Art That Needs Assistance

The Wall Street Journal comes up with interesting art news every few weeks. The latest item worth passing along is "The Art Assembly Line" by Stan Sesser in the 3 June 2011 issue (link here).

Its lede brings to mind a post I wrote back in January regarding artistic skills:

Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist, known for paintings that superimpose fanciful images over traditional Indian designs. His work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000.

Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. "I prefer not to be involved in actually painting," says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. "It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency," he says.

Sesser goes on to mention other currently active artists who make use of assistants in their work. This has been common for sculptors all along, thanks to the demands of large-scale fabrication and its requirement for specialized, non-artistic skills.

But the practice has been rare for painting in recent times. As Sesser notes,

For centuries, the use of assistants and apprentices was standard in the art world. Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Rubens relied heavily on the assistants in their studios. With the rise of the Impressionists, however, the idea of a studio practice, which maximizes incomes by using assistants, fell into disfavor. Artists were supposed to be pouring out their personal visions onto the canvas—not instructing employees on how to do it.

By the time Pop art came into fashion in the mid-20th century and Andy Warhol began cranking out silkscreens and lithographs with the help of workers at his well-publicized Factory, opinion began to swing back the other way. "The value of a work of art is not invested in the hand that made it, but in the intention and the realization," says Robert Storr, dean of Yale University's School of Art.

This last point makes me cringe. I can accept it when dealing with architecture and even sculpture. But painting should be the artist's own work because, but its nature, it is something one person can do without help. (I'm happy to quality this for exceptionally large paintings such as murals where the primary artist can leave the grunt-work bits to others.)

The statement also strikes me as the "art is whatever" attitude all too present present in this Modernist era. Let's reconsider the abandonment of the concept of High Art, because I think we've reached the point where it is desperately needed.

Back to Sesser, this regarding Jeff Koons:

At the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Koons, who runs his vast, high-ceilinged studio with an efficiency that discourages personal interactions. Everyone has an assigned task, from painting a section of a canvas by following elaborate diagrams to mixing dozens of paints to produce exactly the right color. Large paintings are lifted up a wall by electric hoists; in one room on a recent afternoon, two painters worked silently on a canvas at floor level while two others painted the upper part from a scaffold. There's a hierarchy of supervisors, including a studio manager, a painting supervisor and several assistant managers. It brings to mind an assembly line, but the 56-year-old Mr. Koons, who is married to one of his former assistants, bridles at the analogy of a factory. "People get misconceptions that it's about production, like a machine," he states. "But I've thought for a year about almost everything before starting to make it."

Mr. Koons, whose use of assistants is widely known, says he supervises the work intently: "I'm here Monday through Friday and I try to travel as little as possible. The paintings are as if I made every mark myself." Mr. Koons says he doesn't mentor his artist employees, and they don't bring paintings into the studio to show him. "This is about production of the work," he says. "I want them to stay focused on the work here."

Even though painters abandoned use of assistants as the 19th century wore on, the practice was continued in commercial art. For example, Norman Rockwell used an assistant to do the tedious work of transferring his drawings from preliminary sheets to a canvas where the artist could begin to apply his paints. This clearly is a minor level of help, because the assistant did neither the preparatory drawing nor the final painting.

A case where assistants' work appeared in the final product was the newspaper comic strip in its classical 1930s and 1940's form. Cartoons were printed much larger than they are today, and adventure strips often included a good deal of detail such as those of room interiors and streetscapes serving as background for the action. Assistants often did those backgrounds. I've read of a few cases where the main artist left all to assistants save the character's faces.

Comic book and graphic novel production can follow similarly. Often the lead artist "pencils in" the images and an "inker" uses brush and pen to realize the final images.

So yes, art is often a cooperative endeavor. But sometimes this can be taken too far.