My Work at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC
What’s on exhibit lately at the Guggenheim Museum? Well, amongst other things, it’s me. I’m typically on view for a week or two during the short interval between shows known as the changeover period. Now in my third year there, I am kept busy restoring/repairing the museum’s iconic spiraling terrazzo floors. How did this occur?
I was exhibiting my latest terrazzo furniture designs at NYC’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) as I do every May (this month will be my 17th show there). Into my booth came the facilities manager of the Guggenheim. She told me they were having difficulty finding someone in New York to do some terrazzo work for them, and were considering importing someone from Italy. I went to take a look with her.
The Guggenheim Museum is a breathtaking structure, and Frank Lloyd Wright was way out in front of the current trend of sculptural architecture. In addition to the superlative art collections housed within, the building itself is a destination, and it is a major tourist and art lovers attraction. A great deal of money has been spent in recent years to restore the museum, especially the exterior—and the structure looks great. The terrazzo floor, however, needed a little TLC. Some patching had been done over the years, but it was of variable quality. What I like about the staff I have met is that they genuinely care about this historic structure, and seek to maintain or improve it.
I effected some initial terrazzo repairs and they liked my work. They agreed to pay my hourly rate, and so I came on board.
Terrazzo restoration is quite different than the pre-cast terrazzo that I have specialized in since 1979. A lot of what I do at the museum is essentially oversized dental work. The parallels between tools and technique are striking. As is the material being restored—teeth are largely composed of calcium and marble terrazzo chips are calcium carbonate. I also perform extractions.
Partly because of the slope of the floors, some of the art work and constructed exhibits are mechanically bolted to the terrazzo floors and attached with anchors. A typical anchor repair involves wet boring around the anchor with the smallest diameter of a variety of hollow-core diamond bits. Depth is one-half inch. The plug containing the anchor is extracted. The new bore (or cavity) is cleaned, then filled with a matching terrazzo mix. The new plug is cast just proud of the surface, and after hardening, it is ground down to grade. Next step is grouting the patch with the colored cement matrix to fill in any small voids. Lastly, the hardened grout is fine-ground to 120 grit.
Some of my technology for this work is beguilingly simple. My wet-drilling jig is made of two one-by-twelve boards with pre-bored holes for each diamond bit diameter. This helps me drill perpendicular to the floor. I prefer to grind the hardened new terrazzo plug dry. I fashioned a grinding shroud from a cardboard box with a hole for a vacuum cleaner hose. Dust control is important.
I have performed hundreds of these repairs, and a good repair will blend in and not distract from the art. I now have a collection of extracted anchors. It’s kind of like a personal hurt locker. Tapcons, lag shields, plastic anchors, wedge anchors, even antique looking fiber plugs I have never seen before.
Different tasks are presented often enough to make things interesting: resurfacing a bathroom floor; filling in the valve boxes for Frank Lloyd Wright’s original hydronic radiant heat floor system; or the present assignment of filling in the voids of the ornamental stainless steel grates in the main entrance with a black terrazzo mix. These grates, which surround the large bronze dedication medallion at the museum’s entrance, collect dirt and catch the occasional stiletto heel. Filling in the voids should remediate the situation.
The museum is an exciting place to work. Shows are planned three years in advance and all exhibits and installations are highly orchestrated. Teams of specialized carpenters, plasterers, painters, and art wranglers unbuild and build new installations within tight timelines. These people are generally talented and well educated. Many have art backgrounds. I had no idea of the huge amount of work that is done between shows. They practically construct a new museum inside for each show, then re-plaster and repaint the whole place. I particularly enjoyed watching the multi-story oval aluminum superstructure erected for the James Turrell show.
An unexpected occurrence has been how often museum personnel have approached me, introduced themselves, and told me with some sincerity how much they appreciate the work I do. From the museum director, department heads, and on through museum guides, many have thanked me and expressed their desire that I stay on. This is altogether pleasant, and the recognition is gratifying.
So do come to the Guggenheim Museum and see a show. It’s worth your while. Come look for my work. I’ll be pleased if you can’t find it.