Preparing Claes Oldenburg’s “Floor Burger” for MoMA, With Fish Bladders and Ice Cream Boxes

Before Claes Oldenburg‘s “Floor Burger” (1962) arrives at the MoMA this spring for a survey of the sculptor’s work from the 1960s and ’70s, it is undergoing an extensive restoration at its home, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). This refurbishment of a work by one of the 20th century’s most playful creators has had its share of unexpected moments, including some surprising finds inside the artwork’s stuffed body, and the use of a curious material to bind the 51-year-old paint to the bun, meat, and pickle of the sculptural snack.

The AGO has been chronicling the conservation process on its blog and Facebook, including recounting the rather controversial acquisition of the “Floor Burger” in 1967. Bought from Sidney Janis Gallery in New York for $2,000, the “Giant Hamburger,” as it was then called, did not get much love from local art students at first. Some from the Central Technical School built a ketchup bottle nine-feet-tall which they carried in front of the gallery in protest, even trying to donate it to AGO. Oldenburg said it didn’t hurt his feelings “at all,” but that “they should have made it out of something soft.”

When the “Floor Burger,” which was made by Oldenburg in 1962, was recently brought out of storage, it had accumulated dust that had to be removed before it goes back on public view. Representatives of MoMA, who gained some relevant experience when they worked on Oldenburg’s “Floor Cake” (1962) in 2009, are collaborating with AGO and its conservator Sherry Phillips.

The first steps were to assess the sculpture’s surface paint, which conservators are binding with isinglass, a material with gluing properties made from the dried bladders of fish, typically sturgeons. The callogen isn’t just used to keep the bready color on mid-century hamburger sculptures, it’s also used for clarification of wine and beer (yes, some of your alcohol has likely been in contact with fish bladders, but there is extremely little trace left of them when you order a pint or a glass at the bar).

The stuffing of the floppy “Floor Burger” also had to redistributed as it had become misshapen over the years. It turned out to be made of foam and also old ice cream boxes hidden securely behind zippers made by Oldenburg’s first wife Patty.

If you’re in the greater Toronto area, you can stop by the Irena Moore Gallery at the AGO to see Phillips at work. Otherwise, keep an eye out for a refreshed “Floor Burger” at MoMA with its body shaped carefully back to its original form, and fish bladders keeping its paint adhered for future audiences of the conceptual food.

Allison Meier

(All images via the Art Gallery of Ontario.)