Inside the Haunting Restoration of a Gas Chamber Execution Sculpture | Conservation Lab
Noémie Jennifer — Jul 19 2016
Bruce Conner’s CHILD has been difficult from the start—hard to look at, hard to appreciate, and harder still to preserve. The controversial sculpture, completed in 1960, was Conner’s response to the gas chamber execution of Caryl Chessman, a man sentenced to death for kidnapping and raping a woman in Los Angeles.
As the piece quickly drew critical attention, a curator at MoMA lobbied for its acquisition, but the museum felt it might be too unpalatable for viewers and decided against it. When the sculpture finally made its way into the collection 10 years later, it proved to be problematic—but for structural reasons rather than polemics. The piece spent the next several decades quietly falling apart in storage, until 2015, when MoMA conservators had a stroke of genius and mapped out a plan for its resurrection. The piece is currently on view as part of the retrospective Bruce Conner: It’s All True.
Likened to a “grave-robber’s nightmare” in original reviews from 1960, CHILD is a tough piece to take in: A small figure of a child is strapped to a wooden high chair, with its head pushed back and its mouth wide open, frozen in pain. Torn nylon stockings are stretched across the figure, as though it’s being mummified while still partially alive. The artist’s material of choice for the figure, casting wax, makes it appear all the more fragile—and it is. In an essay for the MoMA exhibition’s catalog, conservators Roger Griffith and Megan Randall refer to a letter by Conner in which he admits, “I realized the materials were unstable but chose to proceed with the concept as I was working on it since it was much more successful in achieving the intended image.”
As the piece deteriorated over the years, the figure collapsed on itself, and by 1995, the CHILD’s head was so slumped that it appeared dead. When the piece was loaned out for an exhibition at the Whitney, Conner asked that it be pulled from the show. MoMA tried to restore the piece in consultation with the artist, but attempts to adjust the position of the sculpture only worsened its condition. By 2000, the work was deemed completely un-exhibitable. Conner died eight years later.
While preparing for the current retrospective, MoMA decided to give CHILD another shot. While gathering evidence as to how the artist wanted the piece to be treated, the conservators discovered a trail of contradictory statements. “Sometimes he would say: If something drops off, leave it off. Other times he’d say: If it drops off, put it back,” Griffith recalls.
At some point in the 90s, Conner had given the green light to add an armature to the figure. After considering wires or expandable foam as options, Randall and Griffith found a polyester resin called polycaprolactone, which is primarily used in the biomedical industry. They deconstructed the wax figure in various sections, heated the resin so it would conform to the inner shape of each piece, then left it to harden into a rigid plastic. Thanks to this newly stable internal support system, the figure could be returned to its original position, piece by piece. As for the nylons, they sourced vintage replacements on eBay and thrift shops, but later found that, once stretched, what was left hanging off the sculpture was almost enough to complete the piece. According to the conservators, what we see today is “about 98% original material.”