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After undergoing an extensive conservation process over the last year, the museum, along with colleagues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, celebrates today the rededication of Gwenfritz, a 40-foot tall abstract sculpture by the esteemed American artist Alexander Calder. Intern Auni Gelles shares the behind-the-scenes scoop on the sculpture's recent restoration.
Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
#1. Calder had a deep relationship with the Smithsonian.
Heeding First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson's 1965 appeal for the beautification of the nation's capital, the philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz commissioned Calder to create a sculpture to be placed outside what was then known as the Museum of History and Technology (we became the National Museum of American History in 1980). Although he had criticized the Johnson administration's policies surrounding the Vietnam War, Calder accepted this commission, which would become part of the collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Calder valued his relationship with the Smithsonian and solidified his commitment to public art in America by creating other works for this national collection. In a 1968 letter to David Scott, then the director of the art museum, Calder mentions his progress on both Gwenfritz and another stabile, Nenuphar.
This letter from "Sandy" (Calder's nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968. Smithsonian Institution Archives accession 96-135, boxes 1 & 2.
#2. The pool that will again surround the sculpture was an important part of Calder's vision.
He originally envisioned high jets of water surrounding the stabile—that's the opposite of a moving sculpture, a mobile—but it was determined that the fountain would be too difficult to maintain. Water would no doubt come into contact with the metal, accelerating its deterioration. The water feature, however, remained part of Calder's idea for this site-specific work: the sculpture was designed to be surrounded by a reflecting pool.
The water feature disappeared when the sculpture was moved to a new location on Constitution Avenue in 1984, to make way for a bandstand. A major component of the stabil'’s restoration is its move back to its original location, where it will once again stand above a pool of water. Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision.”
Gwenfritz in a reflecting pool. Photo is from around 1971.
#3. Like an archaeological dig, removing layers of paint on the sculpture exposed information about the object's past.
When Calder created this enormous structure in his studio in France, he instructed metal workers where to cut with markings on the material. Individual pieces were then assembled to form this massive abstract shape, disassembled, and shipped to the museum in crates. Once it was reassembled on the west side of the museum in 1969, Smithsonian staff covered Gwenfritz in matte black paint in accordance with Calder's suggestions—concealing the original markings. It wasn't until 2013, when conservators removed the sculpture's surface coatings, that Calder's guide marks resurfaced. They gained insights from these previously hidden marks. "It's as if we returned to Calder's hand," Lemmey said. "The piece reveal[ed] itself in the course of conservation and tells us a lot about Calder's creative process."
#4. Gwenfritz received a new coating of high-tech, military-grade paint.
The third-generation sculptor gained technical expertise as he studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a rich black tone for the Gwenfritz, he shipped the metal pieces in a primer coat and advised the Smithsonian to add layer of low-gloss paint.
After careful consideration, the team chose to recover Gwenfritz in a new, military-grade paint developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Gallery of Art specifically for outdoor sculptures. Lemmey believes that Calder would have approved of this cutting-edge paint had it been available to him. "We would hope that the criteria that we used to guide this project would have been sympathetic to the way that Calder would have approached the problem himself," she said. In order to protect the metal for another 50+ years, the Smithsonian's preservation team will check on its condition regularly and touch up the paint as necessary.
Gwenfritz as it appeared in 2013
#5. The sculpture is held together by more than 1,200 bolts—which were all replaced.
When the stabile was assembled in 1969, the individual pieces were connected by 1,270 bolts that came in different sizes to fit various angles. Each of the bolts faced the same way, creating a uniform aesthetic. During the 1984 move to the north side of the museum, however, this detail was lost. According to Richard Barden, the museum's preservation services manager who oversaw the recent conservation of Gwenfritz, records from both the original installation and the move 15 years later do not provide sufficient insights into how exactly the sculpture was actually set up. Before the stabile was temporarily deconstructed last fall, the staff had to better understand how exactly it was put together. Ashley Jehle, an intern in the museum's objects lab in 2010, created a detailed study of each of the 71 irregularly shaped pieces.
