Great article from the NYT, lots of creative workers that get overlooked.
Sadly, I feel that in todays world we tend to celebrate artists for their brand, and not necessarily their work.
Are Fabricators the Most Important People in the Art World?
As contemporary artists become increasingly less present in their own work, the people who make their pieces remain unsung heroes.
THE IMAGE OF the artist feverishly working alone as first light dawns through the tall, grimy windows of the atelier dies hard. No matter how monumental or unwieldy their creations, we prefer to imagine artists as solitary figures, their hands stained and raw: Rodin in his aerie in Meudon scratching at half-carved marble torsos; Bacon hunched over a giant canvas in South Kensington amid detritus; Calder in Connecticut, beavering away beneath a wave of bent wire.
Reality, of course, is more crowded. Sculpture and assemblage have grown to immense proportions in recent years as the art business itself has ballooned. As new techniques, materials and computer-assisted design make otherworldly shapes and surfaces possible, it’s become increasingly hard to ignore the man behind the curtain: the off-site fabricators who actually make the thing itself, whether it’s a hulking metal totem by Ellsworth Kelly or a Minimalist cube by Robert Morris.
Mastering your craft may have been a requirement and a point of pride for artists during the Renaissance, but the art schools of today emphasize idea over execution. In the digitally enhanced multimedia era, the mark of the artist’s hand is far less important than the concept, which means the collaborative work of creation is often a complex feat of engineering. Andy Warhol, with his army of assistants churning out silk-screens, may have been the first to introduce the industrial side of process into the public consciousness. But in fact, the idea of outsourced art goes back to at least as early as the 17th century, when artists like Rembrandt would have a large staff of assistants produce paintings that were signed by the artist but not made by his hand.
With the introduction of Pop and Conceptual Art in the mid-to-late ’50s, which found a generation of artists increasingly interested in the sheer spectacle of their practice, there was a corresponding need for skilled workers who could bend steel or cast in resin. Since then, fabrication has become an increasingly common, if little discussed, component of contemporary art. While some large art fabricators, including Carlson & Company in the San Fernando Valley in California, which helped to perfect the mirror technique of Jeff Koons’s candy-colored stainless steel balloon animals, and Lippincott’s, the venerable Connecticut firm responsible for Barnett Newman’s 1963-69 “Broken Obelisk” and Claes Oldenburg’s giant clothespin sculptures, have scaled back or shut down because of financial pressures, a number of New York-based fabricators — Prototype New York, Milgo/Bufkin, Lite Brite Neon Studio — persevere. The details of what they do may be invisible, but without them, some of the most defining works of contemporary art probably wouldn’t exist.
IT’S NO WONDER, then, that many fabricators start out as artists themselves, or are at least drawn to the inherent romance of the field. When Bruce Gitlin graduated from Lehigh University in the early ’60s, he agreed to join Milgo — the family business, which began in 1916 making horse-drawn carriages and had by then graduated to truck-body fabrication in its vast space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — but he had an ultimatum: The firm had to quit making vehicles (too boring) and instead start doing architectural metalwork to pay the bills while also working with artists.
The shop, now called Milgo/Bufkin, quickly became legendary. Gitlin collaborated with Robert Smithson to construct sculptures that included his rocks and with Oldenburg on a 1999 nine-foot-high round pink typewriter eraser built out of painted aluminum and fiberglass, as well as a massive sandbox of horse manure for the Whitney into which Oldenburg plunged an enormous trowel. One day in 1968, Michael Heizer, who would become famous for his ostentatious land art pieces in the Nevada desert, came in with a roll of toilet paper; he wanted Gitlin to build a four-foot pedestal with a bulletproof case over it. “Martin Luther King had just been killed, and Heizer had fired his pistol into the roll,” says Gitlin. “He said: ‘That is my anger. I want to preserve it.’”
Many art projects motivated by passion are money losers, of course. In recent decades, Gitlin, 75, who is now chairman of the board of Pratt Institute and conceived the college’s capacious sculpture garden, has concentrated on metal, including works by Richard Serra and Tom Wesselmann and most of Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculptures. To support his obsession with art — he is also a collector — he takes on projects for commercial clients, some of which have become iconic in their own right, including the huge red “9” in front of the Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street and the bronze interiors and exteriors of Van Cleef & Arpels on Fifth Avenue.
Just across the bridge in Long Island City, Ted Lawson of the small, well-regarded Prototype New York, takes a more modest approach, reflecting a modern paradox: As large-scale art fabricators have struggled, some boutique-size operations with what might be called a handmade ethos have flourished. Prototype New York fabricates perhaps a dozen commissions a year, and takes on few new clients — but most are deep-pocketed ones, including Mariko Mori, Ghada Amer and Yoko Ono.
