One morning last September, an exhibit of contemporary British sculpture called "A Quiet Revolution" betrayed its title when one of the pieces came unglued and crashed to the floor of the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
"It was like thunder," recounted Ursula Cyga, a museum staffer who said she was soaking up the museum's archival tranquility at the time. Cyga spoke mournfully of the collapsed sculpture--a bow-shaped form in wood--but museum officials said they weren't shocked. They specialize in contemporary art and know a lot of it doesn't hold up physically. They know that quick decay is virtually a subtext to modern art.
The reasons for this vary: Many of the century's artists' have reveled in gobs of paint that tended to break up under their own weight; they've used everything from plastic toys to food; many developed rebellious aesthetics that shunned commercial durability, or they simply couldn't afford better materials. Art insurers have a biblical-sounding label for this kind of cultural decay--"inherent vice." And the people at Newport Harbor say they've seen their share. A recently donated 1957 painting by San Francisco Bay Area painter David Park had numerous paint fissures. Museum officials suspect that the fallen British piece, finished as recently as 1985 by Richard Deacon, was partly undone by cheap glue.
The Newport Harbor museum said one case study in the mundane woes of artistic expression is a 1959 piece called "Bedroom," by San Francisco artist Bruce Conner. The purchase work arrived at Newport Harbor last year with its two store-bought eggs--crucial to the piece--smashed. "Bedroom" is an assemblage, a three-dimensional still life, a loosely engineered type of work pioneered on the cusp of a decade when so much came unglued.
Conner, speaking by phone from San Francisco, said he had roamed his neighborhood gathering scraps of a fur coat, bits of cardboard, hair and some shredded packaging material cupped to look like a bird's nest. He tucked the two eggs, blown hollow, into the simulated nest and that was that.
Working 30 years ago in a Haight-Ashbury apartment (Conner says he often worked after swallowing a psychedelic dose of peyote) the artist arranged the melange on a Masonite board, stretched a nylon stocking over them, stapled the stocking around the edges, stuck a candle on top, hung the work over his old brass bed and lit it.
"A lot of these works of mine came out of a poverty situation, and I was using materials I could gather," Conner said. "There was also the feeling that we were facing the destruction of our lives from the atomic bomb."
The bomb has remained, but so has "Bedroom," and Conner, 53, traveled to Orange County last spring to deliver two new, freshly hollowed eggs.
Enter Denise Domergue, an art "conservator." The Newport has four such art doctors on call: specialists in paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture.
Domergue performed the surgery on "Bedroom."
"She marked where the nylon was originally stapled, pulled out the staples, carefully rolled the nylon back and removed the broken egg fragments with a tweezer," said Betsy Severance, who oversees conservation at the Newport.
"She had a photograph of the piece in its original state that Conner had taken, and she used that to make sure the eggs were replaced at the exact angle he had put them at in 1959. He was there the whole time. Then they glued the eggs down, unrolled the nylon and restapled it. It had all the right tautness and folds."
Conner liked Domergue's results better than those of many conservators, people he generally castigates for a brusque, quasi-bureaucratic indifference to his intentions.
"Sometimes they want to stabilize structures," he said. "There was one who patched a part of a nylon stocking I used on another piece with stretch panty hose, which is not a medium I use.
Severance said Conner and Domergue had one dispute--about the candle, which the years had reduced to a broken stub dangling from a string. He wanted to replace it and--during exhibitions--light it up again. Domergue and her employers at Newport Harbor demurred: they argued that 1987 is not 1959; "Bedroom" in a museum can't possibly look the same as in Conner's bedroom in Haight-Ashbury.
"We can't light the candle again," the curator said. "The fact is that it had this living aspect to it at first, but we own a historical work of art. I know he'd like to see it the way it looked at that time, but that time has passed."