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Art Behind the Scenes

The Man That Time Forgot: Duane Hanson’s “Janitor”

Time changes everyone—or almost everyone. Through the years, the Janitor has remained a constant in the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

A Museum visitor (Jeff) with Duane Hanson’s ‘Janitor’ in 1976, and again in 2010. Thanks for the photos, Jeff!

Duane Hanson’s Bio

I’ll keep it brief. Born in Minnesota, in 1925, Duane Hanson graduated from Macalester College, in St. Paul, in 1946, and earned a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, in 1951. He started creating figural sculptures in resin in 1966, works that often highlighted political and social issues. By the time the artist fabricated the Museum’s Janitor, he was depicting everyday people in American society, revealing both their heroic nature and their human foibles.

  • This close-up reveals that the Janitor’s name might be Carlos—or he may have simply been issued a used uniform.
  • He’s been wearing that same uniform since 1973!

How was the Janitor created?

Fabricated in 1973, the Museum’s sculpture is among the artist’s earlier works. To create the Janitor, Duane Hanson fabricated six plaster molds, one for each section of the model’s body. After making the molds, Hanson applied multiple layers of polyester laminating resin, painting the first layer directly into the molds. In between the layers of polyester resin, Hanson mashed in fiberglass cloth to add structural support to the sculpture. 

After the sculpture was cast and assembled, the artist painted the skin by hand in oil. Our sculpture is rare in that it has hand-painted eyes; Hanson switched to plastic eyes from American Optical in 1974.

This picture shows the rare, hand-painted eyes of the ‘Janitor.’
  • The Janitor is surprisingly fragile. Did you know that he can’t support himself without a wall to lean on? (Some days I feel the same.)
  • Fiberglass resin is notorious for its poor aging properties, often becoming brittle and cracking over time, so extra care must be taken when the sculpture is moved or handled.

The Artist’s Letters to the Milwaukee Art Museum 

It turns out that Duane Hanson had a wicked sense of humor. In letters to the Milwaukee Art Museum that span from 1974 through 1995, it is clear how connected the artist remained to the sculptures he created, even going so far as to anthropomorphize them.

One cryptic postscript from 1975 reads, “Hope he is behaving himself. He used to drink a lot.” It’s not difficult to imagine the artist crafting an entire persona for his creation at the same time he was carefully choosing the Janitor’s props, such as his pipes, pens, and watch.His careful instructions on how to add hair to the receding hairline of the Janitor, even enclosing human replacement hair in the letter, show how invested the artist was in maintaining the illusion of his sculpture.

And in a letter in which he granted permission to use an image of the Janitor in print, Hanson added his own sardonic touch: “You know I fixed up the ‘Janitor’ for free and never got a thank you note from your august director or anyone. I thought you all were my friends. Yours, Duane Hanson.” 

Polaroid photos of Hansen touching up the paint on the ‘Janitor’ at a retrospective of his work in Montreal in 1994.

Hanson wrapped up one letter, “Maybe I’ll get to visit your museum one of these days. I’ve heard good things about it.” Sadly, the artist died in 1996, before he got the chance to make that visit, but I like to believe he was satisfied that the Janitor had found a good home in Milwaukee. 

Caring for the Museum’s Most Beloved Artwork

I might be biased, but when I think of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Janitor leaning against the gallery wall is the first image that comes to my mind. When we realized in 2012 that he was looking a bit worn, we brought in Hanson specialist and conservator of objects at the Peabody Essex Museum Mimi Leveque to guide our conservation treatment plan.

  • Guess what? We discovered that the Janitor’s arm was attached to his shoulder after his clothes were put on. This means we can’t take off his shirt—ever. Instead, we regularly dust and vacuum the Janitor’s uniform.
  • Early on in the Janitor’s life, the original watch face went missing and a more modern replacement was used. We were able to source a vintage watch face from a local antique store, and restored the missing and damaged sections of the band. To ensure he can’t lose anything else, all of the Janitor’s props are now safely secured to him.

Lastly, the surface of the Janitor was thoroughly cleaned to remove the oily shine on his skin from visitors touching him—though, as you well know, you should never touch the artwork! I even polished his shoes, but not too much. We wanted to respect the distressed surfaces that Hanson used to give his character that slightly forlorn appeal.

The Janitor’s shoe with just the right amount of wear and tear. Even details such as the smears of house paint were carefully applied by the artist to add to the realism of the sculpture.

Rest assured, no matter how much time passes, the Janitor will still be here, waiting for your return.

Terri White, as associate conservator, has cared for the Museum’s diverse collection for nearly three decades. She specializes in objects, including folk art and sculpture, and as one of the few people on staff who gets to touch the artwork, she attests that “yeah, it’s really, really cool.”

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