There’s no mistaking the scent: It’s cookies, like Christmas cookies, all brown sugar, butter and vanilla. That’s what you smell as you pass by the Fantasy Cookie Corp. at the base of the San Fernando foothills, and make your way into a nondescript industrial strip a few doors down. Once you arrive at Carlson & Co., which is housed in a 30,000-square-foot factory space, the sweet, sugary smell somehow makes sense, because inside is a cross between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Warhol’s Factory. It is here that some of the most critically acclaimed — and most expensive — artworks of recent memory have been realized, from Jeff Koons’ candy-coated, stainless-steel Balloon Dog to Charlie Ray’s 18-ton toy tractor, Father Figure; from the sublime monuments of Ellsworth Kelly to the undulating biomorphic forms of Ken Price.
The factory itself, one of those tilt-up construction jobs from the 1980s, is nothing much to look at. But step inside the cavernous workspace in back, where the ceilings reach 32 feet, and you’ll find a dozen or so half-finished artworks that invoke another, more fanciful world. At the center of the room, which is chock-a-block with bridge cranes, hydraulic presses, stationary belt sanders and paint booths, is an 8-foot mound of plaster, which is being molded into an unbelievably accurate re-creation of a pile of Play-Doh. A few feet away from that are two 10-foot plastic models of cats pulling themselves out of oversize socks. Both Play-Doh and Cat on a Clothesline belong to Koons. Beyond them is a pair of folding chairs by Robert Therrien that are so large (90 inches by 112 inches), they would make Shaquille O’Neal look like a schoolboy. Each is rendered in perfect 4:1 scale, right down to the rivets and that khaki color you find on virtually every folding chair in the world.
The grand wizard behind this million-dollar business is Peter Carlson, a puckish 59-year-old who has been quietly working behind art-world heavies for the better part of the past 40 years. Carlson’s one of those go-to guys who can’t look at a piece of machinery, new or old, without dissecting it and turning it over in his head 14 million times per second. Get him going and he’ll wax poetic about wood grains, metallurgy, resins and plastics — the way rust colonizes Corten steel, for instance, or the way A36 metal crystallizes when heated to a certain degree — and love it.
His partner in fabrication, Ed Suman, plays yang to Carlson’s yin. With a rugged face, well-manicured white beard and a pair of glimmering blue eyes, Suman is an affable sort who wears the wildcatting years of his youth proudly. Yet he also has the organizational skills of General Patton. Suman shares with Carlson a passion for tackling extraordinarily complex technical problems. That’s why Koons, Ray, Kelly, and such other artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Doug Aitken, John McCracken and Josiah McElheny come to San Fernando. Carlson & Co. provides the tools, the craftsmanship and the muscle to help these artists dream the near-impossible and see it realized. “The term I like to use for the work we do is LVHC,” says Suman. “Low volume, high complexity.”
Given the questions of authorship it tends to raise, fabrication is, of course, a touchy subject. But with the increasing scale and complexity of both contemporary artwork and the contemporary art market, art making is becoming an increasingly collaborative process and has been going that way for some time.
Carlson saw it coming more than 40 years ago, when he got a job at the printmaker Gemini G.E.L., which still promotes “art and collaboration” out of its offices and studios on Melrose Avenue near La Cienega. In the 1960s, along with June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop and Jean Milant’s Cirrus Editions, Gemini’s Sidney Felson and Stanley Grinstein forged a new frontier of limited editions and multiples by some of the world’s greatest contemporary artists.
One of those artists was Claes Oldenburg, who came to Gemini in 1968 to create Profile Airflow, a hybrid litho-multiple that consisted of a cast polyurethane relief of the world’s first streamlined-production car, a 1937 Chrysler Airflow. While unique, it had its problems. “The urethane had uric acid in it,” recalls Grinstein with a small laugh. “So they yellowed and we had to call them all back.”
Carlson worked closely with Oldenburg on that project, which would become the basis of a 40-year friendship that still bears fruit today. Last year, Carlson & Co. fabricated Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Big Sweep, which features a 45-foot stainless-steel broom kicking two wads of paper into a 30-foot dustpan.
“When you’re working on that kind of scale,” says Suman of the sculpture, which is now installed at the Denver Art Museum, “each one of the bristles becomes a sculpture in itself.”