Using this as a guide, the conservation process could begin. The only parts of the Gwenfritz that were replaced were the bolts, many of which had corroded over the years. Thin washers were placed between the bolts and the metal planes, and special attention was paid to ensure that all of the bolts would once again be facing a single direction, a fact that Barden is particularly proud of. Barden has made an effort to maintain more detailed records so that future conservators do not face the same challenges when caring for Gwenfritz.
Fitted with this durable new hardware and a fresh coat of black paint, the Gwenfritz is now back in its original location in a new reflecting pool on the west side of the museum. I can only imagine that Calder would be delighted to see this landmark work today, as it is more striking than ever before.
Auni Gelles interned in the New Media office over the summer. She has also blogged about Raise It Up! Anthem for America and historic preservation. For more pictures of the Gwenfritz, check out the Flickr album.
The sign marking the commencement of construction for the Blue Ridge Parkway is an unassuming gray roadside plaque, a few hundred yards from the North Carolina-Virginia border near Cumberland Knob. The low profile seems appropriate here. The parkway’s pleasures are subtle, harking back to a time when traveling was about the journey, not just the destination.
Around every bend, it seems, awaits another enticing vista, whether it’s a hawk’s-eye view of a river valley, a peaceful pasture crowded with cows, or a tree-covered peak. About 16 million people visited last year, making it the National Park Service’s most popular attraction (by comparison, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks each attracted over 3 million people in 2009). “The Scenic,” as locals called it in the early days, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
On September 11, 1935, about 100 workers started clearing and grading land on Pack Murphy’s farm, beginning the parkway’s initial 12.5-mile-stretch from the Virginia- North Carolina border south to Cumberland Knob. It was the first of 45 segments of the parkway, which traces 469 undulating miles from the northern entrance at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, where it connects to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, to Cherokee, North Carolina, and the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The country’s ultimate crooked road tops mountain crests, dips into river valleys and meanders through farmlands and national forests. It crosses four major rivers, more than 100 gaps and six mountain ranges, dropping to 649 feet above sea level near the James River in southwest Virginia and climbing to 6,053 feet near Mount Pisgah, in North Carolina so there’s a wide range of ecosystems.
Planners envisioned the parkway as a new kind of road. “It is the first use of the parkway idea, purely and wholeheartedly for the purposes of tourist recreation distinguished from the purposes of regional travel,” wrote Stanley W. Abbott, the landscape architect whose vision guided the parkway’s design and central themes.
“Like the movie cameraman who shoots his subject from many angles to heighten the drama of his film, so the shifting position of the roadway unfolds a more interesting picture to the traveler,” Abbott wrote in 1939 after much of the route had been set. “The sweeping view over the low country often holds the center of the stage, but seems to exit gracefully enough when the Parkway leaves the ridge for the more gentle slopes and the deeper forests.”
Image by Johner Images / Alamy. The Blue Ridge Parkway crosses four major rivers, more than 100 gaps and six mountain ranges. (original image)
Image by Visuals Unlimited / Corbis. About 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it the National Park Service's most popular attraction. (original image)
Image by Tony Arruza / Corbis. Along the two-lane road, there is not a single billboard, stop sign or traffic light. (original image)
Image by U.S. National Park Service. A worker surveying the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor. (original image)
Image by U.S. National Park Service. On September 11, 1935, about 100 workers started clearing and grading land on Pack Murphy's farm, beginning the parkway's initial 12.5-mile-stretch from the Virginia-North Carolina border south to Cumberland Knob. (original image)
Image by U.S. National Park Service. Workers line drainage ditches with rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. (original image)
Image by U.S. National Park Service. Bridges are built to allow motorists on the Blue Ridge Parkway to cross over streams. (original image)
Image by U.S. National Park Service. Entrances to the parkway appear regularly, but they are unobtrusive with no hint of civilization in sight. (original image)
Along the two-lane road, there is not a single billboard, stop sign or traffic light. Utilities are buried. Signs are few. Only the mile markers are a constant. Entrances to the parkway appear regularly, but they are unobtrusive with no hint of civilization in sight. The parkway succeeds in fulfilling Abbott’s desire to eliminate the “parasitic and unsightly border development of the hot-dog stand, the gasoline shack, and the billboard” so that the natural scenery prevails. Cruising along at the speed limit of 45 miles per hour is like taking a step back in time.
