How to Make Art That Withstands the Test of Time – Facts So Romantic

A degraded frame from an silent celluloid (aka nitrate) film, the same material used by Naum Gabo in some of his sculptures

In the 1930s, Russian-born sculptor Naum Gabo started experimenting with a thin, plastic material called celluloid. Previously used as film for photography or to make cheap jewelry, celluloid in Gabo’s hands became translucent geometric structures that were often suspended in mid-air. Art critic Herbert Read wrote that Gabo was using “new materials…[for] a new generation to create with them the monuments of a new civilization.” His pieces made their way into the top art collections in the world.

But by 1960, the plastic had begun to warp and crack. Gabo didn’t know it when he started using celluloid, but it is an extremely unstable and reactive material, and was infamous for catching fire in movie theaters. Despite conservators’ diligence to try to preserve his works, the plastic became too brittle and the sculptures collapsed. Gabo himself called many of them irreparable.

Gabo’s is a cautionary tale in art conservation circles; contemporary artists are more interested in experimentation, getting the right effect with a new or offbeat material,…

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