Allegedly David Hockney recently took a dig at Damien Hirst when a poster for his upcoming show at the Royal Academy of Art read, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” The Royal Academy of Art has since clarified that the phrase appeared on Hockney’s gallery wall, not their poster, and Mr. Hockney was not attacking anyone specifically.
This got us thinking. It’s not uncommon for artists to have assistants or employ experienced craftsmen to help with the production of their work. Sometimes, that’s the only way to bring their ideas to life. Sometimes, that process is part of the art’s conceit. Sometimes, they just want the money without doing much of anything. Here’s a brief and wide survey of classical and contemporary artists who conceive, but don’t or didn’t always “make” their own work. This is not exactly “in defense” of Damien Hirst. It’s a bit that, but more of … “in contrast,” just some thoughts to levy the hype and hate currently swirling around the artist. Let’s get to it!
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
“All of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects come from ideas from their two hearts, and two brains,” the artist duo have strongly asserted. “The artists never create works that come from other people’s ideas. Never.” The two did not accept proposals, commissions, licensing deals, or grants, and they paid for installation out of their own pocket, as to not “alter and compromise their art” and work in “total freedom.” Now then, you don’t expect them to have wrap Parisian bridges and the Australian coast by their lonesome or run around planting thousands of giant umbrellas by themselves? Naturally, they employed workers for that. What do you think they were doing, painting dots?
For Faith Moves Mountains (2002), performance artist Alÿs moved a mountain — that is, shoveled a giant sand dune in Peru a few inches over, with the help of 500 volunteers. Obviously, the feat could not have been performed by just one guy with a shovel. Many of Alÿs’ performances are solitary, but think of this one as a group performance art project directed by the central artist. Speaking of performance art — and we must — while Marina Abramović sat in the MoMA atrium, dozens of apprentices re-performed her pieces upstairs. She’s a pioneer of performance art copyright. Limited by her mortality to have her works continue once she’s gone, Abramović has been tirelessly asserting that her pieces — the nude human doorway, the skeleton cuddle — as re-performed by others, with her permission, are her works and hers alone. How does that apply to a spot? Are all those assistant-painted dots really, really Hirst’s?
Since 1996, Japanese superstar artist and “Superflat” mastermind Takashi Murakami has been operating the “Hiropon factory” art production studio. Today, the international Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. employs over 100 people, throws a biennial art fair GEISAI, and produces not just Murakami artworks, but merch galore, from $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags to trinkets, key chains, and mousepads, all in signature Murakami psycho-psychedelic Kawaii. Murakami actively supervises, but does not paint the paintings, sculpt the sculptures, or stuff the plush toys. He sketches on paper, colors in Adobe Illustrator, and then his staff turns the finished work into exhibition pieces, silk-screening outlines and painting it up. Without technology — or assistants — Murakami has said, “I could have never produced this many works this efficiently, and the work wouldn’t be as intense.” Hmm… Hirst: Efficient? Yes. Intense? Well…
There’s a reason why Murakami dubbed his studio “a factory.” Speaking of Andy Warhol’s Factory, John Cale recalled: “It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new.” Warhol had his Superstars and hanger-ons mass-produce his silkscreens and lithographs the capitalist way, like, say, Campbell’s would. Then, Paul Morrissey began doing the actual films, as an Andy Warhol Production. Andy had successfully turned himself into a brand, an icon of sorts. That’s something Hirst has been doing too, quite successfully. Taking lessons from the master, are we?
Peter Paul Rubens
17th century Flemish Baroque master Rubens had plenty of pupils who had the privilege of assisting him in his work: Van Dyck, Jordaens, Snyders, etc. There are, essentially, three types of Rubens’ artworks: Those he painted himself, those he helped paint, and those he just supervised while skilled apprentices delivered the goods. Now, the “helped” bit is most interesting. Rubens painted faces and hands, key, expressive features, but elements of his larger paintings — like animals and still-life groupings — those he left to his “specialists.” We would love to talk to some Hirst spot specialists and ask them if there were any parts Hirst helped out on. Perhaps he had a favorite color? The really red one? The murky green?
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci had his assistants too. In the notorious case of the two very similar Lansdowne Madonnas — one allegedly not painted by da Vinci — an Oxford professor explains: “Leonardo is unlikely to have painted every square centimeter of either of them,” likening this directly to Hirst outsourcing work to assistants. “The trade, the galleries and our own romantic idea of these artists as passionate creators working in a fire of creative genius works against our acknowledging that they were picture producers and that most of them were trying to make a good living.” That sounds reasonable… right?
In 1986, Marilyn Minter was experimenting. She began to despise her own ability “to copy anything” and adopted a process of “fake mechanization” to put some distance between herself and her work. She turned the images she worked with into dot screens. (Think Hirst, but very tiny.) She would then paint an undercoat on her enamel, project the dots over the undercoat, and have her unpaid assistant “intern” paint the dots. In the end, she found it not very satisfying. Now, she “physically luxuriates in the act of painting.”
By contrast, there have been few artists who so enjoyed not making their own work (and growing rich off of the results) as New York’s own Mark Kostabi. After developing his easily recognizable style, the self-declared “Con Artist” contributed little more than a signature to most of his work and bragged endlessly about it. It was part shtick, part successful business practice, and part over-the-top performance, not without at least a small degree of cynicism about the art world itself. Hmm. Is Hirst cynical at all? We should write into the “Ask Mark Kostabi” column to find out.
Once a very prolific street artist, now a very popular and successful artist/graphic designer, Shepard Fairey has assistants. We all knew that, and that “the Nirvana baby” is one of them. Then, a “big secret” was uncovered in an ambush interview by TMZ. Though footage of Fairey wheatpasting appears in Exit Through the Gift Shop, his wife let it slip that he hasn’t put up his own stuff in “a long time,” causing many a graff-head to giggle viciously. So, where does that leave all those Andre the Giant stickers? Are some interns street teaming for the Obey Giant™ clothing line?
Jeremy Hutchison and More on “Factories”
Let’s go back to the subjects of factories and “Factories.” For the clever project Err, artist Jeremy Hutchison contacted factories around the world and had them produce “incorrect” versions of their products, re-contextualizing them as art props in a “deliberate miscommunication” as commentary on the global economy. This opens up a can of worms. In this can: Duchamp, the ready-made, re-appropriation of an existing object into an art object by calling it “art”… Let’s not get into that. Let’s think… process. If Ai Weiwei didn’t individually paint all of those millions of porcelain seeds but commissioned a factory to do so — as part of the project’s conceit — did he still “make” them? When Phillip Toledano had ordered political propaganda paintings to be re-painted with his face instead of the leaders’ at Chinese factories — as part of the project’s meaning — did he make this art, simply by authoring them and funding the conceptually relevant process? Hmm.