Conserving Louise Nevelson’s “Ocean Gate”

June 29, 2011

The Objects Conservation Department worked with outdoor sculpture contractors from Tracy Power Conservation to conserve the Louise Nevelson sculpture Ocean Gate in 2011. The sculpture is located at the south corner of the Osher Sculpture Garden at the de Young.

two people cleaning a black metal sculpture

Louise Nevelson, Ocean Gate, 1982. Aluminum and black paint, 145 11/16 x 81 7/8 x 68 1/8 in. (370 x 208 x 173 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, gift of Barbro and Bernard A. Osher, 2002.72a-f

Ocean Gate is made of large panels of aluminum, which are welded and bolted together creating a multisurfaced, freestanding sculpture. We observed changes to the pigmented (colored) surface of this sculpture that necessitated conservation. We observed the following:


The surface looked to be painted in different shades of grey and black. Was this the artist’s original intent or are we observing many re-paintings of the surface that have taken place since the sculpture was made?

metal sculpture with grayish paint


Was the work originally colored dark grey or black? If it was originally black, then why was the paint fading and behaving so badly?

metal sculpture with grayish paint


This is similar to what you see when you lay a hot cup of coffee on a piece of wooden furniture–white misting on the surface. Were the components of the paint breaking down or was the sun doing the same thing as the coffee cup?

detail of metal sculpture with grayish paint

To research these issues, we talked to conservators who have worked on or written about treatments of Nevelson sculptures, and we contacted anyone who worked on Ocean Gate specifically. The most useful thing would be to talk to the craftsperson at the Lippencott Foundry in North Haven, Connecticut, who actually constructed this particular sculpture. This task was trickier than might be imagined, because that person retired some years ago. Luckily, we were able to track down Don Lippencott. When we spoke with him, we learned that he had worked directly with Louise Nevelson on the creation of this sculpture, so we felt confident with his advice and suggestions. He told us that the surface of this particular sculpture was intended to look very black, flat, and single-colored, which as it turned out, was not the easiest thing to achieve.

Some of the challenges with locating a paint system to meet these specifications were that:

  • no such paint existed off the shelf, or pre-fabricated in a retail setting;
  • California Department of Public Health regulations (Proposition 65) preclude the use of some paint systems used elsewhere in the country to achieve flat paint colors; and
  • the multifaceted/layered sculpture is a tricky surface to paint, and you run the risk of getting too much paint on the edges or creating runs on the large flat areas unless there is an extremely experienced person at the end of the spray gun.
worker spray-painting a black metal sculpture

Before we started the conservation, the surface appeared mottled, gray, and blanched.

metal sculpture with grayish paint

Here is the sculpture after conservation.

metal sculpture with black paint

Before treatment.

detail of metal sculpture with grayish paint
detail of metal sculpture with grayish paint

After treatment.

detail of metal sculpture with black paint

You can see the results of the many steps it took to achieve the even, matte, black surface.

Come visit the sculpture in the garden at the de Young!

More on Conservation