Duane Hanson’s “Supermarket Lady”

Duane Hanson, Supermarket Lady, 1970. Foto: Ludwig Forum Aachen / Anne Gold.

Restoration of Duane Hanson’s “Supermarket Lady”

Duane Hanson’s “Supermarket Lady” had her debut in the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York directly after she was completed in 1971. In the same year, the Ludwigs discovered the sculpture there, bought it and put it on show in Aachen in spring 1971 in the “Neue Galerie – Sammlung Ludwig”. Housewives shopping are a central motif in this American artist’s oeuvre. Hanson explores the theme repeatedly, elaborating the relationship between a compact core figure and a multitude of apparently trivial objects like shopping bags, consumer goods or handbags. “Supermarket Lady” in the Aachen Ludwig Collection is the first figure in this cycle of works.

Until the late 1980s, the sculpture led a rather unsettled life. It was loaned out to numerous distinguished galleries in Europe. These travels took their toll, making a restoration of the sculpture increasingly imperative. In 2004, thanks to the generous support of the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, the task of restoring the sculpture could finally be tackled.

The team of restorers, consisting of Julia Rief, Christina Sodermanns, Bernadette van Beek (NL), Anna Comiotto (CH), Sandra Ryf (CH) and Kerstin Stickelmann (B), agreed on an approach that would conserve the original materials as far as possible. A range of chemical and physical examinations were conducted, and advice was sought from specialists in plastics restoration as well as from academic and industrial experts. Representatives from museums, restoration institutes, science and industry got together to discuss the challenges that restoration of the “Aachen Lady” posed. After two years’ of work, Hanson’s “Supermarket Lady” resumed her place in the exhibition hall of the Ludwig Forum.

Restoration report

The object

The three-dimensional female figure “Supermarket Lady” is made of glass fibre reinforced polyester resin. Her surfaces are painted with oils. She wears off-the-rack clothing of various textiles and a range of accessories made of plastic. The other complex of materials is the multitude of objects in the shopping trolley she is pushing. This contains a copious selection of food packages, for example for oats, sweets, baking mixtures, biscuits, margarine, cheese spread, salt, tea bags and dog food. In addition, there are also egg cartons, packets for frozen meals, tinned vegetables, canned drinks and milk cartons. Then there are the non-food articles like aluminium foil and cling film, detergent, toilet paper, deodorant and bath oil. Most of the packets are empty and carefully sealed, but the foodstuffs packed in transparent plastic wrap, like bread, noodles and coconut slices, are real.

Material

The shopping trolley alone contains 79 objects, and if we count the components of the figure, from headscarf to shoes, we have over 100 individual elements. These fall into a total of six categories: organic material, textiles, plastic, glass, paper and metal. The individual categories can be further subdivided. The category “Textiles”, for example, covers a range of natural and artificial fibres, including rayon (hair net), dralon (skirt), nylon (sweater) and wool (slippers). “Plastic” divides into a number of material subcategories ranging from polystyrene (curlers) to PVC (handbag).

Damage report

The types of damage are as varied as the materials used in the piece. In addition, the artist selected some elements, like a patent leather bag or plastic wrap for foodstuffs, that have rarely been deployed in works of art. In these cases, there was no previous experience with material restoration to fall back on. 26 different types of damage were catalogued. These included surface grime, faded labels, cracks, scratches, holes, kinks and large amounts of a brown adhesive that the artist probably used to secure the contents of the shopping trolley against theft. This adhesive had darkened substantially with age, to such an extent that – especially in contrast to the faded colours of the packets – it had become very unsightly.

The “Supermarket Lady” suffered her first serious damage in 1975, when her right leg broke off. The artist was invited to come to Aachen and repair the damage. Hanson not only re-glued and repaired the fracture, but also went on to repaint the “skin” of the figure, adding more bruises and shadows that generally made her look older. Hanson’s justification for this makeover was that he, too, had grown older.

In 1987, the particular strain on the figure’s hands from resting on the handle of the shopping trolley resulted in the thumb of her left hand breaking off. The figure was seriously damaged for a second time that same year, when, during the setup for an exhibition, she toppled over backwards and incurred a deep fracture at the base of her neck. It was impossible in retrospect to put a date on other damage incurred: the development of cracks on her left shoulder under the blouse, on her elbows, on her left ankle, on her head below the hairline and in the area of her right ear. Because of these cases of damage, it was decided not to allow the sculpture to make any more journeys.

Nevertheless, further deterioration occurred over the years. In places, the paint on her elbows and hands peeled off. Some of the curlers, which had become brittle with age, came loose from her hair, hanging down and generally giving her a rather unkempt appearance. The latter problem was solved provisionally by exchanging the defective curlers with the better preserved ones covered by the headscarf.

In terms of the shopping trolley, the passing decades were also marked with small changes and clear signs of ageing. The arrangement in the upper part of the trolley underwent several minor changes. Some of the packets went missing, others were rearranged. For example, one light-coloured packet that was apparently on the top when the sculpture was still in New York never made it to Aachen. Later on, a newspaper, a can of orange juice and a jam jar got lost. The packet with the “Vienna Dream Bars” swapped places with “Mallomars” and “Loft Candy” and back again. The can of whipped cream originally lay at the side, and only got moved to the back of the trolley at a later date.

