The Los Angeles County Museum of Art lost a prized contemporary artwork two years ago when Craig Kauffman’s “Untitled Wall Relief” took a plunge in Paris.
The pink and yellow lozenge-like sculpture was part of “Los Angeles: Birth of an Art Capital, 1955-1985" at the Pompidou Center, home of France’s primary museum of modern and contemporary art. Kauffman’s vacuum-formed Plexiglas work, measuring 52 by 72 by 15 inches, hung on a gallery wall for 130 days as 300,000 people toured the sprawling survey of L.A. art history. But on July 15, 2006, two days before the exhibition closed, the artwork crashed to the floor and the lower left corner broke into a dozen pieces.
Recriminations appeared in the press. The French museum assumed full responsibility for l’incident and launched an investigation. Although the cause of the mishap was never determined, the Pompidou paid the L.A. museum the insured value of the piece, $60,000.
And that was that, or so it seemed.
But pending final approval, LACMA will use the insurance money to buy a new version of the artwork, “Untitled Wall Relief (cast by the artist from the irreparably damaged ‘Untitled Wall Relief,’ 1967), 2008" -- thanks to the Pompidou.
“We thought that out of respect for the artist and his work, it was our duty to ask him if he would consider refabricating a similar piece,” Alfred Pacquement, director of the Pompidou’s museum, wrote in a recent e-mail exchange. Although the Pompidou had fulfilled its legal responsibility through its insurance, Pacquement called Kauffman, offering to pay his expenses if he could replicate the original.
A year and a half after the artist accepted the challenge, the work is done. It will go on view Dec. 4 at LACMA. And if curators, conservators and trustees give their approval at committee meetings on Dec. 19 and Jan. 21, the museum will purchase the new sculpture for $60,000. That’s about half what a comparable work might bring on the market, but Kauffman said he made the replica with the understanding that it would go to LACMA.
“It’s not a miracle,” he said of the surprising turn of events, “but it’s pretty lucky.”
Kauffman, a Los Angeles native who has lived in the Philippines since the early 1990s, emerged as an abstract painter in the 1950s and began working with spray-painted, molded plastic in the mid-1960s. Although he has made many other bodies of work -- Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts recently presented a retrospective of his drawings -- he is best known for the luminous early reliefs, often seen as a seductive strain of Minimalism or an offshoot of car culture. And in a recent show at Frank Lloyd Gallery, he revisited his signature work.
L’affaire Pompidou is still a mystery, Kauffman said. “The Pompidou hired a detective agency and did a big report. But who knows what happened?
“It took a long time to figure out how to do the work, whether we were going to do it in Paris or in Los Angeles. The technical stuff was pretty exacting. It was quite a thing, just to get the right people to do it. There used to be a lot of vacuum-formed signage. Now it’s harder to find, and there aren’t many people who work with the stuff. It took a while to get the money too, because the expenditure had to be approved by a French government agency. It just went round and round. There were times when I didn’t think it was actually going to happen. But then the whole thing came together.”
Peter Alexander, whose work also crashed at the Pompidou in 2006 -- intensifying questions about the center’s treatment of borrowed art -- got a similar offer. His 1971 molded polyester resin piece, a black bar about 8 feet tall and 5 inches wide that he had kept in his collection, shattered just before the exhibition opened. The official investigation determined that glue used to fasten a metal hanger to the back of the piece hadn’t been allowed to dry the requisite 24 hours. Alexander got an insurance payment of $28,000 and agreed to have two new versions of his piece made, one for himself and one for the Pompidou, at the French museum’s expense. The project is underway at a workshop in New York, he said.
When Kauffman got rolling, in July 2007, he sent a letter to the Pompidou outlining a plan to fabricate his replica in Southern California. He submitted a budget of $41,485, including about $11,000 for airfare and living expenses in L.A.
The broken artwork was carefully packed at the Pompidou, under supervision of conservators, and sent to Studio ATE in San Pedro. Studio owner Eric Johnson, who likens the Kauffman project to “making a Corvette,” reattached as many pieces as possible to make a polyester resin mold like the one that produced the original artwork. After casting the mold on the inside of the broken sculpture, he reinforced it with wood so that it could withstand the heat and pressure of the vacuum-forming process, and sanded and cleaned the resin surfaces.
The finished mold was transported to A & C Plastic Inc. in Duarte, where Lance Willis created the new vacuum-formed piece. The process used vacuum pressure to shape a flexible, preheated sheet of Plexiglas over the mold. To get a good fit, the mold had to be vented with tiny holes distributed evenly across the surface. Other air spaces were sealed so the vacuum sucked air through the vents, drawing the Plexiglas tightly around the mold.
What emerged was a transparent shell -- a rectangular mound with rounded corners and a long raised section in the center. Kauffman spray-painted the back side of the work at Johnson’s workshop, emulating the original bright-pink aura around a yellow bar.
“We had trouble getting some of the colors,” Kauffman said, “but I was able to mix them.” The result is more intensely colored than the original, which may have faded over the years. But the artist attributes the change to his technique. “The old one wasn’t painted as evenly,” he said.
LACMA curators Lynn Zelevansky and Carol Eliel, who enthusiastically support the proposed acquisition, said that slight differences are inevitable. Materials have changed and Kauffman isn’t the same artist he was four decades ago.
“If you expect an exact clone of the 1967 piece, you would have unrealistic expectations,” Eliel said. “This is a 2008 re-creation cast from the original, and in some ways an hommage to it, but it is a separate piece. The title makes clear that we are not trying to pass it off as something it is not.”
Calling the 1967 work “a stalwart of the collection,” Zelevansky said it is important to have the replacement. “The whole thing is part of our history, so of course we should have this piece,” she said. “It’s quite beautiful even though it isn’t the same.”
One difference that can’t be seen by museum visitors is a new mounting system on the back of the work, Kauffman said. “It’s quite a bit better; I mean, a lot better. We worked out a new one that’s very sturdy. It’s not going to fall off the wall.”
Muchnic is a Times staff writer.