Slate reveals the deficiencies of plastic as an artistic medium in Sam Kean’s fascinating study. He begins with the artist Naum Gabo and the problems the Philadelphia museum had with some of his work:
In the 1920s, Gabo and other artists began experimenting with plastic, both because it offered the freedom to create any shape in any color and because they believed artists should embrace technology and a plastics-based industrial future. (Gabo was trained as an engineer.) Plastics manufacturers assured the artists that cellulose acetate was durable—Greek marble for a new generation. Not quite. It turned out plastics were no more intrinsically stable (and sometimes less stable) than wood, paint, or any other media—a detail Gabo and the Philadelphia curators never suspected until too late. […] Plastics hold up well for the decade or so during which a consumer uses most products. But museums, unlike consumers, are in it for the long haul, and when plastics crash, they crash precipitously. As a result, museums of all sorts have been having Gabo moments in the past decade. […]
Worst of all, when plastics weep and bleed they can corrupt everything around them. Chemicals evaporate from their surface and acidify any moisture inside a display case. This causes mini bouts of acid rain that in turn eat away at the plastic in nearby objects—as well as any cloth, metal, or paper in those objects. Curators can lay down special carbon cloths beneath a plastic object to absorb some acid, but some plastics have to be quarantined immediately. Museums have also used plastics to coat nonplastic objects like silver (to prevent tarnishing) and paintings (to prevent flaking). But plastic coatings often “bloom” and turn opaque or “crizzle” (i.e., wrinkle) like dried rubber cement, changes that can damage the very object the coating was meant to preserve. […]
One branch of the art industry that has taken a particular interest in the question of how to preserve plastics is insurers, since they will have to pick up the tab for damaged goods. Insurance agencies fund much of the research into preserving plastic art, a fledgling science aching for a breakthrough. One company, AXA Art Insurance, publishes a book with the dour title Plastic Art: A Precarious Success Story, and has held numerous training sessions to teach curators the best-known methods of staving off decay (and, it hopes, to generate new ideas on how to reverse it). In a warning to museums snapping up the work of some of today’s hottest artists, the AXA book states that plastic-heavy pieces by Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, and Jeff Koons will be “difficult, costly, and nerve-racking to preserve.”
In the future, museums will probably have to be stingier about sharing or even displaying plastic holdings. Conservators at New York’s MoMA say it frequently gets requests to loan out Eva Hesse works, such as Viniculum II, which consists of latex pieces affixed to a wire, but they have to refuse because of their fragility. In even worse shape are the plastic sculptures of blue-collar workers, overweight shoppers, and white-trash tourists by Duane Hanson, a name on the lips of most every plastics curator. His grotesque renderings used to startle museum-goers with their uncanny realism, but as the sculptures peel and crack, they’re looking creepy for different reasons. When a Hanson statue, Woman With Handbag, began to decay at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany, curators cleverly asked the artist to “age” the woman by playing up her age spots and changing her hair. But since Hanson’s death in 1996, the museum has limited the time it shows the piece.
Does Plastic Art Last Forever? (Slate)