At an international art symposium called “Fail Better,” held in 2013 at the Hamburg Museum in Germany, Nagy and Barger discussed the idea of teaching the public a new way of looking at art. “We don’t object to seeing time’s toll on classical art,” Learner said in a phone interview. “We’ve come to expect the pretty green patina on Donatello’s ‘David.’ We like it.” And perhaps it’s time to see the same thing in modern art, Barger says. “Will brittle latex and yellowing plastic ever seem classic and dignified?” she asks. “Maybe we need to accept this.”
In the end, Barger decided to show “Aught” in the 2002 exhibition after restoring it in the least invasive way she could. She applied laminated cheesecloth using methylcellulose—a synthetic liquid adhesive—to strengthen the brittle parts, keep the latex from dripping, and to give the exterior more loft. The piece became a star of the three-month exhibit. Degraded and imperfect as it was, it succeeded in challenging the public to consider the temporality of art, and of their own lives. Johns recalls how Hesse once looked at the discolored latex jungle of cables that “Untitled (Rope Piece)” had become, and described it as “my chaos.” “She gloated at the transience of it,” Johns says. Not long afterward, Hesse gave an interview to Artforum. Asked if she worried about the impermanence of her materials, she responded, “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last.” She died three months later, at age 34.