A Painting with Presence

May 7, 2019
Index Magazine

A Painting with Presence

Herbert Bayer, American, Verdure, 1950. Oil on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Commissioned by Harvard Corporation, 1950.169.

With its vibrant palette and wave-like forms, Herbert Bayer’s Verdure seems to beckon visitors to enter the galleries. And at 20 feet wide by 6 feet tall, it’s undeniably the largest work in our latest special exhibition, The Bauhaus and Harvard.

Completed in 1950, Verdure was commissioned for the dining room at Harkness Commons, in the Harvard Graduate Center. That space—now known as the Caspersen Student Center at the Harvard Law School—was part of a greater vision. Bauhaus founder and Harvard architecture professor Walter Gropius worked with his firm The Architects Collaborative to “bring together modern architecture, design, and contemporary art in one space,” said Laura Muir, research curator for academic and public programs and curator of The Bauhaus and Harvard.

Verdure was just one of several works that served as a backdrop (literally) to student life at the graduate center over the second half of the 20th century. Joan Miró, Hans Arp, Josef Albers, and Richard Lippold also contributed notable works to the site, which was celebrated for being the first example of modern architecture built on Harvard’s historic campus.

More than a half-century later, as planning for The Bauhaus and Harvard got underway, Muir decided to devote a section of the exhibition to the Graduate Center, with Verdure as its centerpiece. But there were significant hurdles: the painting hadn’t undergone a cleaning since 1989, and although it had been taken off view in 2004, its dimensions made treatment—and transportation—challenging. It didn’t fit into the museums’ storage facilities or freight elevators. (In fact, it was being held in a larger off-campus storage site.) Only through the dedication and efforts of a small army of museum staff—curators, conservators, and collections management professionals—did Verdure ultimately find its place in the exhibition.   

Cleaning and Conservation

Verdure had been cleaned only a handful of times over its history, so the first task was restoring the work to its original appearance. After its first treatment in 1951, conservators applied a layer of polyvinyl acetate (PVA) to the canvas to protect it against damage from food, smoke, or other harmful substances. Though the varnish effectively preserved the paint, it caused a change in the work’s appearance.

“PVA varnish is a relatively soft resin,” said Kate Smith, conservator of paintings and head of the paintings lab in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. “At room temperature, PVA traps dust,” which eventually made Verdure’s colors look duller. It was also glossy, which gave the matte work a finish that Bayer had not intended.

Teri Hensick, former paintings conservator in the Straus Center, led the cleaning effort. Along with Smith, associate paintings conservator Cristina Morilla, and former paintings conservation fellow Andrea von Hedenström, the group tested solvents on minuscule portions of Verdure until they identified a suitable cleaning agent: acetone. (A small portion of the work was cleaned with toluene, a different solvent, due to the sensitivity of certain paints.)

The time-consuming cleaning process produced remarkable results.

“As we cleaned the painting, all the relationships between the forms shifted and changed,” Smith said. “Removing the dirt wasn’t just like peeling off a skin; it really changed the look of it.” The images below show portions of the painting, before and after cleaning.  

The conservators noticed abrasions on a few areas—probably due to the painting’s position near diners over the years. The team addressed this by adding a minimal amount of new paint, expertly matching the original hues in a process called in-painting.

Finally, they debated whether to again add varnish to Verdure. But ultimately, because Bayer had finished the painting without varnish, the conservators left its surface exposed.

Sizable Installation Challenges

In early 2019, the focus turned to installation. Specialists from Crozier Fine Arts transported the canvas from its storage site to 32 Quincy Street. A single entrance, on the museums’ lower level, was the only doorway that provided proper clearance for the object.

To reduce chances of disturbing the fragile canvas, the team took their time in setting up and testing equipment, said Suzan Sengoz, the museums’ assistant director for registration. They then hoisted the painting up to the third floor through the museums’ main stairwell, maneuvered it over the railing, lowered it onto dollies, and rolled it into the gallery.

Originally, Verdure was displayed within a structural border built around its canvas. Muir and exhibition designer Justin Lee chose to do the same. Guided by archival photographs and wood samples, the museums’ collections management team milled wood approximating the shape and style of the original border to create the new framing structure.

“It was a great choice and a historically accurate approach,” said Karen Gausch, manager of exhibition production and collections care. The wooden frame blends in with the wall, focusing attention on the work’s luscious green palette and abstract forms.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of the many individuals involved with the installation, conservation, and curation of Verdure, Bayer’s painting is again on view at Harvard. Nearly 70 years after it was created, its abstract forms still prove mesmerizing.