Focus on Collections Care for Sculptures

Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele shares some recent improvements to collections care management.

Transferring sculpture into the new storage space

Our new custom-built museum quality cabinets in the Phillips’s recently installed in the main art storeroom ensures the preservation of the sculptures in our permanent collection. Pictured above, Yacine Fall (contract art handler) passes Organic Construction No. 9 , a 1961 welded steel work by Richard Hunt to Simona Cristanetti (sculpture conservator) to place safely in its new home. Compared to the older, less-used storeroom, their transfer to the upgraded storage space also improves the accessibility of the sculptures for review by conservators, curators, and installations staff.

Conducting a condition check on our sculptures

The more convenient location makes Ms. Cristanetti’s job to conduct a condition survey of nearly 150 sculptures more efficient. She is preparing written and photographic documentation of their condition and a treatment proposal that will guide the future care of each work. When last evaluated by conservation in 1996, the Phillips only owned 48 three-dimensional objects, meaning we tripled our sculptural holdings in 25 years. Pictured above, Greg Jallat (who recently joined the Conservation/Registration Departments as the Collections Care and Visual Resources Manager) works with the conservator to determine the best practices for housing these works while in storage.

The Richard Hunt sculpture is a recent gift of Phillips family members Alice Phillips Swistel, James Laughlin Phillips, and Marjorie Phillips Elliot. Funding for the improved housing, state-of-the-art storage cabinets and the condition survey has been provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

A Technical Examination of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers

In 2019, Smithsonian American Art Museum conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined the Phillips’s work Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by Alma Thomas. Read an excerpt from their report to learn about Thomas’s process and join us on January 13 for a talk with Gwen Manthey and Amber Kerr.

In 2019, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began analyzing 40 of Alma Thomas’s paintings, including works from its own collection, The Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Gallery of Art. Research focused on the tools and techniques that Thomas employed throughout her career from the early 1950s to her death in 1978. Using a modified Nikon D810 digital multispectral imaging camera that captures images across the electromagnetic spectrum, conservators identified the art materials and determined the layering construction of Thomas’s paintings. On November 18, 2019, SAAM conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined Thomas’s acrylic painting Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers at The Phillips Collection.

Figure 1 (left) Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, normal light illumination, and 2 (right) verso.


They gleaned new information using infrared reflectography (IRR), a process where infrared wavelengths penetrate paint layers and are absorbed by carbon-containing pigments and drawing media, and then reflected by underlayers of white ground and paint. They learned that Thomas defined each color row in Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by drawing vertical lines with a sharp graphite pencil on the prepared canvas. The evenness of these lines (spaced 1 inch apart), guided by short tick marks, suggest the use of a straight edge ruler (Figure 3a-b). Thomas also made straight lines at the inner top, left, and right edges of the painting’s edge to indicate the perimeter of the composition.

Figure 3 (left) infrared reflectograph overall image. Details in normal light (A) and IR (B) show Thomas’s graphite pencil lines for each vertical row of color pats.


Using UVA-induced luminescence from a Labino UV Light, the conservators found a strong autofluorescence in the rich orange paint that Thomas applied in several of the orange rows seen in the top right corner of the painting. This provides more insight into how Thomas layered her paint pats in each row (Figure 5).

Figure 4 (left), detail of top-right corner in normal light and 5 (right) in UVA-induced luminescence. The strong autofluorescence of the orange paint reveals how Thomas layered several of her rows.


Thomas chose a basket-weave medium weight fabric with an average thread count of 36 x 32 threads/inch for her canvas; it is attached to the stretcher with staples (Figure 6). The stretcher consists of four wooden stretcher bars, with mitered slot and tenon joints, and a horizontal crossbar. Impressed stamps (Anco bilt, Glendale, N.Y. and Grumbacher Artists’ Materials, New York) shown in Figure 7, were found on the stretcher bars. Each join contains a pattern of four large holes (Figure 7), possibly the location of previous metal plates added by the artist to increase the strength of the support; they have since been replaced by keys fixed with cord and screws. The painting’s verso contains several inscriptions by the artist in a black felt-tipped marker, her signature, the title, date, and dimensions of the work (Figure 2). The artist wrote “TOP” in a white paint or acrylic primer.

Figure 6 (left), detail of top-right corner tacking edge and 7 (right) of the same corner shown on the verso.


The painting is comprised of vertical rows of colorful acrylic paint, applied by brush, on top of the white ground. Examination of the painting’s edges show that the ground was applied by the artist. The ground has seeped through the canvas in some areas of the verso (Figure 7). Thomas applied additional layers of paint to several of her color rows. Often, they match the initial color, but there are instances where Thomas layered a different color such as blue gray over green and blue paint pats. The paint pats are formed from multiple brushstrokes, measuring about an inch wide. Thomas used a thinner brush to reinforce the white spacing between the pats with white paint. There are many downward drips of paint located between the yellow rows (Figure 8) and in the nearby orange row (Figure 9). The downward paint drips shown in Figures 8-9 indicate that Thomas did not work flat and that she watered-down her acrylic paints.

Figure 8 (left), detail of downward paint drips in the yellow center rows and 9 (right) in the orange center row.

To learn more about Thomas’s process, join us for a conversation with Gwen Manthey and conservator Amber Kerr on Janaury 13 at the Phillips about their research.

Collections Care During Closure

Head of Conservation Lilli Steele shares the how the collection has been cared for while the museum has been closed.

While the doors have been shut to The Phillips Collections due to covid-19, the Phillips staff has still been busy caring for the permanent collection and the artworks in the special exhibitions. Every day since mid-March, our security staff has conducted daily checks throughout the entire museum and our building engineers have closely monitored the climate control system. Once a week, someone from our conservation department has walked through the galleries to inspect all of the works of art on view to check for any changes in condition, with particular attention to the loans included in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition and Moira Dryer: Back in Business. Since both exhibitions closed so soon after they opened in February, the generous lenders have agreed to extend the exhibitions until January 2021 and December 2020, respectively. In order to prevent over exposure of light to works that are vulnerable to fading—such as drawings, watercolors, prints, and photographs, which are generally only placed on view for three months a year—the galleries were kept dim as much as possible. In addition, preparation staff carefully covered light sensitive works of art under dark fabrics to ensure that they received no additional exposure during the extended exhibition period.

Conservator Lilli Steele examines Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, Acrylic on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976. Adjacent to the painting, several prints have been covered with a dark cloth to eliminate additional light exposure.

The museum’s outdoor sculptures have also been carefully tended to during the shut down, After the long rainy spring, the sculptures were due to be washed to remove pollen, bird droppings, and other dirt residues that had accumulated over the winter. Periodic cleaning of Angela Bulloch’s Heavy Metal Stack, Fat Cyan Three (located at the corner of 21st and Q), Seymour Lipton’s Ancestor (located in front of the Phillips House), and Barbara Hepworth’s Dual Form and Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled (EK927) (in the Hunter Courtyard) has continued during the summer and into the fall to ensure their preservation.

Wearing masks and socially distanced on a warm September afternoon, conservators Lilli Steele and Patti Favero and preparator Laylaa Randera wash Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled (EK927).

While it was strange to be in the museum for many months with virtually no colleagues present and certainly no visitors, I felt comforted to be able to enjoy old friends from the permanent collection and be reminded of the Phillips’s exceptional exhibitions. We are so excited to finally carefully remove the coverings over the artworks and welcome visitors back into our galleries and also to enjoy our newly cleaned sculptures.