Keeping True to Artistic Intention

By Mary Richardson
Young people in a dark room are surrounded by a mass of clear strands hanging from the ceiling.
Installation view, Jesús Rafael Soto, MCA Chicago, Feb 13–Mar 28, 1971, © MCA Chicago.


October is National Archives Month, and our Library and Archives staff will be contributing new angles and insights on the subject all month.

Mary Richardson, Library Director, kicks off the month with the investigative work she has done into a hard-to-maintain artwork, collaborating with colleagues from the Art Institute of Chicago.

on artistic materials in contemporary art

Bronze, marble, oil, and canvas: prior to the twentieth century, art-making materials were pretty predictable. But moving into the era of contemporary art, you begin to see artists working with an unusual range of materials, media, and technology—from sugar to blood; from works created for a very specific site to ephemeral performances; and integrating TVs and computers into artworks. This poses a challenge to conservators who have to determine how to preserve or even replace these nontraditional materials. They have to figure out how to maintain technology and equipment that is becoming obsolete. They also have to decide if it is appropriate to take any action at all or just let a work erode naturally.

Many contemporary artists intentionally chose nontraditional materials to communicate specific ideas and emotions, and some deliberately created works that were aesthetically less than pristine. While some artists intended their works to be temporary or unstable; others just never gave much thought to the longevity and stability of their materials. Because of the possible connections between meanings and materials, understanding the artist’s intent can be crucial to the conservation process. To make these decisions, conservators and institutions gather as much information about a work and the artist’s intentions as possible. This is where archives play an important role in the process, providing an excellent source of information about artworks and the artist’s intent that in turn can affect the work’s presentation and care.

Several months ago, the MCA’s Library and Archives received an inquiry from the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) about an installation by Jesús Raphael Soto (1923–2005). Although the work is part of their permanent collection, the AIC contacted us because they suspected it may have been included in the MCA’s 1971 Soto retrospective. They were planning to restore and install the piece and wanted to learn details about past installations of the work and flesh out the provenance.


Detail of Soto’s plan for Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971.
Detail of Soto’s plan for Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971.
Detail of Soto’s plan for Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971, © MCA Chicago.
Soto’s plan for Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971, © MCA Chicago.


We consulted the Soto exhibition records in our archive, but couldn’t find anything about the piece referenced in the email—Raintree Forest. Based on a photograph of the work on the AIC’s website, we could see that Raintree Forest resembled a number of other installations in the show titled Penetrables—a series of works composed of long filaments hung from the ceiling that visitors can walk through. In our exhibition archives we found a Pénétrable plan with technical specifications produced by Soto’s studio as well as correspondence from Soto, various MCA employees, and the MCA’s founding Board President Joseph R. Shapiro that discussed a new Pénétrable created specifically for the MCA’s exhibition and the materials used. Shapiro happened to be the donor who gave Raintree Forest to the AIC and although we suspected that it was the work created for the MCA, we could not be certain. We sent the AIC scans of the exhibition checklist, correspondence, and the Pénétrable plan, along with scans of installation photographs provided by the MCA’s Rights and Images staff.

I recently followed up with Nora Riccio, Collection Assistant in the Department of Contemporary Art at the AIC, to see how they utilized the MCA’s archival materials in the reinstallation of the Pénétrable. The AIC worked with Atelier Soto throughout the restoration process and shared the MCA’s archival documentation with them. Using the MCA checklist and the titles from the shipping crates, they were able to confirm that the piece created for the MCA’s exhibition is indeed the piece in the AIC’s collection and that the title on file was incorrect. Atelier Soto determined the official title of the work—Pénétrable de Chicago.

Undated letter from Soto to the MCA, 1971 (left) and translated letter (right).


There were two main challenges to reinstalling Pénétrable de Chicago: the condition of the original materials and translating a site-specific work for a new environment. Because of these factors, the piece had to be completely refabricated. According to Riccio, “the original plastic filaments had degraded and were no longer usable. They were yellowed and sticky. We ordered new filaments through Atelier Soto who oversaw the manufacturing for the right color and clarity.” Additionally, when Soto created the work, the MCA was located in a building with relatively low ceilings. Using the MCA’s documentation of the original installation, Atelier Soto, “along with remaining Soto family members, determined the remaining details on design, fabrication, installation, etc., specifically for an AIC installation (and any future installations).” Because the AIC’s ceilings are six feet higher than the MCA’s original building, “we sent drawings and ideas back and forth until everyone was satisfied,” Riccio explained. Not only did they need to be sure that the work would be accurately refabricated and reinstalled, but “safety requirements were a factor as it needed to hang from our inner concrete structure, not the ceiling tiles. We even had to make new ceiling tiles so that we could drill holes through them in the necessary locations. The overall length of the filaments, and the overall dimensions of the entire sculpture, exactly match the artist’s original drawing—which, luckily, you had!”

This month, Pénétrable de Chicago will be on view for the first time in over 30 years at the Art Institute of Chicago. This successful restoration is an excellent example of how important archival documentation is to preserving and installing contemporary art. It is just one of several recent requests the MCA Library and Archives has received related to restoring and/or installing a work of contemporary art. As contemporary art ages and artists continue to work with irregular materials, we anticipate that these kinds of fascinating inquiries will only increase!

Happy Columbus Day?