A Trompe-l’oeil Traveler

January 25, 2017

One of the most exciting aspects of working in paper conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is the variety of objects encountered on a daily basis. Pier Gustafson’s Father’s Suitcase is a one-of-a kind artwork that required unique treatment solutions.

In the 1980s Gustafson produced trompe-l’oeil installations of everyday objects, such as Father’s Suitcase, constructed entirely of paper and India ink. Like an old black-and-white photograph, these life-size three-dimensional drawings evoke a sense of nostalgia and history. The suitcase was originally exhibited at a gallery in Boston in a multi-room installation that included paper pianos, chairs, ladders, and even tubes of paint. 

Pier Gustafson’s Father’s Suitcase

Pier Gustafson, Father's Suitcase (Wells Malcom Gustafson), 1984. Ink wash and pen and ink on paper construction in the form of a lifesize suitcase, 22 x 24 x 8 in. (55.9 x 61 x 20.3 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of David Bonetti, 2003.36. © Pier Gustafson

Just as an actual old suitcase will exhibit wear and tear, Gustafson’s paper suitcase had broken. Corners had torn and handles and tags had detached. In deciding the best means of repair, Laura Neufeld from the conservation team communicated with the artist to gather information about the artwork. Though his artworks may look like worn-out old objects, they are meticulously crafted from high quality paper. Gustafson’s dedication to his paper of choice was so strong that when it was no longer made, he changed his work entirely.

Pier Gustafson’s Father’s Suitcase

While it may look sturdy, the paper suitcase still demands the delicacy customarily required in a paper conservation treatment. Neufeld adhered the torn corner with wheat starch paste and weighted it cleverly with flexible scuba weights, with some tension provided by a strap of soft polyester webbing. She also re-fabricated missing sections of the handle rings, repaired the torn airline tags, and reattached the handles to the suitcase.

Now that the conservation treatment is finished, the suitcase is ready to be used again—in a museum gallery, that is.

Father’s Suitcase is just one of nearly 90,000 works on paper held in the Fine Arts Museums’ works on paper department, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, which is housed at the Legion of Honor.

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