Passing through the Ahmanson Building atrium the other day, I came across senior conservator John Hirx in his lab coat. He was slinging what, from afar, looked like Buddhist prayer flags over Tony Smith’s monumental Smoke. The multicolored pieces of cloth dangled from the 8-sided modules that make up the sculpture, which rises 24 feet into the air. John explained that he was dusting the piece.
Conservation technology at LACMA is state-of-the-art science; one prominent project (Watts Towers) includes a method utilizing “a 10% solution of Paraloid B72 in Toluene,” and it’s not unusual for conservators to speak this kind of Vulcan. But John got his materials at Pep Boys auto parts shop. He was proud to let me know that all three types of cloth included in his homegrown dusting apparatus came in a single jumbo pack for just $3.99. He attached them using a sewing machine in the conservation storage lab, and intended to wash them afterwards in the lab’s own washer/dryer.
Mark Gilberg, director of the conservation center, hastened to point out that the three types of cleaning cloth included in the Pep Boys jumbo pack do have just the right unique physical qualities required to dust the monumental work of art: a smooth chamois, a soft terry of medium texture, and a shaggy number with long fibers. This combination of textures designed for washing your car just happens to be perfect for cleaning the painted aluminum surfaces of Smith’s masterpiece.