Natalia Keller

Stella(r) Project at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile

Natalia Keller

Stella(r) Project at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile

In December 2022, a member of the CMAT, Natalia Keller travelled to Chile to coordinate the closing activities of an international project devoted to a painting by the American contemporary painter Frank Stella. Here we provide an account on the project and its results.

Before starting my PhD at the Masaryk University, I lived several years in Santiago de Chile where I worked as Registrar at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, MSSA (Museum of Solidarity Salvador Allende), among other places. The history of this institution is fascinating and unique. It was founded in 1971 following a global call of artistic donations in an act of support and artistic solidarity with the Chilean people and the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Following the coup d’état in 1973 and Pinochet’s dictatorship, the museum’s collection was dispersed, but the institution continued abroad under the name of Museo Internacional de la Resistencia Salvador Allende (International Museum of Resistance Salvador Allende). After the return of democracy to Chile, the MSSA started operating again in Santiago having as one of its main tasks the challenge of reuniting the collection. Today it is one of the most prominent art museums in Chile and South America, with an important international collection of modern and contemporary art of more than 3100 pieces.

Among artists encouraged to donate their works in the onset of the museum was Frank Stella (born 1936), one of the renowned representatives of contemporary painting in the USA, recognized for his influence on minimalism and the use of large geometric patterns, fields and shapes. In 1972, Stella submitted a piece titled Isfahan III to the donation organized by the American art critic, Dore Ashton. Isfahan III is a large painting (approximately 300 x 600 cm), part of Stella’s Protractor series, a group of irregularly shaped canvases produced since 1967 and in the early 1970s. The series, planned as a total of ninety-three pieces, was designed to include thirty-one canvas formats, based on the multiplicated form of a protractor, and named after cities and places in the Middle East; each format was to be executed in three different designs called “interlaces”, “rainbows” and “fans”. The title of the painting in the MSSA collection indicates that it represents the format named after the Iranian city of Isfahan, in its third design variant, that is fans.

Frank Stella, Isfahan III, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 304 x 610 cm. MSSA Collection. Photo courtesy MSSA Archive/Frank Stella. © 1968 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

After the military coup, the painting was stored in the building of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Santiago, its stretcher disassembled, and the canvas folded. During the dictatorship years the original stretcher was lost, and the following substitutes build in the 1990s and 2000s did not offer the proper support for the large irregular painted canvas.

In this context, in 2019, emerges the Stella Project, funded by the Getty Foundation within its initiative Conserving Canvas, devoted to expanding the knowledge and skills for the structural care of paintings on canvas.[1] Up to date, grants within this initiative were awarded to over 25 recipients around the world including institutions such as the National Gallery in London, Palazzo Barberini in Rome or the University of Amsterdam. This was the first Conserving Canvas granted to a Latin American institution.

In Santiago, the Stella Project was a complex, multi-phase endeavour. Its main activities consisted of a structural conservation treatment of Stella’s piece as one of the highlights from the MSSA’s collection and the organization of workshops and treatment-based trainings for conservators from Chile and the region. Its objectives were to encourage the transmission and dissemination of technological innovations in the discipline of structural conservation of modern and contemporary painting within Latin America. The conservators taking part in the project included professionals from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia as well as Santiago and other cities in Chile.

The activities started in August 2019 with a series of lectures by the Italian conservator and specialist in structural treatment of paintings, Antonio Iaccarino, on the topic of the history of construction of stretchers and strainers for paintings on canvas and a practical workshop on a novel technique of elastic tension system for mounting canvas onto a stretcher. This technique allows paintings to slightly adjust their size depending on the changing conditions (temperature and relative humidity), eliminating the material tensions that are common in the traditional stretching systems in which the canvas is fixed permanently onto its support with staples. The traditional mounting system results in pulling when humidity drops and the canvas contracts provoking cracks in the paint and sometimes even tears in the canvas. On the other hand, when the humidity rises, the canvas expands, and this can result in it waving and drooping. The elastic stretching system uses springs that allow the canvas to flow freely over the edge of the stretcher eliminating these issues.

Back of Isfahan III mounted in its new stretcher (January 2023). Photo courtesy: Stella Project, MSSA Archive.

The following month, in September 2019, a second workshop devoted to the issues of conservation of contemporary painting was led by two conservators based in the USA and specialized on Stella’s work, Kamila Korbela and Christine Fröhner. Since in contemporary art painters often use unorthodox materials conservators have to constantly update their understanding of the degradation processes of new materials and learn how to treat their deterioration. The workshop included practical sessions where we could study in detail the issues related with commercial materials often used by Frank Stella, also in the production of Isfahan III, such as house and industrial paints and first commercial fluorescent paints release on the American market in the 1960s.

Camila Rodríguez (MSSA Conservator) discusses the state of Isfahan III with the consultants of the Stella Project: Kamila Korbela, Antonio Iaccarino and Christine Fröhner (September 2019). Photo courtesy: Stella Project, MSSA Archive.

In parallel to the workshops, the treatment of Isfahan III was advancing. After the complex tasks of unmounting the large canvas, flattening it, and fixing the damages it suffered during its eventful past, the irregular shape of the piece was measured using the precise geometric technique of triangulation and a computer software for obtaining a detailed outline of the canvas. In this way, we could obtain the exact form of the new stretcher that the painting required. The stretcher itself that had to be lightweight and easily disassembled while maintaining the needed stability and rigidity. It was designed and fabricated using state‑of-the-art technology and equipment. Constructed primarily from pine and balsa plywood it also included materials such as carbon fiber plates, polyethylene profiles and polycarbonate boards for protection – all to give it the highest possible resistance without gaining weight. Every piece was cut using CNC (computer numerical control) cutters for precision. After assembling the pieces (all 125 of them!), the canvas was mounted on its new stretcher using the elastic tension system. The final steps of the conservation treatment, postponed due to the COVID pandemic and executed in the late 2022, included the general cleaning of the surface of the artwork and inpainting where it had suffered damages and losses of the pigments.

Careful adjustments of the elements of the elastic tension system during the mounting of Infahan III onto its new stretcher (September 2019). Photo courtesy: Stella Project, MSSA Archive.

In December 2022, the project could finally find its conclusion. During the closing week the final readjustments, measurements, and evaluations of the state of Isfahan III were performed reaching the optimal results when it comes to the stability and expected durability of the piece. During a painting workshop organized by the MSSA’s Public Program staff, the visitors were invited to create their own large-scale painting that in colourful geometric shapes represented the neighbouring district, while the previously inscribed groups had a chance to visit the depot of the MSSA and see Stella’s painting from close, talk to the conservators in charge of the project and learn about the challenges of this conservation treatment. During this week, we also organized a one-day seminar for conservators, curators and art professionals. In the seminar different speakers related with the project gave accounts on, among others, the evolution of the project, the history of Stella’s art development and the characteristics of the Protractor series, the detailed description of the conservations treatment, as well as details concerning the construction of its new stretcher and the mounting system. Finally, together with the closing activities, MSSA launched on its website a bilingual documentary by Chilean filmmaker Bruno Salas, telling the story of Isfahan III and of the Stella Project.

Camila Rodríguez (MSSA Conservator) presents the results of the conservation treatment of Isfahan III to the public (December 2022). Photo courtesy: Stella Project, MSSA Archive.

If you want to know what the artist himself has to say about this whole endeavour, you can watch the documentary and learn more about this exciting project visiting the website of MSSA:

[1] The Stella Project was supported by the Getty Foundation, as part of its Conserving Canvas initiative, and the assessment of Josefina López, conservator specialized in painting and director of Conservarts.