for the viewer, who cannot experience the artworks without engaging in the act of self-reflexion.

This behavioral quality can be considered a work-defining property based on Rauschenberg’s stated intentions for this series and his sanctioned actions manifested in the physical works.

How this designation should be documented and the extent to which it should affect decision making has not be widely discussed in conservation scholarship, although many have acknowledged it as an important factor of consideration. As a result, I did not explicitly mention this quality in the formal conservation record, and spend much of my time as a Conservation Intern at the University of Amsterdam in October 2020 studying the conservation of performance-based works to better understand what practices can be carried over for complex works such as these that fall between the comfortable boundaries of art history. 

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