Featured, Preservation

The Conservation of Bruce Nauman’s Neon Templates

The Conservation of Bruce Nauman’s Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals (1966)

Bruce Nauman is recognized as one of America’s most innovative and provocative artists, emerging in the mid-1960s as a leading figure in Performance and Body Art. Since then he has created an open-ended body of work that includes sculptures, photographs, films, videos, holograms, interactive environments, performances, and neon wall reliefs. David Whitney organized Bruce Nauman’s first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1968, launching the artist’s career and long exhibition history.

Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals is a self-portrait in absentia. The shapes of the neon tubes were molded against the contours of the artist’s body. Since its creation in 1966, Neon Templates has been exhibited in eighteen exhibitions and displayed in more than forty-five national and international venues.

Due to the sculpture’s popularity and fragility, the practice of fabricating replicas for temporary exhibitions was developed. Loan agreements required potential borrowers to meet four criteria. First, artist Bruce Nauman requires that the original neon must be in existence and in working order. Second, the current owner of the artwork must agree to the loan before an exhibition copy is fabricated. Third, the credit line for the loaned artwork specifies that the work on view is an exhibition copy and acknowledges the owner of the original. The final criterion requires the destruction of the copy at the conclusion of the exhibition. Borrowers were asked to provide photographic documentation that the destruction had taken place.

In 2005 and 2006, Nauman authorized two exhibition copies to be made for two different traveling exhibitions. The artist’s fabricator, Jacob Fishman, traveled to the Glass House to measure, document, and recreate accurate exhibition copies. In January 2006, the Milwaukee Museum of Art organized Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work since 1994. Elusive Signs then traveled to prestigious museums throughout the United States and the world.

In 2007, the artist’s studio proposed that the National Trust for Historic Preservation own and manage these two exhibition copies. This change in practice was driven by two significant factors: the increasing rarity of yellow colored uranium glass and the non-archival nature of neon within the glass tubes. At the time of its creation in 1966, phosphorus was already quickly replacing uranium as a colorant for neon signage, and today, the artist’s fabricator only has enough tubing to recreate one complete sculpture. While uranium glass may still be reproduced, it would be at considerable cost and would not guarantee a color match. Also, the events of September 11, 2001 have further complicated the purchase of uranium.

In addition, the contents inside the tube (argon gas and mercury) are non-archival. The mercury reacts to the uranium, and over time, the light emitted in the tubes becomes uneven and patchy, darkening in areas. The lifespan of the argon gas and mercury is 25 to 30 years. In 2007, when the Glass House opened to the public, the original artwork was forty-one years old. Although the sculpture was working, its light was patchy.

The artist suggested that the National Trust keep both copies, preserve the original by storing it while it was still operational, install one of the exhibition copies for display, and allow the second replica to circulate. The Glass House / NTHP agreed with the artist’s proposal.

In 2009, Jacob Fishman returned to the Glass House to deinstall and store the original Neon Templates for safekeeping and to install the exhibition copy from Elusive Signs in the Sculpture Gallery.

JACOB FISHMAN, CONSERVATOR

Since 1983, Jacob Fishman of Lightwriters Glass Studio Northbrook, Illinois, has fabricated fifteen original neon sculptures and eleven program timers for artist Bruce Nauman. He has replicated more than sixty works by Nauman for thirteen exhibitions, including several major retrospectives. Fishman also conserves Nauman’s artwork for private art and museum collections. His past conservation projects include artwork in major museum collections throughout the U.S. and the world. Fishman holds a B.S.E.E. from the University of Arizona.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The 2009 conservation of Bruce Nauman’s Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals was made possible by a matching grant from the Historic Sites Fund, endowed in part by grants from the National Park Service and the National Trust’s Gifts of Heritage Program. This is the first grant awarded to the Glass House for the conservation and care of its fine art collection.

The Glass House is grateful to artist Bruce Nauman and his studio manager Juliet Myers for their input and assistance on the conservation and care of the original artwork as well as the ownership and management of the exhibition copies.

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