PAFA Restores Grooms’
Philadelphia Cornucopia for Exhibit
When 'Happiness, Liberty, Life? American Art and Politics' opens at PAFA on 29 June, it will mark the first time in nearly thirty years that the larger-than-life sculptures of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin from Red Grooms’ Philadelphia Cornucopia will have been presented together publicly.
Philadelphia Cornucopia, including the four historical personalities, was an immersive installation/large-scale spatial environment—or what Grooms coined a “sculpto-pictorama.” This work, which the artist created on invitation, was designed to fit the Institute of Contemporary Art.
As part of the “Century IV” celebration in 1982 — a citywide event honoring Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary — Philadelphia Cornucopia was intended to highlight and pay tribute to the city’s wealth of cultural, political, and architectural history. In true Grooms fashion, however, Philadelphia Cornucopia was also designed to serve as a work of social commentary, by and through which visitors would confront the various myths, legends, stereotypes, and clichés surrounding his featured cast of high-profile personalities.
Despite the overall size and scale of Philadelphia Cornucopia — its original configuration boasted an array of both painted canvases depicting various historical and contemporary scenes and sculptural figures and forms that in combination comprised a 50-by-50 square-foot space — only nine components and a selection of their associated props exist today. As such, no longer is it possible to interpret Philadelphia Cornucopia as anything other than a fragment.
Preparing the selected Philadelphia Cornucopia figures for exhibition has required a significant degree of conservation intervention. Each was exceptionally dirty as a result of not having undergone any conservation since its original construction. Also, because the work was re-exhibited and reconfigured on two occasions in the 1980s — following its original installation at the ICA — Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin had each suffered some structural strains. Furthermore, many of the figures’ respective accoutrements went missing as its parts were moved to storage locations between its last public appearance at Penn-30th Street Station in 1987 and 2010, when it was accessioned by PAFA.
For example, by the time the Philadelphia Cornucopia figures arrived at PAFA, gone was the wreath that Martha held, and notably missing were Jefferson’s quill, George’s telescope, and Franklin’s glasses, his kite, and the legs to the chair on which he is seated.
For PAFA’s painting conservator Mary McGinn and Philadelphia-based objects conservator Adam Jenkins, Philadelphia Cornucopia presented a highly unusual conservation case. On detailed investigation, they found these sculptures to be very roughly constructed.