Grapes and Wheat Lintel Returns to Saint Peter’s

Close to home

The Grapes and Wheat lintel has returned to Saint Peter’s, but not yet to its home above the door of Nevelson Chapel. After months in the studio, much has been accomplished to ready this piece for the final stages of the conservation process. Cleaning and stabilizing has brought it much closer to its original condition. As improved as the condition is, however, it must still be considered a work in progress.

The lintel was among the most compromised of the Chapel’s sculptures. Its placement above the door has meant greater exposure to environmental change as the doors open and close, along with the vibrations that go along with that action. Parts of the sculpture paint were beginning to fall off.

“Inherent vice”

In addition to environmental impacts, other factors contributed to the poor condition of the lintel, including some that can be traced to its original construction.

Working with wood normally requires priming of the wood substrate surface. Although Nevelson referred to the use of sealant of the wood before paint application (MOMA archives 1950’s) , none has been detected during the conservation/research phase. In fact, as far as can be determined at this time, the lintel had neither a primer coat, nor a sealant. These attributes of “inherent vice” as they are known contributed to significant crumbling of the paint surfaces as well as loss or pulling away of the paint as the wood and paint layers expanded and contracted over time due to changes in relative humidity.

For more about the paint-related issues in the Chapel as a whole, see Ethics and Paint.

She was in the room

One particular concern in working on the lintel was the way Nevelson’s original edges had been obscured by layers of over-paint accumulation. The lintel, in its portrayal of wheat, incorporates closely assembled groupings of curved pieces of wood (approximately ½” to 3” wide), resulting in gathered edges as the pieces meet or come close to one another.

Careful attention in the studio revealed that some edges appeared to have been intentionally merged rather than merely painted together during previous restoration attempts. Then came a rewarding and unexpected surprise: A photo, taken of Nevelson in the Chapel with the Grapes and Wheat Lintel during the original installation allowed the team to “read” the original surface before any restoration paint application. The photo confirmed what careful observations during the conservation process had revealed—Nevelson herself intended the abutting gathered edges to merge in some places and be distinct in others, evoking a sheaf of wheat through her particular lens.

Work in progress

A layperson looking at the lintel in its temporary home in Saint Peter’s office wing would see a sculpture that is very close to its original condition—catching the play of shadow and light on its all-white surface. But, until it is replaced above the door of the Chapel, and the whole sculptural environment receives its final cohesive set of treatments, the lintel must be viewed as a work in progress.

The conservators chose the particular gel system they are using for paint removal for precisely this level of control over the process. In this way, the team can stop the process at appropriate times and to approach the task layer by layer. Alternating between working generally and “punctually” in the Chapel and in the studio, stepping back and honoring the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, the team moves on toward its goal of bringing Nevelson’s intentions back to life.

To request an opportunity to view the lintel and learn more about the steps it has undergone, contact

Sarah Nunberg