Behind the Scenes: Grosse Spirale by Günther Uecker

‘An instrument like a knife and fork with which we can eat art.’ Gunther Uecker

In 2020, Heritage Council intern Federica Traversa was faced with a major challenge – the treatment of an artwork consisting of a painted canvas stretched over a panel with around 6000-7000 painted iron nails nailed to it.

Grosse Spirale was acquired by the Hugh Lane Gallery for its contemporary collection in 1968 thanks to the generous donation of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland.

The use of nails in Uecker’s oeuvre was influenced by his childhood trauma. During the 2nd World War, the artist boarded up the windows of his family home with wooden planks to protect them from possible attack. The aggressive act of hammering nails into planks to shelter his family inspired Uecker to embed his wartime experiences into his work. The nail symbolises the paradox of ‘healing by hurting’. The spatial realities created by the nails are his responses to the changing moods of nature, to his encounters with people, emotional responses which shape the curves and movement of the works.

The complexity of this project lay in the variety of materials used, all of which required different treatments. Over the years, the nails began to rust due to direct contact with the air. This causes the coating over the nails to discolour and flake off the corroded nail surface. This corrosion has affected the overall appearance of the work, contrary to the artist’s stated intention.

The Conservation Department had the pleasure of discussing the treatment with various experts such as Paul Mullarkey and Silvia Da Rocha, conservators at the National Museum of Ireland, Ulrik Runeberg, restorer in the Gemälde der Moderne und Zeitgenössische Kunst Stellvertretender Institutsleiter, Düsseldorf, James Dwan, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Trinity College Dublin, and Leonardo Borgioli Head of Technical-Scientific Office at CTS, products and equipment for restoration, Italy.

Technical examination and cleaning tests were carried out to understand how to remove the rust and how to shield the iron from oxygen, thereby slow down the degradation of the nails. A specific cleaning system was selected with the aim of limiting the contact of the artwork with water; the solution was transformed into a gel. This technique allowed us to control very effectively the entire cleaning process, which took almost 6 months.

  • Profile

    Günther Uecker is a German artist who was born in Wendorf, Germany in 1930. He is best known for his tactile sculptural paintings which are mesmerising and meditative – personal reflections on the world as he encounters it.

    As he explains: ‘It’s about taking the reality of everyday encounters with material that’s lying on the street and creating an expression of life, a cipher, a symbol, an instrument like a knife and fork with which we can eat art.’

    During his studies at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, Uecker met the artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene and joined their international movement ZERO in 1961.  Mack and Piene formed this movement in response to the horrors of the 2nd World War. Piene described ZERO as “a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning”. During this time Uecker explored new materials and new possibilities in art. He studied optical phenomena, the structures of light and the illusion of movement known as kinetic art. This art was to attempt to influence the way we see things not just something we look at.

  • Details

    Günther Uecker (b. 1930)

    Grosse Spirale, 1967

    Emulsion on canvas and nails

    Work 150 x 150 x 9 (LHD cm)

    Crate 162 x 162 x 20 (LHD cm)

    Presented by Friends of National Collections of Ireland in 1968

    Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

    Object number: 1275

Condition of the nails before treatment.

UV examination of Grosse Spirale.

UV examination: Detail of a previous attempt to treat this artwork.

Heritage Council intern Federica Traversa preparing cleaning solution for Grosse Spirale.

Cleaning in process.

Grosse Spirale after treatment.

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