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Does Plastic Art Last Forever?

July 2, 2009

Not even close. Can a generation of synthetic objects be saved?

By Sam Kean in Slate MagazinePosted Wednesday, July 1, 2009, at 11:32 AM ET

Duane Hanson's 1974 sculpture Drug Addict, observed by a museum guestDuane Hanson’s 1974 sculpture Drug Addict, observed by a museum guestIn the early 1960s, curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art noticed something funny about one of their modern-art sculptures: It smelled like vinegar. Worse, the once-clear plastic sculpture had begun browning like an apple, and cracks had appeared on its surface. By 1967, Naum Gabo’s translucent, airy Construction in Space: Two Coneslooked like Tupperware that had gone through the dishwasher too often.

The volatile Gabo got so angry at the curators (he blamed the deterioration on their keeping his work in an airtight display case) that he took the sculpture back to repair it. That didn’t work—things, in fact, got worse—and he finally gave up. He cast a replica of Two Cones, donated it to the Tate in London, and gave Philly back the degraded original.

The incident would have remained a footnote in art history, except that other Gabo pieces (including the Tate’s replica) started falling apart, too, and in much the same way. They flaked into pieces, turned strange colors, and began to reek. Gabo found a reason to blame other owners for mishandling his work, but curators soon discovered a common factor: rhodoid, an early plastic made of cellulose acetate.

Read more at Slate Magazine: The World’s Greatest Plastic Art Is Crumbling. Can It Be Saved?

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