Plastic parade – the plastics commonly used in art

Thermoplastics (plastics that soften and can be formed when heated):
Polystyrene: standard plastic, in very widespread use, but sensitive, brittle (camping tableware, salad bowls, refrigerator containers), always transparent, easily confused with polymethylacrylate; impact-resistant polystyrene, made flexible and practically unbreakable by the addition of synthetic rubber; white or coloured, always opaque and matt (jugs, bottles); expanded polystyrene, formed into rigid foam, very low weight (heat-insulating, impact-resistant packs; white sheets or blocks as semi-finished products). Expanded polystyrene is primarily used in visual arts. Example in art: Cat on a Clothesline by Jeff Koons, 1994

Polymethyl methacrylate: used very frequently by artists. At room temperature, PMMA is a clear, colourless, volatile, flammable liquid with a penetrating odour. It reacts easily with halogens, halogen acid and sulphur compounds. Methyl methacrylate is mainly used to produce methyl acrylic resins. This material, which is known by its trade names Plexiglas, Perspex or Lucite, has established a particularly strong position in airship construction and optical instruments thanks to its low weight, its mechanical resistance and its ability to transmit light. Examples in art: Leda mit dem Schwan by László Moholy-Nagy, 1946; Compression Plastique von César, 1971; Zur Erinnerung von Wilhelm Becker by Uli Pohl, 1972

Phenolic plastics: Bakelite is the standard type of phenolic plastic. Phenolic plastics replaced porcelain in insulation applications, but they can only be produced in dark colours (black Bakelite telephones). They were therefore replaced by aminoplastics, which offer a more extensive colour range. One of the most well-known aminoplastic products is melamine. Example of Bakelite in art: Aphrodisiac Telephone by Salvador Dalí, 1936

Cellulose acetate: cellulose acetate is a well-known material frequently used in everyday life under such names as Cellophane and Rhodoid (Cellophane: films, bags, sausage skins; Rhodoid: combs, hair grips, artificial fingernails).
Example of Rhodoid in art: Tête No. 2 by Naum Gabo, 1916

Thermosetting polymers (plastics that cure via heating):
Polyester: laminates are produced from polyester resins. Compressed fibreglass polyester is familiar to us from the aircraft and car industries. Examples in art: „Portrait Charles Wilp“ (waste in polyester) by Arman, 1961; Violon (smashed violin in polyester) by Arman, 1970

Epoxy: epoxy resins are used particularly in the adhesive, ink and lacquer industry. They share some of the same applications as polyester. Some kinds of synthetic concrete are made with polyester resins, while epoxy resins are used for others (epoxy has the same density as stone or metal). Example in art: Arbre Biplan by Jean Dubuffet, 1968

Polyurethane: rigid polyurethane foam is used for heat insulation purposes in refrigerators and other refrigerated equipment. This material is, however, primarily used for furniture and car seats. Examples in art: Expansions by César, 1968-1970; „Mousses“ („Foams“) by Alexandre Bonnier, 1971

Chronological summary of the use of plastics by artists
1916: The Russian sculptor Naum Gabo (1890 – 1977) creates the first work of art from plastic (Rhodoid). It is a head sculpture with cubistic influences (Tête No. 2, in English: „Head No. 2".

1920: Gabo’s brother Antoine Pevsner (1884 – 1962), who was also a painter and sculptor, uses plastic films for his Masques.

1922: The Hungarian painter and sculptor László Moholy-Nagy (1895 – 1946) starts to teach at Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. The artist, who is considered to be a constructivist, uses polymethyl methacrylate (Plexiglas) film and metal in his works. Moholy-Nagy counts as one of the pioneers of what is known as kinetic art, since his works include movement, light and shade.

1937: MoMoholy-Nagy establishes “The New Bauhaus” in Chicago. In the USA, he creates three-dimensional objects with the help of transparent Plexiglas panels. These objects include the Space Modulator, which is now owned by the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg.

1948: The French painter and sculptor Samuel Guyot, known as Saint-Maur (1906 – 1979), creates the first work of art in the world that is made from polyester resin with the sculpture “Femme assise” (“Sitting woman”). This is followed in 1968 by a monumental sculpture made from polyurethane foam; Saint-Maur makes the six-metre-high, inhabitable “Maison de mousse” (“Foam house”) from the same material in 1969 (Inside view).

1958: The German sculptor Uli Pohl, who was born in Munich in 1935, creates light sculptures from compact acrylic glass blocks. Art historians report that this is a premiere for the material.

1961: Marcel Garrigou (1916 – 1998) organises the “First international exhibition of paintings, sculptures and decorative art objects made from vinyl and polyester” at the Plastics Museum in Toulouse.

1968: The Bulgarian artist Christo Jawaschew (born in 1935) and his French wife Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935 – 2009) install their “Air Packaging” at documenta in Kassel on 3. August. The people in Kassel call it the “sausage”. It is the biggest work of art ever inflated without an internal framework (height: 85 metres, diameter: 10 metres, volume: 5 600 cubic metres). The surface consists of 2 000 square metres of PVC-coated Trevira fabric.

1968: Group exhibition “Art & Plastic. Plastic as the Material used by Artists” at the Wiesbaden Municipal Museum (7. April to 2. June 1968), at Bürgermeister-Ludwig-Reichert-Haus, Ludwigshafen (14. June to 21. July 1968) and at the Dortmund Museum am Ostwall (28. November 1968 to 5. January 1969).

1985: Christo and Jean-Claude wrap the Pont Neuf in Paris, the oldest bridge over the River Seine, in 40 000 square metres of sand-coloured polyamide fabric from 25. August to 22. September.

1995: Christo and Jean-Claude wrap the whole of the Reichstag Building in Berlin in 100 000 square metres of aluminium-metallised polypropylene fabric (Wrapped Reichstag) from 24. June to 7. July. 15 600 metres of blue polypropylene rope are used as well.

1998: The special show “Art and Plastic” is held from 22. October 1998 to 6. January 1999 in the context of the opening exhibition at the German Plastics Museum in Düsseldorf “Faszination Kunststoff”. 31 “Flossis”, brightly coloured clinbing figures 3.80 metres high made of polystyrene laminated with fibreglass-reinforced epoxy resin, climb up the front of the NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft (Ehrenhof). The installation by the Stuttgart artist rosalie developed into the symbol and landmark of the plastics trade fair in Düsseldorf. The large sculptures are now attached to the front of a non-listed municipal building in the “Medienhafen” district (Photo 1 und Photo 2)

2009: The exhibition Plastic:material revolution for design + art is held at the Museum for Applied Art in Cologne from 20. October 2009 to 29. November 2010 and is then extended until 24. January 2011.