In March of 2018, we shared an in-progress neon art conservation treatment of Red Neon Circle Fragments on a Blue Wall, 1978 by Stephen Antonakos, detailing the deinstallation of the large artwork at its original location at the Federal Building and US Courthouse in Dayton, Ohio to the recoating of the large panels at the McKay Lodge Conservation lab facilities outside of Cleveland.
Deinstallation and recoating the panels, however, was just one step in a multi-phase project. With the panels now restored to their original sky blue color, the process of creating and replacing the neon tubing began. Neon specialist City Lights Neon joined the conservation team at McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin. They constructed new neon tubes based on Antonakos’ original drawings and templates, and from field measurements taken on-site in Dayton before the artwork was deinstalled. New glass sockets were installed into the panels based upon the new tube dimensions.
The new neon tubes were produced to the correct lengths and curvatures by custom bending the glass tubes to conform to the curvature of the full-sized templates. The new tubes were evacuated under vacuum, neon gas was introduced into the tubes, and the tubes were energized and “test burned” in order to ensure the best quality and longevity of the product. The test burn is critical to expose any invisible flaws. Custom travel cases were produced to transport the tubes from City Lights Neon to the lab for trial fitting and for the eventual transport to the installation site in Dayton.
A dry-run test was performed at McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory in order to ensure that any assembly concerns for the neon art conservation project could be fully addressed before bringing the entire piece to Dayton site for installation. The entire artwork was assembled to ensure tube lengths were accurate to meet the distances between the glass tube sockets. Glass sockets and glass standoffs with stainless steel tie wires were installed on the aluminum panels. The neon tubes were fitted to the glass sockets and standoffs, and they were wired to the transformers on the back side in order to test that all electrical elements of the neon part of the artwork worked correctly.
With the panels recoated and the neon tube and electrical components tested, it was time to install the artwork. The aluminum panels were transported to Dayton, Ohio on custom fabricated pallets loaded onto a single drop 48-foot semi-trailer. Each panel was custom wired utilizing neon specific wire, flexible silicone insulation conduit, and non-conductive standoffs. Panels were hung from the proper left side to the proper right side. As each panel was lifted into place it was securely bolted top and bottom to the steel structure of the facade.
Before the final panel was fitted, an electrician installed supply conduit and wiring to enter the electrical system of the artwork on the proper right side. Access hatches which had been cut into the bottom of the aluminum panels received small panels with transformers and wiring to power the neon tubes. The transformer panels were designed to hang beneath the bottom edge of the artwork in order to have the wiring and transformers accessible for future maintenance. The panels were wired one to the next as the mounting continued across the front of the building.
Once the entire installation had been mounted, the new neon tubes were installed into the glass sockets and securely wired to the standoffs. Final electric connections between transformer panels were made, but one step remained to complete neon art conservation treatment.
Now came the final moment to “flip the switch” finally illuminating the now fully restored neon artwork by Antonakos. Success! The artwork illuminated like it was in 1978. Thanks to the expertise of Senior Sculpture Conservator Thomas Podnar, the McKay Lodge Conservation team, and, of course, City Lights Neon, the glowing red neon tubes once again created a striking contrast against the blue background.