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The Thinker returns to Grawemeyer Hall

by Janene Zaccone, communications and marketing last modified Mar 03, 2012 11:05 AM

An old friend returned to his spot outside Grawemeyer Hall at the University of Louisville Feb. 18, and he is sporting a new look.

The Thinker is back after conservators worked for two months to remove the green- and black-streaked corrosion that accumulated during six decades as the sculpture kept watch over UofL students, faculty and staff. Now it has a dark patina which accentuates his curled toes, taut muscles and furrowed brow.

“The Thinker is an iconic symbol for the University of Louisville,” said UofL President James Ramsey.

“We couldn’t be happier that he is back at his post, all cleaned up and ready for another 100 years of service,” he said, noting that the sculpture is public art that anyone can see free of charge every day of the year.

University officials long have wanted to clean and conserve the sculpture, which dates to 1903. It is the first large-scale version of The Thinker ever cast. Sculptor Auguste Rodin supervised its casting. The Thinker has sat on the fifth step of Grawemeyer Hall since 1949.

“This is a major historical monument,” said Christopher Fulton, head of UofL’s art history program. “The Thinker is probably the best known sculpture in the entire world. Its two closest competitors might be the Statue of Liberty and Michelangelo’s David.”

UofL hired Shelley Paine Conservation LLC in 2011 to perform the conservation work. Sculpture conservator Shelley Reisman Paine and Andrew Lins, Neubauer family chair of conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, worked on The Thinker from mid-December to mid-February in an indoor site that allowed them to work on the same level as the 6-foot-tall statue.

For Paine, however, the actual conservation work was the culmination of a decadelong association with the Rodin sculpture and UofL.

“The project started for me in the fall of 2001,” Paine said. “I was working on the sculpture Prodigal Son by Bernard at the Speed Art Museum. I was behind the building, under a tent, cleaning this beautiful, oversized marble sculpture when a person from the university came over from the Physical Plant Department, I believe. He said to me: ‘You clean sculpture?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I do.’

“‘Well, I’ve been asked to clean this sculpture and I really don’t feel comfortable with it. Would you mind coming over and taking a look?’”

Paine said she could hardly believe what she saw when she rounded the corner of Grawemeyer Hall.

“I was thrilled to see the sculpture because I love Rodin and I love this particular sculpture. … I was really pleased that this person found me and didn’t try to clean the sculpture himself.”

Over the next decade, Paine examined The Thinker seven times to monitor its condition. In 2006, she; Lins; Fulton; John Zarobell, former associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; John Begley, gallery director for UofL’s Hite Art Institute and assistant professor of curatorial studies; Dario Covi, professor emeritus; and Jim Grubola, then chair of fine arts, had a charette to discuss the sculpture’s status and future.

They knew The Thinker needed some “tender loving care” to restore its patina and an application of protective coating that would allow it to remain outdoors as Rodin intended. Eleven budget cuts during the decade since 2002, however, made funding the sculpture’s care nearly impossible. Last year, Ramsey asked Gov. Steve Beshear for permission to expand the scope of the federally funded project for the entrances at Third and Eastern Parkway and The Oval to include The Thinker’s conservation and to give it a new, Bedford limestone pedestal. The extension of the state-secured federal funds allowed the project to be implemented without spending university general funds.

On Dec. 3, a crew from the Chicago art-rigging company Methods and Materials removed The Thinker from its pedestal for Paine and Lins to begin work.

Cleaning of the sculpture began on site. While a forklift held The Thinker in the air, Paine and Lins, a specialist in sculpture and corrosion science, began to clean out some of the debris that had been left inside the statue after its casting. Once The Thinker was on ground level in the indoor workspace, the conservators conducted a series of tests to determine the most appropriate cleaning method to reach the cuprite layer of red copper oxide that would take the new patina.

As they examined The Thinker, what they found put to test everything they knew about chemistry, metals and Rodin.

That is because before UofL students, faculty and staff realized the significance of their Thinker, students sometimes would paint the sculpture as a prank.

Repeated cleaning of paint had damaged the sculpture’s surface and created “a slightly different surface for this figure than other figures that have just weathered outdoors without quite so much collegial activity,” Lins said.

Paint flecks still hid in the pores of the metal and had to be removed. So did unidentified dehydrated cleaning solutions that reacted unexpectedly and created unforeseen challenges with the cleaning and patination processes, Paine said.

After several tests on the best way to remove the blue-green brochantite layer of corrosion, Paine and Lins ultimately chose an infrared laser, which the Philadelphia Museum of Art made available to the project.

“When that beam scans across the surface, the brochantite and other corrosion absorb the light, expand real quickly and come off in a puff of smoke,” Paine explained.

Once cleaned, Paine and Lins applied the new layered patina using copper nitrate to create a base layer of green and ammonium sulfide to create a black patina over that. They based their patina on Rodin primary source materials because none of the original patina survived. Finally, they topped the patina with a wax coating to help protect The Thinker from the elements.

As the statue weathers, some of the green may begin to show through and accentuate The Thinker’s muscles and other features, Paine said.

“It’s a wonderful sculpture and the university and students clearly identify with it,” Paine said. “It is their icon and it is an icon to the world. It’s wonderful that it’s here.”

With the initial work complete, The Thinker is back in place, seated on a new pedestal from Muldoon Memorial Co.—the company that provided the original pedestal. The conservation, however, will be ongoing: Paine and Lins have given UofL a detailed maintenance plan that spans the next half-century.

“I have worked on other sculptures by Rodin,” Paine said, “but this one has always been very, very special to me, and I keep the memory of turning that corner and seeing the sculpture … and it was love at first sight. It just was.

“I feel very protective of this Thinker. It’s a privilege and an honor to work on it. It’s a great work of art. It’s a great sculpture, and the university is really committed to its care.”

(Editor’s Note: The Thinker conservation will be the focus of an April 13 session of UofL’s “Public Art and the City” conference. Bernard Barryte, author of “Rodin in America” and curator of European art at the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford University; Christopher Fulton, associate professor, UofL Department of Fine Arts; Shelley Reisman Paine, sculpture conservator, Shelley Paine Conservation LLC; and Bill Mongon, laser metrics scientist from Accurex Measurement Inc., will form a panel for the session.)

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