Block registrars innovate to illuminate a neon exhibition centerpiece

Ashleigh Deosaran, a Northwestern doctoral student in Art History and curator of The Block Museum’s The Living Image of Sound: Notes on Jazz and Protest at Northwestern exhibit knew early on that Ayé Aton’s painting Untitled (1976) would be a keystone of the exhibition. The piece came to The Block on loan from the collection of Clovis and Jean Semmes, a pair of Northwestern graduates, with a challenge – it was intended for exhibition under black, or UV, lighting to activate the fluorescent paints used in its making.  

“Using UV light in a museum is absolutely against all museum standards, industry wide,” said Liz Rudnick, The Block Museum’s Assistant Registrar. “You absolutely never use that sort of light in your gallery because it is damaging to the artifacts or other objects being shown in the gallery, and it’s also really not good for the viewers.”  

Registrarial care and assesment of Ayé Aton’s neon painting Untitled (1976)

So Joseph Scott, The Block Museum’s Collections and Exhibitions Coordinator, developed an alternative: a faux black light that could illuminate the painting’s bright colors with a similarly otherworldly purple glow without emitting harmful UV rays that could damage the other pieces in the gallery.  

“Joe came up with an ingenious solution of how we could achieve a faux blacklight,” Rudnick said. “So we could show the painting as intended, but without breaking any rules.” 

In seeking out an alternate light source that could still display the piece as intended by the artist, Scott found an online “black light hack” “where you take a blue marker and a purple marker and you color over your phone flashlight,” he said. He tried to recreate this by using colored markers on clear mylar sheeting – with promising results. 

The final lighting setup for Untitled uses purple and blue theater gels over a non-UV bulb, much like the faux black lights of Scott’s DIY method. The resulting light suggests UV lighting and activates the painting’s luminescent portions as a black light would have, without risking harm to the artwork. 

The Block Museum Registrar team created a proxy test painting they could experiment with under different light sources. The team was seeking a light solution that still activated the glow of neon paint was was not damaging to the canvas or surrounding artwork.

“It doesn’t duplicate the effect, but it approximates the effect,” Scott said.  

At some point, Deosaran said, Clovis Semmes, a jazz musician who had been part of a student-led jazz band on Northwestern’s campus, had played alongside Aton in Evanston, with Untitled on display in their rehearsal spaces. 

 “It was like a soundboard for them to play alongside,” she said.  

Its connection to Northwestern made it a key link in the exhibition between Northwestern and Sun Ra.  

As a backup plan, and to ensure that a UV light display was really not possible, Scott also tested a UV setup for the space in advance of installation of other pieces.  

Ashleigh Deosaran gives a tour in the “otherworldly purple glow” illuminating Untitled

“Creating a long cylindrical shade in attempts to direct the light as much as I could, I took a light meter and took readings throughout the exhibition space,” Scott said. 

He also created a proxy version of the painting with luminescent paints for testing purposes.   

Untitled is now on public display for the first time. For stewards like Scott and Rudnick, proper care for and exhibition of a piece of art means realizing the artist’s intent in an ethical manner that aligns with the museum’s best practices.  

“In the context of a museum exhibition, a conservator ensures that any given object is shown in the best condition possible, meaning something might need a little TLC before it goes on view,” Rudnick said.  

In the planning process, Scott, Rudnick and Deosaran briefly discussed the possibility of exhibiting Untitled under UV lighting with an exhibition copy made for displaying in the gallery. But thanks to Scott’s work, The Living Image of Sound could feature original copies of the works and ephemera Deosaran had selected, in keeping with her vision and the exhibition’s name, with Untitled, its centerpiece, properly lit.  

“It’s reflective of Sun Ra and Ayé Aton’s relationship,” Deosaran said. “It really speaks to their decade-long friendship.”  

The Living Image of Sound is on display at The Block Museum through July 9.  

– Reporting by Benjamin Cummings (’23 Medill) with Christopher Forrester, Communications Coordinator

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