Abbott, who earned his degree from Cornell University and had worked on the Westchester and Bronx River parkways, referred to the parkway as a “managed museum of the American countryside” and he sought to purchase right of ways that would preserve the vistas. He wanted to create a series of “parks within parks,” places to hike, camp, fish and picnic. So at intervals the ribbon of highway, endless skyway, widens to include recreational areas, what Abbott called “beads on a string, the rare gems in the necklace.”
Over the years, the park service has added or restored cultural attractions like the Blue Ridge Music Center at the parkway’s midpoint, which features concerts in an outdoor amphitheater; or Mabry Mill, a century-old gristmill; and Johnson Farm, a restored 1930s living history attraction. The many small towns along the route, like Floyd, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina, have seized upon their arts and crafts and musical heritage to become cultural destinations.
“What continues to catch the imagination of the American public and why they come to the parkway is the diversity,” says Dan Brown, who retired from the park service in 2005 after five years as the parkway’s superintendent. “The parkway traverses some of the most outstanding natural areas to be found in the eastern United States and it also travels through some very special cultural lands. The American public has always been intrigued by the southern Appalachian culture. The music and the crafts of the region are second to none.”
A scenic drive along the spine of the Blue Ridge had been proposed as early as 1906. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Shenandoah National Park and was impressed by Skyline Drive, then under construction. Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia suggested a mountain road extending to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Roosevelt expressed interest and Byrd secured backing from elected officials in North Carolina and Virginia. On November 24, 1933, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes announced approval of the parkway and $4 million was allocated to begin work.
Watch this video in the original article
Abbott and his contemporaries were admirers of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. Just like Central Park, the parkway would appear to be natural, but that appearance would be the result of human imposition. Politics would play a part as well, as individual landowners, towns and states fought over the route (North Carolina won the biggest battle over Tennessee to host the southern portion of the parkway).The first 50-mile section near Roanoke opened in April 1939. About two-thirds of the road was completed by 1942, when the war halted construction. All but the section with the Linn Cove Viaduct, in North Carolina, was completed by 1967.
Little of the land was pristine. It had been timbered, farmed and commercialized. So thousands of trees and tons of dirt were moved. Much of the early labor was done by hand. The Public Works Administration’s first contract paid men 30 cents an hour for a six-day week.
“I can’t imagine a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail. Moss and lichens collected on the shake roof of a Mabry Mill measured against the huge panoramas that look out forever,” Abbott said in an interview years later.
Anne Whisnant, a longtime parkway traveler and author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, notes that the designers’ desires often met with political reality. “The fact remains they were pushing this through a populated landscape,” she notes, taking land by using eminent domain. The designers wanted a 800-to-1,000-foot right of way, but in Virginia, in particular, they couldn’t get it because the legal mechanisms were not robust enough. To Whisnant, that means the parkway through Virginia is a less satisfying experience, more interrupted by access roads and with more views encroached by development.
Abbott pioneered “scenic easements” that allowed the park service to acquire all development rights without having to pay for the land, in essence buying the view at a considerable savings.
As the park ages and homes along its narrow corridor become more popular, it faces increasing pressure from encroachment of those view sheds. “Most of the parkway landscape, the things people love about it, is borrowed, “ Whisnant says. “There is a big job working closely with those who own the landscape in trying to create some kind of joint sense of benefit so we all work to protect it.”
Looking back, Whisnant says the parkway’s history is comforting when she thinks of the road’s future. “A lot of the problems facing the parkway have been endemic and central since its first day,” she says. “What each generation has to do is take up the challenges, think about them and make decisions. Do we value this or not? If we do, how do we act so it’s preserved? It’s the same thing we’ve done for 75 years.”