Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Profile Airflow’ gets some TLC


Claes Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow 1969 was the first of numerous innovative multiples (three-dimensional sculptural editions) the artist created in collaboration with Gemini GEL in the early 1970s. Inspired by original drawings of the iconic 1936 Chrysler Airflow, Oldenburg created a lithograph over which sits a translucent plastic relief of the car. Achieving Oldenburg’s desire for a relief that was ‘transparent like a swimming pool, but of a consistency like flesh’[1] was no easy task and required considerable research and experimentation.[2] Complex to produce, the work has also proved complex and time-consuming to conserve, as today’s post reveals. Objects Conservator Sarah Mchugh shares with us the painstaking process of treating Profile Airflow, which took two years to complete.

The work consists of a lithograph on paper stretched onto a wooden strainer, over the front of which sits a moulded relief in elastomeric (rubbery), translucent green polyurethane. It has two main problems. Firstly, the polyurethane is attached to the strainer by screws that are close to the edge and it has torn at these points due to the pull of its own weight, meaning the work couldn’t hang vertically as it’s supposed to.

Secondly, the polyurethane is deteriorating and the surface has become extremely sticky, with a layer of dust consequently adhering to it. Plastic is often thought to last forever but from a conservation perspective it actually doesn’t last long at all. Plastics are also quite difficult to clean as components of the plastic may be dissolved in different solvents, causing further problems.


I began by examining and documenting the work, and undertaking research to find the best method of repair. One technique I used was to test the polymer using FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) to confirm its composition.

I found a private conservator in the U.S. who had cleaned another Profile Airflow (the work was produced in an edition of 75) with the same sticky surface problem. She had undertaken extensive research and testing and very generously shared her results with me. I cleaned the work with an isopropanol solution, which removed the dust, but the surface remained sticky. To prevent dust adhering again, it was decided in consultation with Senior Curator Jane Kinsman to commission a custom frame with a Perspex front.

To repair and re-secure the polyurethane to the strainer I developed a method that would require the least amount of permanent change to the object and be least visually obtrusive. I sourced a clear elastomeric polyurethane and made a sample which I artificially aged with UV light to give an indication of how long it would last. Finding that it was acceptable I then used the adhesive to repair tears in the polyurethane and to attach large tabs of Mylar™ (polyester film) to the underside of the polyurethane that wraps around the strainer. The tabs are now taking the weight of the relief.

As a result the original look of the work as the artist intended has been restored, and it is now displayable – the surface isn’t obscured by a layer of dust and it can hang vertically on the wall. It looks gorgeous!

We can’t wait to see the refreshed Profile Airflow in the new displays of International Art opening at the National Gallery of Australia in December.


Visit the website for photographs of this and other Oldenburg multiples in production.

In 2010 Oldenburg’s Ice bag – scale B also underwent conservation treatment: read more.

[1] Claes Oldenburg, in David Platzker, Claes Oldenburg: Multiples in retrospect 1964-1990, New York: Rizzoli, 1991, p.84.

[2] Read Emilie Owens’ discussion of Profile Airflow in the newly released publication Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2015, p.171.

Word pictures

To celebrate the National Year of Reading the children’s gallery here at the NGA is showing Word Pictures, an exhibition that focuses on the use of text in works of art. Four artists from the Tyler Collection – Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg – are represented. Below we have compiled a selection of  images showing these important artists at work on projects featured – or related to those featured – in the exhibition. Hover your cursor over the images to read descriptions.

Jasper Johns

Alphabet  1969

Johns created a series of works involving the letters of the alphabet at Gemini GEL in 1969. Letters and numbers are a recurring theme in Johns’ art – check out his Color numeral series here:


Bruce Nauman

Clear vision  1973

In Clear vision Nauman juxtaposes the words ‘clear’ and ‘vision’ with vigorous marks that, ironically, blur the text and render it unclear. We looked at another or Nauman’s text-based works recently: Below you can see an image of the artist working on a similar project at Gemini GEL.

Claes Oldenburg

The letter Q as beach house, with sailboat  1972

Oldenburg’s  quirky work is one of several created during the same period in which letters take on the characteristics of objects: here the letter Q becomes a beach house, situated idylically on the shores of a tranquil stretch of water. Like Johns, Oldenburg’s work often features letters and numbers. The image below shows him at work on a later print Chicago stuffed with numbers, that demonstrates this preoccupation.


Robert Rauschenberg

Cardbird III  1971

Rauschenberg’s Cardbird series plays with language in different ways. Aside from the obvious inclusion of the text printed on the works themselves, the title ‘cardbird’ is a play on ‘cardboard’, the material used to create the works. You can read more about the work here:

The Word pictures exhibition runs until February 10, 2013 – don’t miss it!

Up the skirt of Oldenburg’s ‘Ice bag – scale B’

Claes Oldenburg is known for his experimentation with prints and multiples in order to produce witty, large scale transformations of everyday objects. 

Like the other, larger Ice bags that Oldenburg created, Ice bag – scale B (1971) was given life as a kinetic sculpture, mechanically powered from within so that it rises and tilts continually, in a gentle circular motion – almost as if it is breathing. 

Caring for kinetic sculptures presents unique challenges, especially when they are frequently on display (Ice bag – scale B can be seen in action regularly in the NGA’s Pop Art gallery). Some of these challenges were brought to light recently in a conservation project undertaken by NGA Objects Technician Roy Marchant, a complex procedure lasting four months, and photographed and documented by Roy at every step in a 100-page instruction manual.

The work was first brought to the attention of Conservation staff due to reports of an abrasive sound emanating from inside the skirt. After a period of observation and assessment in September 2008, what ensued was a bit like detective work as Roy and colleagues painstakingly dissembled the sculpture and examined its components, looking for the cause of the sound.

Under the yellow synthetic skirt of the Ice bag, two motors sit attached to relays, which control the rise and fall of the work from a central mechanism. This mechanism also controls the twisting, tilting action, and is protected by an acrylic dome, which also prevents the skirt from fouling. When all was carefully taken apart (right down to each tiny nut and bolt being bagged, labelled and photographed), the cause of the problem was discovered: a misalignment of some of the motor’s moving parts (the cam arm and the drum) which, although only slight, was producing friction. Hence the grating noise and a  growing pile of tiny metal shavings within the drum.

Roy is quick to point out that this is no design fault, but rather the kind of issue one might expect with any mechanical object that is in constant motion (especially one that was made forty years ago). “Just like a car,” he says, “the Ice bag needs regular maintenance, including having an oil change from time to time.” The re-alignment procedure included, among other things, inserting a number of ‘sacrificial’ elements (such as washers) at points of friction. These allow movement but absorb all the abrasion, and they can easily be replaced by conservators when they eventually wear out. This protects the original components from further wear and tear. All components were also cleaned and lubricated where necessary, and after electrical testing and an observational period in the Conservation lab, Ice bag – scale B was back in action.

This is a great example of a conservation treatment that solves a mechanical problem, while preserving the integrity of the original object. You can read more about this work on the NGA’s Soft sculpture website. Also, see the NGA’s Kenneth Tyler Printmaking website for a fascinating photographic essay about the conception and realisation of Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Ice bag’ theme from the year 1969.

NGA Objects Technician Roy Marchant would love to hear from any other conservators or enthusiasts who have worked on an Oldenburg ‘Ice bag’. So please leave a comment or get in touch.


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