Inside the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, there’s a new installation taking shape: Luis Tomasello's Chromoplastic Mural. When it’s completed, nearly 700 small white cubes, painted fluorescent orange underneath, will dot the wall and create a subtle glow.
One of the goals of Julian Zugazoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, is to bring more people into the museum.
"And really the best way to do it is to let people in on the process, let them see it happen," says Modern and Contemporary Art associate curator Leesa Fanning.
It's November, in the early stages of the installation. Fanning stands in the gallery walk of the Bloch Building, between the African gallery and the Modern and Contemporary galleries, and gestures to what's happening.
At the top of a tall ladder, a worker places hand-sized white cubes, about 50 so far on this day, on a wall for a mural by Luis Tomasello. The artist is known for an innovation called chromoplastic atmospheres.
"It was discovered by accident in 1959, when he laid a painted wedge of wood upside down on a wet surface, how the color reflected off of that surface," says Fanning. "And from that point on, that was his signature motif, to paint the underneath inclined plane of a geometric form, a really, really bright fluorescent color, whether it’s orange or green or blue. And then let that light reflect."
Artist Luis Tomasello turned 96 in November 2011. He was born in Argentina, but he’s based in France.
Steve Waterman, director of design and presentations, says he talked to the artist to determine the scale of the work and what size the modules should be (12 centimeters). The museum has created sculptures for artists in the past, but it’s new to open the doors during an installation.
"I think it actually helps to share some of the excitement as we develop most of our projects," says Waterman.
The museum considered manufacturing the piece in Paris, or in Houston, but decided on Kansas City.
"We have a large, expensive, hot rod saw that’s set up to do only one thing: produce Luis Tomasello art," says Eric Mehaffey, of Eric Mehaffey, Inc.
Mehaffey says standard wood working equipment couldn’t make a seven-sided wedge – so they had to create their own. His company fabricated the nearly 700 pieces for the work in his shop in a West Bottoms warehouse; he’s also fabricated casework and seating for both temporary and permanent exhibitions at the museum.
"We have some pretty high expectations to fulfill. That’s our business model, to fulfill the expectations of these lofty dreamers," says Mehaffey.
Exhibition designer and fabrication technician Tim O’Neil says once the shape was established – septahedrons, or seven-sided cubes - it was a matter of defining the rhythm and the complicated grid pattern.
"To get the grid on the wall, we printed out large, full-size drawings and taped them to the wall," says O'Neil. "And we punched center holes throughout the grid" to transfer it. He anticipates a lot of tweaking and fine tuning.
"With a piece of art this scale, and this precise, we’re really not wanting to rush it and go really slow and make sure we do it perfectly – and that’s probably the best," says O'Neil.
"Any more questions?" asks fabrication technician Bob Tolnai, as he stops to talk to a group of fourth graders dressed in blue shirts and khaki pants. He describes how round magnets hold the painted wedges of wood in place.
"That gives us a chance to turn them, so they're exactly in the right place," Tolnai says. "If people can see how things go up, maybe you might be doing something like this someday."
There’s still a chance to see the work in progress. It’s expected to be finished after the holidays.