The whole thing had to be fumigated. Many components were lost, and others are thought to be too far deteriorated to be salvaged.
But, after nearly 30 years out of sight, what's left of Philadelphia Cornucopia, by the celebrated Pop artist Red Grooms, will be back on view — just in time for the Democratic National Convention.
The "sculpto-pictorama" of canvas, wood, chicken wire, paint, and string was created for the city's tricentennial in 1982 and last seen in 30th Street Station in 1987. This time, it's at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as part of the exhibition "Happiness, Liberty and Life? American Art and Politics," from June 30 to Sept. 18.
Cornucopia — featuring, among other vignettes, oversize sculptures of George and Martha Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson aboard a ship — was meant to be temporary, but no one could seem to bear to throw it away. It moldered in the basement of City Hall for years before PAFA took over stewardship of its remains in 2010.
Mary McGinn, PAFA's painting conservator, said a team of five or six people had been working for two months to bring the scene back to life.
The team exhumed and revived the sculptures of the Founding Fathers, and used old photographs to re-create their missing accessories: a hat, a telescope, a kite, and a wreath.
Also, Washington was missing his epaulets.
"We needed to replace them. Otherwise he would just look inadequate," McGinn said.
There was also structural stabilization to be done, along with a thorough cleaning and some paint restoration. In places, the team tried to reheat the old hot glue, to see if it would adhere again. But the main challenges, she said, were that "it's very large, and it's made of materials that were not necessarily intended to last."
Other pieces in PAFA's storage unit, including rowers and an artist with a nude model, were not restored. There was not time or space, McGinn said. She's also not sure whether the muslin backdrops PAFA has for the piece are salvageable.
The pieces are just a fragment of the original installation, exhibited in the crisp white gallery space of PAFA's modern Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building. They will join dozens of other portraits of American political luminaries in the exhibition, which includes a "Wall of Washington," containing 20 views of the founding father.
McGinn, surveying Washington's disembodied legs (awaiting the addition of his torso), said he looked good for his age.
"Considering how old they are and how long they've been in storage, they're in pretty remarkable condition," she said.