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An Achilles' Heel of the Geffen: Climate That Can't Be Controlled

June 12, 2002|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fans of artist H.C. Westermann who notice some key sculptures are missing from the retrospective of his works at the Geffen Contemporary can blame the weather.

Not outside in Los Angeles but inside the Geffen.

Because of a lack of state-of-the-art climate controls in the museum, 11 sculptures, primarily made of wood, and related drawings were withdrawn from the traveling exhibition by their owners, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and Art Institute of Chicago.

Most visitors to the comprehensive exhibition, which is spread out over 13,000 square feet in the former warehouse that is the Geffen, probably won't notice. But the absence of these works--including a couple considered vital to Westermann's career--brings to the forefront a long-standing problem at the Geffen.

The basic hurdle is humidity--modern museums strive to keep their buildings at about 50% relative humidity, with only 5% daily fluctuations. The Geffen, like many museum spaces not originally meant for displaying art, can't maintain that level.

"Wood is particularly vulnerable to changes in moisture in the air," said Whitney spokeswoman Mary Haus in explaining why that institution's artworks were withdrawn. "We didn't feel there were sufficient guarantees with the climate controls to warrant lending them."

The Whitney sculptures--"Antimobile," and "The Evil New War God (S.O.B.)" are pictured in the exhibition catalog and were in the show when it was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where it originated, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

The organizers of the Westermann show were contractually obligated to inform museum lenders of the Geffen humidity situation, said Michael Rooks, co-curator of the show. Although private lenders did not have to be told, he informed Gilda Buchbinder, who pulled four pieces.

He feels the pieces from most private lenders are not inordinately in danger. "Most Westermann collectors love their pieces and take incredibly good care of them," he said. "But in a domestic space, there is no way you can have museum controls--not with cooking, showers, baths."

Still, Buchbinder, a Chicago resident, didn't want to take the chance. "I didn't want to be seen as someone who withholds art," she said. "But we have a responsibility to the pieces we own to preserve them."

Both the Whitney and Buchbinder said their sculptures would rejoin the exhibition when it travels to the Menil Collection in Houston in October. Art Institute officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles say they have been careful in the past not to book the satellite Geffen with artworks susceptible to climate fluctuations. The Westermann show was moved from MOCA's Grand Avenue building to the Geffen after the museum landed the Andy Warhol retrospective now on view.

"We actually loved the idea of having Westermann at the same time as Warhol as an interesting complement," said MOCA director Jeremy Strick. He also said the Geffen was able to devote more space to the Westermann show, which would have gotten only 6,000 square feet in the main building.

Rooks, who has been working on the exhibition since 1997, said the Chicago museum staff was not aware of the extent of the Geffen's climate-control problems until late April this year.

"Our registrar requested hygrothermograph readings, which are done by those little boxes you see in museums that look like seismographs," said Rooks. "They measure changes in relative humidity on a daily basis."

Neither Rooks nor other organizers of the show would give details on those readings except to say they were outside museum standards for wooden objects. Strick said the blame could lie with a new air-conditioning system in the part of the Geffen where the Westermann show was installed.

The potential for humidity damage to wooden artworks is affected by numerous factors, including the type and thickness of wood, according to conservator Paul Himmelstein, a past president of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works.

Because wood sculptures expand and contract with humidity changes, they are susceptible to warping and cracking. "The big problem is that once a crack develops, it doesn't go back. It's permanent damage," said Himmelstein.

In retrofitting a building for climate control, vapor-retarder sheets made of plastic are normally installed inside walls to help prevent moisture from seeping in and out. "It's very expensive," Himmelstein said.

Cost estimates to install climate controls for the entire Geffen have ranged has high as $4 million. Strick said MOCA is considering more limited plans to add the protections to specific sections of the space.

Although Rooks misses the withdrawn art works in the Westermann show, he finds a silver lining in the situation at the Geffen. "In Chicago our idea was to present a comprehensive retrospective," he said. But L.A. artist Billy Al Bengsten, who designed the installation for MOCA and was a friend of Westermann's, took a different tack.

"What he did," Rooks said, "was reorganize it in a personal way, finding relationships among the pieces so you don't realize the absences of major works."

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