Life and death in the art factory

Robert Genn

June 14, 2011

Yesterday, Loretta West of Spokane, WA, asked, "Is art somehow diminished when the artist doesn't actually do the work? These days, some artists have others doing their work for them. I've always believed that 'Heart to Hand' was important, but what if I was physically unable to paint again? Could I have a staff paint my ideas for me?"

Thanks, Loretta. To bring some perspective, I passed the question on to my friend Joe Blodgett. "Absolutely disgusting," he blurted through his Scotch. "Art is one of the last things individuals can fully make with their hands, and they need to do it on their own. When artists pass their work onto others, it's just like those plops that steers make all over Texas."

"Fair enough," I said, pouring him another shot, "But what about the disabled artist Angela de la Cruz who suffered a stroke at age 46? Unable to speak well or move her hands properly, she sends out daily instructional emails to her five employees. Her work won the Turner Prize last year."

"She's confusing the making of art with the making of money," said Joe. "And so are those corruptible Turner-Prizers. It's called 'extended pocket-lining.' She's looking for fame and dealers, not art, and all the fools are on her bandwagon."

"I suppose you don't think much of the New York artist Alexander Gorlizki either," I said. "His Indian-influenced work is made for him by seven inexpensive painters in Jaipur, India. Gorlizki prefers not to be involved in the actual painting. He claims it would take him twenty years to get as good as his chief painter Riyaz Uddin. To Gorlizki's credit, he sometimes flies over to see how his work is going."

"Inexcusably rotten," said Joe.

Then some big names are also rotten," I said. "Damien Hirst has assistants. Robert Motherwell had 'em. Andy Warhol had a 'Factory.' Jeff Koons currently employs hundreds. Koons' works are labour intensive and he feels he doesn't need to do the labour any more. The conceptualist-minimalist Sol LeWitt sketched a grandiose idea on his deathbed and had 16 artists produce it three years after he took off for the big studio in the sky."

"Posthumous poseur," said Joe.  "Even Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt had studios full of helpers," I said.

"Hamburger helpers," said Joe. Joe is basically a nice guy. I have the feeling that if he could paint pictures, he'd do them all by himself.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "It liberates me not being encumbered by technical proficiency." (Alexander Gorlizki)

Esoterica: Jeff Koons runs a vast studio in a businesslike way, demanding efficiency from his army of managers, deputy managers and workers. As in a beehive, there's a division of labour. Some workers mix paint while others put it on. Electric hoists move things up and down while Koons watches every move, and, according to him, checks every stroke. "It's about the production of the work," he says. "I need my workers to stay focused."