It Takes A Village: Secret Assistants Behind Great Artists - Assistant Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Jess Goulart

By Jess Goulart

“Puppy” by artist Jeff Koons at the Musée Guggenheim, in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Jean Pierre Dalbéra.

At a recent installation opening at the Royal Academy, David Hockney presented a plaque next to his paintings that read, “all the works here were made by the artist, personally.” He admitted later it was a jab at fellow British artist Damien Hirst, whose reputation for using assistants to create most of his pieces is widely known.

This practice is nothing new — Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel with the help of a small army, Rembrandt famously demanded his staff pay for the honor of working underneath him, Andy Warhol set up his infamous Factory.

Though the public adores the romantic image of a lone genius, drunk in his cabin, crafting a masterpiece by the flickering light of his last candle, the truth is most successful artists rarely work without a team of assistants behind them.

Artist assistantships vary in degrees of immersion and difficulty, but are generally coveted as a foothold into the industry and a chance to gain first-hand experience working for an expert. The catch? As an assistant, you typically receive no public recognition for your work.

Despite that fact, young artists fight for positions at studios like Jeff Koons’s, who claims he never fabricates his work himself (it would take too long) and instead relies on 150 assistants. It would seem that people are hired for these assistantships based on word-of-mouth, so though someone might be unhappy with their lack of acknowledgment, they won’t complain, lest they sully their reputation and wind up waiting tables.

An art installer at the Guggenheim, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells BTR about the process behind the recent piece by James Turrell, which consists of LED lights within seven stainless steel trusses that climb through the space.

“The blueprints were sent to a special Guggenheim team, who labored in Jersey for six months just to build the trusses. Turrell came to the museum to direct their installation, and though he didn’t touch the trusses or the LEDs himself, he programmed them. What’s interesting to me is that the trusses aren’t the art, but what you see inside and how it’s laid out is.” The installer concludes that “though Turrell didn’t build it with his own hands, its still his creation. The people who built it aren’t creating art, their actualizing it.”

Though they receive no public credit for their work, the installer describes their experience at the Guggenheim as highly rewarding. Glowing, they recount the day their supervisor said “here, hold this,” and handed them a painting. With a sudden catch of their breath, they realized it was a Picasso. “All I could think was, this is so cool, I hope I don’t drop it!”

The installer teasingly refers to themselves and other assistants as “the lackeys, the grunt labor, the techies of art,” but explains “you don’t have a playbill for a museum or gallery, there’s no place to give you credit, so the experience has to be enough.”

But the line between assistant and artist gets even blurrier. Alexander Gorlizki, an up-and-coming painter who superimposes images on traditional Indian designs, openly admits to not having the technical skills required to paint those designs, employing a team of assistants in India that do have the proficiency to do it for him. Should they be given credit for the finished piece?

Ali Martin, a local Queens photographer, reflects on this question for BreakThru, as she think about her past experiences with a prominent photographer. Martin recounts how she was hired on as a “gallery assistant” under the condition of getting paid an hourly wage. The demands of her job grew from menial set-up and retouching, to setting the shots and lighting, to planning the angles, to actually “pushing the button” and developing the pieces herself.

“I didn’t know that the job would eventually entail every aspect of creating the photographs,” Martin sighs, “I never got paid, except for a card with $40 in it for my birthday.”

Though Martin was denied compensation and essentially did the artist’s work for them, she says she’s “torn on the ownership debate.”

“When you think of Warhol or Hirst, there’s so many people working underneath them, but people are paying money for their ideas. Even though I did the shots, I wouldn’t have chosen the same subject matter. Still, it would have been nice to get some credit. I don’t need much. Maybe a quiet contributors plaque. A nice bottle of gin.”

Martin points out that she loved the work, and that often there isn’t another choice for artists just starting out. She shrugs, saying “in the end it was a valuable experience, and I would probably do it again.”

Adam Sheffer, a partner at New York gallery Cheim & Read, recently told The Wall Street Journal that five of every 30 artists represented in his gallery use studio assistants, “partly because artists want to keep up with demand and partly because it’s just more widely accepted now.”

The phrase “keeping up with demand” portrays art in an interesting light, calling attention to the often ignored fact that it is, at core, a business. The quicker artists can create, the more they can sell.

Thomas Roberts is a studio assistant for Red Hook based artist Evan Gruzis, who uses Indian ink on paper to render paintings with such meticulous shading gradients that they appear almost photographic.

The process is intensive and Roberts says much of what he does is preliminary steps, such as “stretching the watercolor paper, precision taping, getting a lot of the busy work out of the way so he can work faster and make more pieces.”

Though Roberts gets no name recognition for his work, he says the value of being in the studio with Evan is compensatory enough. “It’s a good technique to learn and basically the whole time he and I are having a good conversation about art, I can talk to him about ideas, and get a good critique on something.”

Roberts points to the intimacy of the art world, saying another important aspect of his assistantship is the contacts he makes. At a recent gallery opening for Gruzis, the artist verbally acknowledged Roberts’ contributions, particularly to people in the art community, facilitating valuable connections and strengthening his reputation.

“It was cool to see projects that I helped work on, but I didn’t feel like it was my work at all, I felt no attachment.” For that reason he leans “towards the conception behind art being art. Sometimes people aren’t in a position to fabricate their own ideas, but the ideas are still there.”

When BTR was contacting NYC artist assistants, one anonymous source replied “I wonder if anyone will be willing to talk about it. The art world is small, and reputation is everything.” As such, many of the names in this article have been omitted at the request of the speaker, to protect the privacy of the individual or institution.

Though it’s becoming more acceptable, the use of assistants isn’t something most artists go bandying about, and there’s probably more than a little pride involved. Perhaps, in reality, it’s not just the public that loves that image of the lone genius, his cabin, and his masterpiece.

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