Monday, November 19, 2007

"THE STUDIO SYSTEM" By Linda Yablonsky


By Linda Yablonsky

Published: November 17, 2007

Jeff Koons has 87 of them laboring in shifts.
Damien Hirst employs several teams, as needed.
Jasper Johns has had the same one for 23 years,
and Kiki Smith's accompanies her everywhere. Yet
John Currin can hardly stand the idea. A studio
assistant? "I'm a terrible coworker," he says. He
prefers to go it alone.

Most artists today depend on at least one extra
hand to keep their studios in order and help
prime their creative pumps. That could mean
anything from mixing paint and cleaning brushes
to listening to the boss think out loud. It can
also involve making the actual pieces while the
artist supplies the vision-the identity for the
brand, so to speak. Traditionally, a young
wannabe's best entree into the profession has
been to assist an established mentor. Some parlay
these jobs into big careers; others may remain in
the shadows.

What is curious is how differently the market
treats work done by assistants in different eras.
Consider how quickly a putative Old Master
painting priced in the millions is devalued
should new evidence prove it to have been made by
other hands. A 1995 exhibition at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York,
"Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt," explored this issue by
juxtaposing pictures by the master himself with
those of his disciples. His studio, it seems, was
happy to employ imitators skilled enough to turn
out "Rembrandts" like a machine. Still, it was
relatively easy to tell genius from its

Such distinctions are not always so clear-or so
necessary-in the realm of contemporary art.
Paintings by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat
may require authentication before sale, but no
doubts about genuineness haunt artworks by living
artists such as Hirst, Koons or Takashi Murakami,
whose prices can be astronomical. None of them
makes his own paintings or even thinks he should,
not when others can do the job better. Likewise,
the intense labor required to produce Sol
LeWitt's wall drawings was never entirely his
own, yet no one ever said the work itself was not
his creation.

It is fair to ask if the art market operates on a
double standard that treats certain kinds of
"assisted" works as deceptions while accepting
others as unique. For an answer, says Laura
Paulson, senior director for contemporary art at
Christie's New York, "we have to go back to
Duchamp's readymades and the idea of liberating
the artist's hand."

The Duchampian notions of mechanical reproduction
reached full flower in the 1960s, when artists
like Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg began
silkscreening with helpers. "The idea of art
changed to be less about individual brushstrokes
and more about the image," Paulson says.
"Mechanical means expanded the artist's product.
The studio assistant, who became almost an alter
ego, enabled this process.

"Look at Ronnie Cutrone and Warhol," she
continues. "Andy set up the still life. Ronnie
made the photo and the screen. And this whole act
has become amplified to an extraordinary level
with artists like Koons and Hirst."

Cutrone, who was Warhol's principal painting
assistant from 1972 to 1982 and has retained
ownership of the photographs he took for Warhol's
paintings, describes their working relationship
as almost codependent. "I was born with a
duplicate color sense to Warhol's," Cutrone
recalls. "He would say, 'Ronnie, mix me a green.'
And I would attempt to clarify: 'What green?' He
would say, 'Up-front green.' And I would know
what he meant. But I wasn't going to paint his
paintings." Warhol, he adds, painted for hours a
day but also took time to experiment with new
ideas-not all of which were his own.

Take the "Shadows," the 1978 series of 102
abstract panels that Warhol called "one painting
with parts." According to Cutrone, they were his
idea. "It was Andy's dream to make abstract art,
and he could do it fairly well, but people didn't
like it," Cutrone explains. "I said, 'Look,
you're Andy Warhol. If you want to make abstract
art, you have to make something that is but
isn't: a shadow. I had this idea a long time, but
I was never going to do it. So I mixed all the
colors and stretched all the canvases and
installed them in Heiner Friedrich's gallery in
SoHo. I wasn't jealous. They didn't sell."
(Seventy-two of the canvases from Freidrich's
collection are now on permanent display at
Dia:Beacon, in upstate New York.)

How should we evaluate an assistant's role in the
act of creation? Does it really matter if artists
touch their own works, as long as these works are
unique and are made in their presence?
"Regardless of the artist's distance from the
process," Paulson says, "there is a nuance that
gives it his identity. If there were to be dot
paintings generated by someone who used to work
for Hirst, you would feel it, and it would not be
seen as having any value in the market."

By helping an established mentor, novices learn
firsthand what being a working artist actually
involves. The painter Carroll Dunham assisted
Dorothea Rockburne off and on from 1970 through
1973 in New York. "In a way, that was my art
school," he says. "It's important to be involved
with the daily operation of a studio and how you
organize it both physically and psychologically.
But the best part was the incidental talking
about art."

Today many aspiring artists skip this journeyman
step. They enter the market while still in
school, as collectors buy work from thesis
exhibitions and dealers cherry-pick talent for
group shows. Not long after graduation, the most
promising may be preparing solo debuts and hiring
assistants of their own out of the same pool.

At 28, Dan Colen is a budding star who was
featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and whose
paintings sell for around $50,000 each, according
to his dealer, Javier Peres, of Peres Projects,
in Los Angeles. Lately, these works have been
colorful abstractions that Colen calls "bird
shit" paintings-an accurate description of their
appearance. "He made the first couple of them and
gave us directions," says Theo Rosenblum, one of
five $15-an-hour part-time workers in Colen's New
York studio. "A lot of the work involves
developing our own ways of painting them. That is
what's interesting: There are different styles of
bird shit. The way these paintings are, it's
almost better to have different hands on them."

