Lecture 015.004

BACK TO THE ORIGINS. UNDERSTANDING THE HISTORY OF PRODUCTION AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE PROPERTIES OF ACRYLIC SHEET
BY SARA BABO, JOANA LIA FERREIRA, ANA MARIA RAMOS, MARIA JOÃO MELO
University Nova, Lisbon, Portugal

Acrylic sheet, i.e. poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), is a twentieth century plastic material that found  worldwide applications, including in art. PMMA sheet was first produced commercially in 1934, both in Germany by Röhm und Haas, and in England by Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI). Because the study on the history of the plastics industry in Portugal is still at its infancy, we don’t know when and by who the production and processing of this material was introduced in Portugal and what technology was used.
The transparency of PMMA made it highly suitable for aircraft canopies during World War II and was also attractive for artists, like Naum Gabo and other members of the Russian avant-garde, who felt that the recently developed plastics represented modern technological materials of the industrial era. However PMMA only gain importance as an artist’s material during the 1960s, when it has also been used by Portuguese artists like Ângelo de Sousa (1938-2011) and Lourdes Castro (b.1930). From 1964 until 1968, while living in Paris, L. Castro worked with Plexiglas® and Altuglas® to produce her “projected shadow” artworks; in turn, A. de Sousa used acrylic sheet purchased in Porto for some of the sculpture series from the 1960s.
The acrylic acquired by A. de Sousa was probably produced by Plásticos do Sado, a Portuguese company that, at least since the 1980s, produced PMMA sheets from methyl methacrylate monomer obtained by depolymerisation of acrylic waste (mainly optical devices from cars bought from foreign countries). With this research it is intended to find out whether this was also the technology used during the 1960s in the production of the acrylic sheets used by A. de Sousa and, at the same time, if the use of recycled PMMA as raw material will influence the properties and quality of the final product.
Besides using different brands, these two artists have also used different types of acrylic: L. Castro has used transparent, often coloured, sheets while A. de Sousa has used opaque or translucent sheets with metallic or pearlescent surface effects.
Our goal is to understand and compare the industrial manufacture processes of the acrylics used by both artists since this may determine the material’s properties and, consequently, its performance in time.
This research is being carried out by contacting and interviewing manufacturers and retailers, and also by archival research. The different acrylics will be characterized in order to establish a correlation with the results obtained through the historical investigation.
The first outcomes of this research will be presented, aiming at contributing to the history of the production and transformation of plastics in Portugal but also to the knowledge of the properties of this material and, therefore, to its preservation.

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