The Man Who Keeps the Art at the Nasher Sculpture Center Clean

John Campbell is part art historian, part scientist, and part dust buster in his role as conservator at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

WET AND WILD: Campbell cleans Richard Serra’s My Curves Are Not Mad at the Nasher.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Last fall, less than a month into his tenure as conservator of the Nasher Sculpture Center, John Campbell was using cotton cloths and aerosol cans of compressed air to dust the sculptures. It’s a prosaic but essential job, part of the museum’s weekly maintenance regime. When a visiting group of students entered the gallery and spotted Campbell at work, they looked at one another with grim expressions.

“Oh, man,” said one. “What do you think that guy did to get sentenced to community service in a place like this?”

Now Campbell wears a lab coat when he dusts in the gallery, to make himself look “a little more official.”

The new ensemble works for the 35-year-old conservator, whose knowledge extends to material science and microchips as well as the history of 20th-century sculpture. Campbell, who started work in October, was hired after a multi-year search to replace Joanna Rowntree, the Nasher’s first conservator, who died in 2006. The Seattle-bred Campbell’s credentials include four years of post-graduate training at New York University’s highly regarded Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center and experience as a sculpture conservation fellow at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“There are very few people who come through conservation programs and have a passion for—and decide to focus specifically on—modern and contemporary sculpture,” says Jed Morse, acting chief curator. “Fewer than 100 people in the world can do what John does.”

Campbell’s chief responsibility as conservator is to preserve the condition of the myriad artistic treasures that Patsy and Raymond Nasher brought together during a lifetime of collecting and Ray ultimately left for the city of Dallas. That means Campbell must use what he knows both about artists’ creative processes and material science to care for works as different as the welded and bolted steel beams of American abstract expressionist Mark di Suvero, which tower over the Nasher’s garden, and the delicate wax and plaster compositions of Italian post-impressionist Medardo Rosso, which sit in glass cases.

When he’s not dusting in the gallery or applying wax to sculptures in the garden to protect them from the elements, Campbell inhabits one of the Nasher’s two conservation laboratories, one of which is located in the museum’s lower level. A larger facility in Arlington accommodates more massive works. This particular afternoon in the museum lab, Campbell is working on a sculpture by British modernist William Tucker, titled Building a Wall in the Air. The piece lies disassembled on tarps on the floor, suffering from what Campbell describes as “major corrosion issues.” Campbell regards the work from behind thin-framed black glasses. His chin is decorated with a naturally reddish goatee. He wears jeans and a slightly wrinkled, open-necked dress shirt beneath his blazer. The lab’s layout gives the impression of a high school chemistry classroom. There are sinks against the wall, work tables in the room’s center, and two glowing computer screens. A large, ribbed blue hose referred to as “the elephant’s trunk,” used for sucking noxious vapors from the lab, hangs from the ceiling.

Campbell and Morse have been considering treatment options for removing the corrosion from Tucker’s geometric piece, formerly displayed in the garden. A complicated procedure involving an endoscope might be required to get at the corrosion on the inner surfaces of the sculpture’s hollow tubes, which are made of what Morse refers to as “mild steel.”

“By that I just mean it’s regular steel,” he adds, for my benefit.

“I’d say iron alloy,” Campbell gently corrects his boss.

“That’s the level of specificity we require from our conservator,” Morse says with a chuckle.

I get a better sense of Campbell’s exactitude when I tell him my own story about interacting with one of the museum’s sculptures. Ray Nasher, a former captain of the Duke tennis team, would sometimes invite my father and others to play at his house, when the sculpture collection still resided there. I tell Campbell that I remember a day I tagged along and saw guests jokingly hang their sweaty towels on Joan Miró’s Moonbird, the large, cheerful bronze monster with protruding wings, ears, and horns. Campbell looks genuinely shocked, so I quickly add, “Ray said it was good for the patina.”

He thinks for a few seconds before offering a response: “I suppose the salts would have been damaging, but the oils can be protective.”

Visually oriented from an early age, Campbell was also drawn to the romance of medicine and entered the University of Washington as a pre-med student. Thanks to a scheduling fluke, he ended up taking—and loving—an advanced art history class his first year. A graduate student taking the same class noticed Campbell’s twin interests in science and art and told him about conservation. “I was amazed by this field that was a perfect blend of the two subjects,” says Campbell, who went on to earn degrees in art history, materials science, and engineering.

While at MoMA, he conducted an analysis of Matisse sculptures using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which entails bombarding an object with X-rays and then looking at the emission pattern to figure out the precise makeup of the material’s alloy—in this case the exact proportions of copper, tin, and lead in the sculptures. Knowing a material’s “recipe” helps conservators protect the works over time and can provide important clues about a work’s history, even helping identify which metal foundry an artist preferred. “It’s like having a fingerprint,” Campbell says.

In addition to his other responsibilities at the Nasher, Campbell will work on an ongoing effort to create three-dimensional laser scans of most of the sculptures in the collection. The process uses a laser “camera” and a sophisticated software program to create a highly detailed image that serves as a benchmark conservators can use to assess a work’s condition. By comparing earlier and later scans, it’s possible to detect even small amounts of damage that may have resulted when, for example, a piece has been on loan to another museum.

Campbell calls the Nasher an amazing institution. “In a sense, it’s like a MoMA highlights collection,” he says. But maintaining such artworks in Dallas presents challenges—especially now. The huge transformation of the Arts District area and other construction projects downtown are throwing off clouds of dust that settle, among other places, on the sculptures in the garden.

“I’ve worked in New York where there is a lot of air pollution,” Campbell says. “And when I got here, I was shocked by the amount of material that’s depositing on the sculptures.” He says he has to clean the garden pieces at least once a week in order for them to be seen clearly.

There’s also a more profound problem. Either by intent or miscalculation, some modern artworks are not really built to last, like sculptures by Russian constructivist Antoine Pevsner, who employed plastics in some works, and his brother and fellow constructivist Naum Gabo, who used combinations like Plexiglas and nylon filament. Many works by these and other sculptors are starting to show signs of degradation, though the Nasher’s pieces remain in excellent shape. It will be Campbell’s job to figure out how to keep them that way.

“That’s what’s so exciting about conservation,” he says. “The problem-solving never stops.”

Kevin Richardson is a Dallas writer. Write to [email protected].


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