Back in the 1980s, restoration status reports had already pointed out that various packets were kinked and faded. By 2003, their condition had deteriorated further. Dusting and surface cleaning had been undertaken in 1991 and 1995, but there were no financial resources available to cover the costs of major restoration works that would have fundamentally improved the condition of the figure. However, in view of the urgent need for action, in 1995 the restorer Julia Rief organised a first, comprehensive material analysis of the “Supermarket Lady”. As part of her diploma thesis, Truus Joosten, who was at that time studying restoration in Maastricht, got started with a first inventory of the damage to the “Supermarket Lady”. She collected material samples from the figure and her clothes, and had them analysed by Thea van Oosten of the ICN, Instituut Collectie Nederland, in Amsterdam (formerly the Centraal Laboratorium voor Onderzoek van Voorwerpen van Kunst en Wetenschap). At the same time, she contacted the artist himself, using a questionnaire to document his ideas on how to restore the sculpture. Duane Hanson died in 1996, unfortunately before the restoration strategies could be completely clarified. Nevertheless, the correspondence with him was of immeasurable value for the further planning.

The material analysis results indicated that damage to the figure, and also to the packets, was primarily due to exposure to sunlight. As an initial response measure, from 1995 the sculpture was exhibited in a UV protective display case. However, this did not stop the packets from fading further, and their condition deteriorated dramatically. In 2003, the restoration project could finally begin, after Prof. Dr. Irene Ludwig provided a generous sum of money for conservation and restoration work.

 

Rescue measures

After the damage inventory, a series of material analyses and tests were carried out. Preliminary results already existed from the work done by Truus Joosten in 1995. But it was only in 2003, after basic funding had been secured, that new analyses could be commissioned to provide the basis for further measures.

From the very start, the restorers cooperated with colleagues in other museums and specialists from a range of restoration institutes in order to exchange experience and research results or to conduct collaborative experiments with the various potential restoration methods. The experts presented their findings to the public in a symposium in the Ludwig Forum, followed by an open discussion on the most appropriate restoration concept.

Thea van Oosten, ICN/Instituut Collectie Nederland/Amsterdam, reported on her material analyses of the packaging in the shopping trolley. Bernadette van Beek and Marieke Kraan (both from KOP Papierrestauratie, Arnheim) presented the results of their examinations of prior status regarding the contents of the shopping trolley. Petra Mandt and Kim Ohm, professional restorers at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, summarised the experience gathered in Cologne with the artist and with the restoration of the Hanson sculpture in the Cologne Collection. Dr. Helen van Westgeest (university lecturer in Leiden and Amsterdam), Letitia van Gemert (Radboud Universität, Nijmegen) and the Curator of the Ludwig Forum, Dr. Annette Lagler, presented art-historical arguments. In the subsequent discussion, the opinions of the artist also played a significant role. In 1995, Hanson had made a suggestion that restorers found rather bold, namely to completely replace the contents of the shopping trolley with brand new products. As with his repainting of the “Supermarket Lady” in 1975 or his makeover of the “Lady with Handbag” from the Cologne Collection in 1977 and 1990, his interventions and ideas were based on artistic intention, no value being placed on historical content. However, Hanson’s idea of replacing the shopping trolley contents was rejected for legal as well as aesthetic reasons. On the one hand, it would compromise the sculpture’s originality and intrinsic value; on the other, the design of supermarket packaging had changed radically in the meantime, and would destroy the harmonious overall appearance of the sculpture. The same considerations were also behind the rejection of the idea of replacing the goods in the trolley with facsimiles or copies that would reflect their original condition. The restorers were, quite naturally, keen to conserve as much of the original substance as possible, even if the elements in question were foodstuff packaging, i.e. ephemeral, throw-away products. It was therefore decided that only those items in the shopping trolley would be replaced which were damaged beyond restoration. These items included the completely fragmented bread, the pack of noodles and the plastic wrapping of the bread and coconut slices. In these cases, a reconstructed prototype was to be created in the hope that, at some later date, new techniques of plastic film restoration would make treatment of the torn plastic bags possible. The remaining original packets were to be straightened out and stabilised, and their faded parts retouched and optically enhanced. Marieke Kraan (KOP Papierrestauratie, Arnheim) was put in charge of making an inventory of the damage to cardboard and paper packaging, while Bernadette van Beek (KOP Papierrestauratie, Arnheim) assumed responsibility for restoration of the paper objects.

Regarding the figure itself, it was agreed that paint layers and filler from previous restorations would be removed and the flaws repaired through minimal retouching. It was also the consensus that the figure and her clothes and accessories should be thoroughly cleaned. Conservation of the optical balance between figure and shopping trolley was established as a general premise. Subsequently, other specialists were called in who could identify with the codex: Kerstin Stickelmann (restorer of paintings, graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre, Brussels) was, thanks to her experience with the paint layer structure on the “Supermarket Lady”, the obvious choice for the restoration of the sculpture’s surfaces. Anna Comiotto (graduate of the Hochschule der Künste Bern) assumed responsibility for the restoration of the handbag due to her know-how regarding paint layers on plastic. Sandra Ryf (graduate of the Hochschule der Künste Bern) was commissioned with the reconstruction of the bread wrapper because of her expertise in printing methods on plastic. Carsten Grohnloh (media designer, Fotocom Aachen) prepared print templates of the non-restorable plastic packaging.

Although returning the figure to her original condition was not a plausible option due to severe deterioration of some of the materials, the restoration was to approximate as far as possible to the original artistic intention. In view of the fact that the restoration of the “Supermarket Lady” was a particularly challenging project requiring extreme sensitivity and precision, as well as a constant balancing act between conservation and replacement, the general public were kept up to date on a regular basis through press releases and open house restoration sessions.

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