Short Features

Conservation, Materials and Methods

Changing Light of Chryssa

Chryssa, Cycladic Book No. 5, 1955. Terracotta, 12 × 9 1/8 × 2 ¼ in. (30.5 × 23.2 × 5.7 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston
Time-lapse video made with available daylight over three hours. All images by Adam Neese, The Menil Collection

Light contributes to our experience of art. The artist Chryssa (born Greece, Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali; 1933–2013) actively incorporated light into her artworks, several of which are on view in the exhibition Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip. Chryssa is perhaps best known for her use of neon tubing in her artworks, beginning in the early 1960s, but her interest in light was manifest a decade earlier, albeit less overtly, in the series Cycladic Books, 1955. Above, a time-lapse video of Cycladic Book No. 5 shows a clay relief lit by changing daylight over the course of several hours. The video was intentionally made around the time of the winter solstice to take advantage of the more extreme angle of the sun. Inspired by a cast left after plaster accidentally dropped in a cardboard box, the Cycladic Books were completed while Chryssa was living in New York City. There she frequently took walks with fellow artist Agnes Martin near their studios on the Coenties Slip, a small strip of land in the old seaport of Manhattan overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge.* In contrast to many studios nestled in the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers, spaces in the Coenties Slip had a view of light reflecting off the water of the East River.

The Cycladic Books evolved out of the first series of works Chryssa created after moving to New York in 1955—a group of large plaster reliefs that she called “experiments in static light” to distinguish them from the kinetic sculpture popular at the time.(1) Rather than create movement within the work itself, Chryssa highlighted the movements of the spectator and the sun, which caused the appearance of the artwork’s surface to change as shadows altered position and size.(2) A similar effect is achieved in the Cycladic Books. The video above presents an alternative experience of the work to that under the fixed lighting of the gallery, offering a glimpse into the dynamics of light for which they were first conceived and created.

In a slightly later work, Chryssa’s Study on Light of 1962, a legible alphabet becomes an abstract design that varies depending on the direction and intensity of light falling upon it. Since the work is devoid of color, only its highlights and shadows are crucial to establishing the work’s composition. Light both reveals and obfuscates.
Brought to the conservation studio for treatment, Study on Light provided a particular challenge for our team. Conservation standards require that artworks be photographed before and after treatment to accurately document any changes. Standardized photographic procedures help ensure consistency; for example, white balancing within a pre-determined range of tonal values ensures comparative accuracy of color. However, we found that part of the rich alphabetic topography of Study on Light became less visible when evenly lit and processed within established parameters. In Detail 1, we see the artwork as photographed according to conservation imaging standards. In the upper right corner, depth is not captured and the clarity of some letters is lost. In Detail 2, we see the results of adjustments that help to more accurately convey the artwork’s surface and record its details for future research.

Related exhibitions

Apr 14 – Aug 27, 2017
Main Building
Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip