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The Unusual Chemistry of an Experimental Master Artist | Conservation Lab

A major retrospective of László Moholy-Nagy's work at the Guggenheim called for extensive conservation and research, yielding new insights into the Bauhaus artist’s innovative process.

by Noémie Jennifer
08 June 2016, 7:30pm

László Moholy-Nagy, A 19, 1927. Oil and graphite on canvas, 80 x 95.5 cm. Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Ann Arbor, MI. © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the work of László Moholy-Nagy, things are not always what they seem. Conservators learned this firsthand while preparing for the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective in 50 years, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, which recently opened at the Guggenheim. As one travels through time and up the museum’s spiral ramp, the artist's chosen materials and mediums grow more and more diverse. Identifying the composition of those varied surfaces was a prerequisite for any conservation treatment, and it yielded many surprises—like the fact that some areas of overlapping paint are actually an entirely different third color, rather than a mixture of the two hues.

Moholy was nothing if not prolific—the 300 works that make up Future Present attest to that. Born in Hungary in 1895, he began his artistic career in Berlin in the early 20s, finding inspiration in Constructivism and its utopian ideas of art as a vehicle for social progress. After teaching for five years at the Bauhaus, he moved back to Berlin, then spent some time in Amsterdam and London, furthering a multi-disciplinary practice that moved fluidly between the fine and applied arts. He eventually crossed the Atlantic, settling in Chicago, where he founded the Institute of Design. He died there in 1946, of leukemia—the unforgiving disease cutting short Moholy-Nagy’s tireless experimentation with painting, sculpture, collage, photography, film, design, and the written word.

Detail of CPL 4, 1941. Moholy-Nagy applied paint and made incisions on both the recto and verso of the plexiglass, creating variegated shadow patterns and vibrating optical effects.

Prior to the exhibition opening, over two years of close observation and research led to new discoveries about the artist’s wide array of unconventional industrial materials. What initially felt like an ample amount of time ended up being more “like a race to the finish line because there was so much material,” explains Julie Barten, senior conservator at the museum. “Each piece was its own individual research project.”

Most exciting of all, Barten’s hours at the microscope reframed how we should look at several of the artist’s later works on translucent plexi, such as Space Modulator: “When we first pulled the work out, we were looking at what appeared to be an array of cracks and we thought, ‘That’s a shame; what are we going to do to camouflage that?’” the conservator recalls. “Then I put the painting under the microscope and started to realise that the paint was conforming to these so-called cracks. It became clear very quickly that this was not damage.”

Detail of Papmac, 1943, showing the dramatic shadow effects generated by bubbles and ripples in the Plexiglas. These flaws formed as the result of overheating during manufacture.

Consultation with plastics manufacturers confirmed that the flaws were a result of overheating at the production stage, rather than an effect introduced by the artist. The discovery reinforced Barten’s theory that “since this was such a precious material during the war, the idea of deliberately flawing it didn’t make as much sense as receiving it as a factory discard.” One can also imagine that the imperfections might have actually appealed to the artist, and helped push his investigations of light and shadow—like the unexpected effects he obtained when photographing city lights, as exemplified in a set of 35mm slides also on view.

The research corrected other misconceptions. A 1930 painting entitled Tp 2, whose blue plastic support was long described in museum records as Trolitan (the German version of Bakelite), turned out to be a cellulose nitrate substance commercially labeled as Trolit F—which, unlike Bakelite, is easily prone to degradation. Some detective work led to the German factory that produced these types of plastics in Moholy’s day, and, confusingly enough, had labeled them all with the “Tro” prefix. Somewhere along the way, “it may have been incorrectly translated,” notes Barten.


Detail of Space Modulator, 1939-1945, as exhibited at the Guggenheim. GIF by the author

In many cases, the artist’s unusual choices severely restricted the conservator’s treatment options, requiring extensive work to identify the few solvents that could safely be applied to any one piece. Yet Moholy-Nagy’s disregard for convention, in turn, seems to have expanded the curatorial toolkit: On the top floor, one of the lights directed at Space Modulator is programmed to fade in and out, momentarily doubling the shadows cast by the flawed and painted plexi. Sure, the choreography may not have been exactly what Moholy-Nagy envisioned when he noted that the piece could lead to kinetic light displays, but it restores an element to the piece no solvent could attain: his experimental spirit.

B-10 Space Modulator, 1942, under different light conditions, demonstrating the variability in shadows and reflections generated by the work.


Photomicrograph detail (2 × 2 mm) of CPL 4, 1941. The vibration of the engraving tool as it scratched the surface of the Plexiglas caused the beaded texture of this line.


Installation view: Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, May 27–September 7, 2016. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is on view at the Guggenheim until September 7, 2016, then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and LACMA. Watch Julie Barten talk more about Moholy-Nagy’s plastics here, and another conservator, Sylvie Pénichon, address photography restoration here.

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