No such leeway is given to the staff at Koons's
studio, which was operating around the clock last
spring to prepare paintings for a show at the
Gagosian Gallery in London in June. "There's a
learning curve," says Koons's longtime studio
manager, Gary McCraw. "The painters learn how
Jeff sees things so they can make his art. The
work is very laborintensive. Tracing might
require six people on one painting. Basically,
he's quality control."

Murakami runs an even tighter ship at his studios
in Asaka, Japan, and Long Island City, New York,
which are modeled on both Warhol's Factory and
the artisanal workshops of the Edo period in
Japan. The artist has 35 employees in New York
alone and nearly 20 in Tokyo. "All of the design
work is done on computer in Japan," says Yuko
Sakata, director of the New York offices of
Kaikai Kiki, the company that produces Murakami's
paintings, sculptures, prints and animations and
also manages the careers of seven other Japanese
artists. These include Chiho Aoshima and Mr., who
both worked for Murakami.

Although many artists maintain large studios like
Murakami's and Koons's-Matthew Barney and Julian
Schnabel are two who combine art making with film
production- others prefer a more personal
approach. "I'm a mom-and-pop operation," says
Ross Bleckner, who brings in one or two art
students to work in an office beside his studio
but prefers to create alone. "I'm the mom-and I'm
the pop. And I like to keep it that way."

Kiki Smith retains two assistants to help her in
her studio and one to run her office. "What I
like is that, when people show up at a certain
time of day, it kicks you out of your own
subjectivity and forces you to think in an
orderly fashion instead of drifting," she says.
"For self-employed people, that's a big thing."

What about the impact of such jobs on the
assistants? They can reap unexpected benefits-but
there are also drawbacks. Painter Carl Fudge, who
spent nearly 10 years in Smith's employ, says he
started out "grinding glass sperm" but soon found
himself becoming part of her life: "She used me
as a barrier against people she didn't know. I
sort of protected her." He also helped install
her shows all over the world. "We went to amazing
places and met the most interesting people," he
recalls, referring to such travel, however, as "a
great experience rather than a career benefit."
His tenure, which ended in 1998, affected his own
identity as an artist as well. "Even a couple of
weeks ago," he says, "a museum called asking for

The painter Alexander Ross helped Julian
Lethbridge move his New York studio to a SoHo
loft and ended up managing the whole building,
where Hirst, artist Michael Hurson and 303
Gallery director Lisa Spellman also lived. "From
Julian I learned how the art world functions,"
Ross says. But meeting the others didn't really
advance his career. "It opened doors to my mind,"
he explains, "not anywhere else."

Many artists bring on additional people just for
specific projects. To prepare "The Invisible
Enemy Should Not Exist," his exhibition last
winter at Lombard-Freid Projects, in New York,
Michael Rakowitz needed plenty of help from his
team of six. The show consisted of about 60
small-scale reconstructions-made with Iraqi food
wrappers and Arabic newspapers-of artifacts
stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad after
the 2003 American invasion. Rakowitz intends to
remake all 7,000 of the looted pieces.

In this case, the assistants-students, mostly-may
make long-term commitments. But how long is too
long to stay? Bleckner rotates his helpers out
every few years. "After a certain point, you fear
they may hold working for you against you if
their career has not happened the way they
thought it should," he explains. Dunham concurs:
"If you're ambitious, you have to get out."

The sculptor Joel Shapiro, who generally works on
a large scale, has long relied on assistants,
including some who weren't sculptors themselves.
Back in the early 1980s, for instance, painter
Christopher Wool cut wood for him ("It was the
best job I ever had," Wool says). These days
Shapiro works closely with Ichiro Kato, a master
woodworker, and Patrick Strzelec, an artist who
is expert at casting. "But while they're
realizing your work, they sometimes have to
suppress their instincts," he says. "They have a
role in the shaping of a piece-but they also have
their own art to make. Those who are pivotal to
your work stay with you, but it's not necessarily
a happy position for that person."

James Meyer's 22 years with Jasper Johns have
brought him security. He's been careful, however,
to maintain his own painting practice, even
though it means he has to get up at 5 a.m. to
work for a few hours before starting his day with
Johns. "That way you don't feel like you're not
moving ahead," he says.

Meyer also points to the dangers of being
associated so long with so celebrated an artist.
Five years ago, he started working in encaustic,
Johns's signature material. "So my work is
perceived as reflective of Jasper's," he says.
"But it's figurative-very different." Meanwhile,
his family has had to adapt to his travel to
Johns's three studios (in Connecticut, St.
Martin, and South Carolina) and various
exhibitions. "It's just part of the job," he

On the other hand, John Currin insists that "it
wouldn't help me to have an assistant. I'd end up
micromanaging to a degree that there would be no
point. That's like hiring someone else to drive a
two-seater sports car. Why bother?" Still, he
says, he has taken on an artist-bookkeeper who
also straightens up. "My studio looked like
Francis Bacon's," he admits. "Now it's a much
more pleasant place to be."

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"The Studio System" is originally from the
November 2007 issue of Art & Auction magazine.

Copyright © 2007, LTB Media


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