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The crate that transported Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” from its home state to the Getty Center in Los Angeles in the summer of 2012 would not withstand the rigors of transportation across the country, over the Atlantic Ocean and through the canals of Venice during its nine-year tour.
So Rita Gomez, the Getty Center’s lead preparator for packing and crating, had to figure out just what it would take to stabilize the massive 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas for transport by semis, cargo planes and boats. And she and her team had just six weeks to build a crate that would meet all the specifications for such varied means of travel.
Pollock’s masterpiece, gifted to the University of Iowa by Peggy Guggenheim in 1951, spent two years at the Getty Center for study and conservation before it went on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from March to June 2014, drawing 304,349 viewers. It then returned to Iowa for another solo exhibition at the Sioux City Art Center from July 2014 to April 2015, drawing 30,945 visitors, according to the UI’s Iowa Magazine.
After that, “Mural” embarked on a tour that would take it first to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice from April to November 2015, then on to museums in Berlin, two in Spain, London, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Boston, ending at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City from Oct. 3, 2020, to Aug. 30, 2021.
It then went into secure storage at an undisclosed location, before coming in mid-July to its new home in a second-floor gallery at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art, which will open Aug. 26.
On its odyssey, “Mural” traveled more than 20,000 miles and was viewed by more than 2.7 million people. Catapulting the masterwork onto the world stage caused a renewed interest that began when “Mural” was moved out of harm’s way before the Iowa River inundated the former UI Museum of Art in June 2008. Sean Ulmer, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Museum Art, expects that interest to continue and grow.
“Ever since the flood, ‘Mural’ has gotten much more attention than it had when it was hanging in the old UIMA and everyone knew it was there. But since the flood, it has been completely restored, which is wonderful,” he said. “It's traveled the globe and has really raised the visibility of not just that painting and Jackson Pollock, but also the University of Iowa.
“And having it back here in a space that's designed for it will allow people to really enjoy that work, and hopefully as a result from this period of time where it hasn't been on view locally, will renew interest in that piece (here), and at the same time, serve as a draw from across the country — across the globe, really — to view this work in the public realm again.”
That it traveled so far and so well, with no harm done, is thanks to the work that began at the Getty Center when Gomez designed the crate, then handed her sketches — which she called “cartoons” — over to her boss to create “proper architectural drawings,” she told The Gazette.
The new crate would have to be larger than the original to accommodate the now-345-pound painting that became heavier and more rigid during the conservation efforts. The canvas was stretched onto a new frame made of Alaskan cedar, which Gomez said insects “like the least.”
Part of the challenge was making sure the new crate would fit onto cargo planes and semis. It wasn’t the tallest crate Gomez has built since she came to the Getty in 1986, but it was the longest. And in the end, it did meet transportation dimensions — with little room to spare, especially in height.
Gomez described the original crate as “rather flimsy” with a “rudimentary cover.” The new crate has several inner layers, incorporating plywood, aluminum, vapor barriers to line the inside of the crate, adhesive film and gasket sealing material. Its bolts, clips and other metal fasteners had to be covered to prevent corrosion. She said the lining looks like a swimming pool inside the crate — without water, of course.
Ten years ago, the materials alone cost about $14,000 for the “Mural” crate. Today, in light of fluctuating prices for aluminum, they could easily run $100,000. “Since the pandemic, you probably wouldn’t have been able to even get some of those materials,” Gomez said.
The materials also have to pass International Plant Protection standards for moving between countries to ensure that bugs would not hitch a ride. Hence the need to use aluminum, plywood and other materials either heat treated or impervious to insects.
And the crate would have to withstand the kind of shocks, vibrations and jerky motions encountered during the loading process and travel by land and water, but Gomez noted that during assessments, airplane turbulence doesn’t register as a threat.
Weight also remains a factor, from construction to transport. Even with using pump lifts, sawhorses, dollies and cranes, lifting sections of the 3,200-pound crate was no easy feat during the construction process and initial transfers. Getting the mammoth crate from a boat to the Guggenheim in Venice also involved a large hydraulic crane and the kind of expertise the Scalo Fluviale company has honed by transporting goods in Venice since 1904, including priceless works of art.
So was the project fun, exciting or terrifying?
“I think it’s all of it,” Gomez said with a laugh. “I'd say it's the most amazing thing I’ve ever built.”
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