Max Ernst’s Bronze Sculptures at MoMA, Part 1
This past summer, the Max Ernst bronzes in MoMA’s collection were assembled for review in advance of the opening of Max Ernst: Beyond Painting (September 23, 2017–January 1, 2018). This cross-departmental survey of Ernst’s experimentation across mediums united all of the Museum’s holdings of his work for the first time. While I was reviewing conservation and curatorial records for the installation, four of the selected bronzes piqued my interest: Moonmad, An Anxious Friend (both 1944, cast 1973), The King Playing with the Queen (1944, cast 1954), and Bird-Head (1934–5, no cast date). The files for all four indicated a connection to Modern Art Foundry, although there were some gaps in the records. I decided to contact the foundry in order to see if they could shed greater light on the sculptures.
Modern Art Foundry
Prior to training as a sculpture conservator, I worked at Modern Art Foundry. Founded by John Spring as Bedford Bronze in 1932, the foundry was originally located near the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, Queens. In 1947 it became Modern Art Foundry and moved to its current home in Astoria, Queens. Bob Spring took over the business from his father in the 1970s, and it is now run by Bob’s children, Mary Jo and Jeffrey. The foundry, which offers lost-wax casting services in producing molds, waxes, solid investment casting, non-ferrous castings, finishing of sculptures, and patination, has cast works by great modern artists including Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko, Gaston Lachaise, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Gober, and many others.
During my time there, from 2008 through 2011, I practiced the various stages of metal casting, including mold-making, wax retouching, ceramic shell investment, metal finishing, and patination. This work deeply informed my understanding of the casting process, fabrication and finishing techniques, and metallurgical properties. Now, as a sculpture conservator, I frequently rely on my foundry background to aid in the examination, analysis, and treatment of metal artworks.
The Casting Process
All four works were made by Max Ernst in plaster and subsequently cast in bronze. Moonmad, An Anxious Friend, and The King Playing with the Queen were made by Ernst in 1944 while he and the artist Dorothea Tanning, whom he would soon marry, were spending the summer in Great River on Long Island. Bird-Head was made in plaster between 1934 and 1935, a decade prior to the other three sculptures, soon after the artist had begun experimenting with the medium.
Generally, in order to cast sculptures, a mold or impression is taken of the forms. (For complex sculptures, multiple molds are sometimes required.) After the mold cures, it is removed from the original sculpture, leaving the negative void of the sculpture into which the wax is poured. The molten wax is agitated in the mold to allow any air bubbles to escape and let the wax fully coat the surface of the mold. After the wax hardens to a specific wall thickness, typically around a quarter of an inch, the remaining molten wax is poured out. Plaster is then poured into the hollow to limit the thickness of the bronze walls for weight, castability, and cost concerns.
In order to prevent air bubbles from being trapped during the bronze casting process, tubes of wax called gates are attached to the sculpture, creating a system for air and metal flow. The wax is then covered in a fine mixture of plaster called “investment,” in order to capture the surface details, followed by a coarser mixture that is built up until it fully encases the sculpture. This investment block is turned upside down and cured in an oven, allowing the wax to escape, or be “lost,” from the mold. Once the system is cured, the investment is turned right-side up and molten bronze is poured into the cavity. Once the bronze has hardened and cooled, the plaster investment is chipped away from the bronze. At this point the surface of the bronze is “finished” by removing the gates and using a variety of grinding tools or chisels to remove imperfections in the surface. Once the surface meets the artist’s approval, the final step is the application of a patina, a chemical solution that binds to the surface bronze, often changing its color to green, brown, or black.
The King Playing with the Queen would have had a gelatin mold applied to the plaster. Gelatin, commonly used in bronze casting in the 1950s, is particularly good for reproducing surface details and texture. Given that gelatin molds only last approximately one to two days, the waxes needed for the bronze edition would have to be cast almost immediately. By the 1970s, the molds of An Anxious Friend and Moonmad were made with rubber. Rubber’s much longer lifespan allows for the production of the waxes and bronzes over the course of months, or even years.
Tracing Ernst’s Bronzes, from Foundry to MoMA
Moonmad and An Anxious Friend have a clearly recorded path from the artist to the foundry to the Museum. Both were given to MoMA by the artist in 1973, the same year they were cast at Modern Art Foundry. The bases of both sculptures have ‘A.P’ and ‘Max Ernst, 1944’ incised on the base and ‘Modern Art Foundry, New York, NY’ stamped on the side (above). In the foundry archives, job cards for both of the sculptures were on file, including an image of the plaster on the front with the job number, date, price, and any special casting instructions on the back (below).
Letters exchanged between the foundry, Max Ernst, and William Rubin, MoMA’s chief curator from 1968 to 1988, detail the movement of the sculptures from the foundry to the Museum in 1973 and the movement of the plasters from the foundry across the Atlantic to France, where they would be used by the Susse Foundeur for additional casts in 1975 (left).
The King Playing with the Queen was cast in 1954 from its original plaster and was given to MoMA by Mr. and Mrs. John de Menil a year later in 1955. MoMA’s records list the sculpture as having been executed in Great River, Long Island. However, the Museum’s records do not list the foundry used to cast the bronze, nor is there a foundry mark visible on the base. According to Jeffrey Spring of Modern Art Foundry, the lack of a foundry mark is characteristic of bronzes cast in the 1950s, as New York did not have the same foundry stamp requirements it does now. Werner Spies’s catalogue raisonné of Ernst’s oeuvre lists, however, that 10 examples of this sculpture were cast in the 1950s at Modern Art Foundry, and research in the foundry archives confirmed this. The job sheet for Max Ernst has three job numbers for the The King Playing with the Queen invoiced to Iolas Gallery, Ernst’s gallery at the time. The Iolas Gallery commissioned five casts in 1953, four in 1955, and one in 1961. A letter dated December 14, 1955, from Alexander Iolas on, Ernst’s dealer at the time, to MoMA, confirms that the Museum’s sculpture is an original cast, numbered four in an edition of six.
MoMA’s cast of Bird-Head, formerly in the collection of Dorothea Tanning, was acquired in 1983. It does not have a foundry mark, nor is a casting date listed in the object file. The catalogue raisonné lists the sculpture as cast in 1956 with six or possibly nine examples, but does not list a foundry of production. After MoMA acquired Bird-Head, curators attempted to confirm the sculpture’s origin. Bob Spring examined the sculpture in 1983 and wrote in a letter to MoMA that he did not believe Modern Art Foundry cast the sculpture in MoMA’s collection. Bob Spring did, however, confirm to MoMA over a decade later that Modern Art Foundry cast an edition of Bird-Head in the 1950s. This is reflected in the foundry’s job sheet for Max Ernst, which notes that an edition for casts of a “Square Figure” was commissioned by Iolas Gallery in February 1955. Even though the title listed on the job sheet is not the current title of the work, the foundry job sheet primarily identifies sculptures by their job number, with descriptive titles often given by the foundry. While my research confirmed that Modern Art Foundry cast an edition of Ernst’s Bird-Head, the casting date and edition of MoMA’s bronze remain unknown.
In order to attempt to definitely answer the question of the casting origin of Bird-Head, I teamed up with MoMA conservation scientist Ana Martins to analyze the bronze alloy composition of all four sculptures. Stay tuned for part two, in which I’ll explore that process and the results of our analysis.