Now 47, Lawson began his career as an assistant in the mid-1990s to Koons, whose teeming factory of helpers (their ranks have at times swelled to some 120 people) came to symbolize the mainstreaming of manufactured art, producing intricate paintings made by over a dozen workers through a color-by-numbers system. While fabricating serves as a buffer to keep the lights on and production consistent, Lawson considers himself “first and foremost” an artist; his interdisciplinary work ranges from highly realistic figures cast in silicone to painted abstraction. Tables on the main floor of his 5,000-square-foot studio display a series of molds for plaster versions of the 150 crumpled red Solo cups that were part of a piece that Paula Crown showed last year at London’s 10 Hanover gallery.
To Lawson, fabricating is a bit like producing a record; you are trying to enhance the artist’s vision, which is sometimes meticulously conceived and other times inchoate. Every work has three components, he says — concept, material and process — and at times he helps with each of them. For Crown’s Solo cups, for example, which were inspired by her seeing scads of them discarded on the floor after a party, they discussed whether the cups should be made from soft or hard material, if they should be all the same shape or if there should be one giant one, in stainless steel, like Anish Kapoor’s famous reflective “bean” in Chicago (itself fabricated by a team of about 70 from Performance Structures Inc. in Oakland, Calif., and MTH Industries in Illinois).
With each artist — Lawson only works with a few at a time — he develops a unique process. For her “Wave U.F.O.” series from the 2000s, Mori, an artist known for her intricate sci-fi installations, began with 3D renderings from which Lawson made foam models; Mori then drew on them with pencil in his studio. Together, they rendered them in plaster and, finally, acrylic. “At a certain point, we got so in tune we barely had to talk,” he says. With Ono, who is “all concept,” he was given only cursory instructions and three weeks to make a 2003 piece: 100 cast body parts to be heaped on the floor like garbage — arms, legs, torsos. The only time he met her was at the opening. “She asked, ‘How did you enjoy making the piece?’” he says.
The relationship between artist and fabricator can be intimate — even, at its best, symbiotic. Glenn Ligon is a conceptual artist who often uses text in his work (paintings with the phrase “I am a man,” for instance, to address issues of gender and identity). He had long admired the Duchampian neon sculptures that Bruce Nauman started making in the 1960s, such as a sign that said simply “death,” with the letters “eat” lit up in a contrasting color. But he hadn’t considered using neon himself for his text-based work until Matt Dilling, the genial bearded fellow whom he knew only as a neighbor in the space below Ligon’s studio in Gowanus, invited him for a tour in 2005. For Ligon, encountering Lite Brite, where artisans working for clients like Bergdorf Goodman use blow torches to bend glass tubing, which they then fill with gas and connect to an electrical charge, was kismet. “It might never have happened without Matt,” he says.
Neon was not merely graphically appealing to the artist, but pleasingly paradoxical: Associated with crass commercialism, it is in fact entirely handmade. It was a retail client of Dilling’s that inspired Ligon’s landmark 2005 work “Warm Broad Glow,” with its text, “negro sunshine,” painted black on the front to eerily reflect light off the wall behind it. “Glenn wanted to do black neon, and I said, ‘Well, you do know that black is the absence of light, right, so that might be tough,’” Dilling recalled. “But I had worked on a sign for Burberry and had to do the plaid, which has black in it, so I painted the front of some of the lines black to represent that. Glenn saw it and said ‘That’s it.’” In 2015, when the New School commissioned a similar work, the artist installed “For Comrades and Lovers,” adapted from a book of poems by Walt Whitman, across nearly 200 feet of the ground floor and visible from the street. The project was nearly halted because some neon tubes have trace amounts of mercury, which would disqualify the building for LEED certification. Dilling suggested an alternative that has no mercury; the only catch was that it came only in a single color, a dignified lavender. “It was so perfect,” Ligon says.
The association with Ligon has led Dilling to commissions from other artists, including Theaster Gates, as well as the addition of a sprawling work space for Lite Brite in Kingston, N.Y., a postindustrial city on the Hudson River a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Brooklyn. As artists’ interest in neon has swelled in recent years, so has Dilling’s willingness to follow them to strange places, both aesthetically and literally. This past spring, Dilling worked with the Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, embedding in the ground at the Desert X art festival in the Coachella Valley a 100,000-square-foot neon rendering of the words “I Am,” designed to seem as though it was exploding out of the earth itself. In addition to construction, Dilling had to maintain the work during the 10 weeks it was up — another unsung part of the fabricator’s challenging and often uncredited effort.
“We thought it might be hard to keep the electricity going and things like that, but a lot of the time was spent chasing lizards out of the holes where the transformers were,” he says. “I look at that as a total testament to art being a very unpredictable thing. Which is what makes it so worthwhile being part of.”