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For Kelly, the idea was to “take the hand out” of his large-scale sculptures and wall works, which would lead to forms that would be so well-crafted, so meticulously rendered, so flawless that they would inspire awe. He points to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 as his ideal object, “something that seems like it has been there forever,” he says from his home in Spencertown, New York. “Something that’s not flashy, but manages to absorb your perception entirely.”
Kelly claims that Carlson stood out from other fabricators because of his innate ingenuity. “He’s very inventive,” he says. “And he has always done his utmost to achieve the best possible quality that he can. That’s important to me.”
But Gemini abandoned making sculptural objects almost as quickly as it started. “It was hard to do multiples,” confesses Grinstein, “and even harder to make them meaningful.” Nonetheless, artists still wanted to push the envelope of object making, and Carlson left Gemini specifically to help them out. He set up Carlson & Co. in a small garage in Tujunga, where he began working with Kelly and other Gemini clients, such as Rauschenberg, Isamu Noguchi and Ed Kienholz. Meanwhile, Ron McPherson, who ran Gemini’s shop, left to start his own fabrication studio, La Paloma Fine Arts, where he would eventually work with Dennis Oppenheim, Jonathan Borofsky and Niki de Saint Phalle. There were other entrepreneurs, such as Jeff Sanders, and Jack Brogan, whom Grinstein calls the “prince of L.A. fabricators” and whose skills with acrylic, resins and metals have held him in good graces with Robert Irwin and Roy Lichtenstein for 40 years.
Fabrication was burgeoning on the East Coast as well, notably at New York’s Treitel-Gratz (Noguchi, Donald Judd and Walter de Maria) and Milgo/Bufkin (Richard Serra), and Connecticut’s Lippincott Inc. (Oldenburg, Barnett Newman, Robert Morris and Louise Nevelson), which billed itself in 1966 as the country’s only fabricator dedicated to sculpture. But L.A., home to Finish Fetish as well as much of the airline industry, kept pushing the envelope — and it wasn’t just the artists and the fabricators.
In the now-legendary Art and Technology program at LACMA (1967–1971), curator Maurice Tuchman paired contemporary artists with leading scientists and manufacturing companies, with the aim to either develop new solutions to art making or spawn new ideas altogether. For the landmark 1971 exhibition of the same name, which John Baldessari recalls as being “a beautiful failure,” the collaborations were a mixed bag. The coupling of Robert Irwin and James Turrell with the aerospace giant Garrett Corp., for example, produced a number of important experiments in Light and Space art. But Richard Chamberlain failed in his attempt to challenge the bureaucracy of his partner, the Rand Corp., by unplugging its telephones for a day. (Not surprisingly, the suits balked.)
Despite all this activity, Carlson was forced to supplement his business, which had moved into a larger workspace in Sun Valley by then, with trade-show booths, signage and architectural works. (He also made a machine that can clean and restore works on paper, for both LACMA and the Huntington Library.) Consequently, Carlson & Co.’s design DNA can be found not only in major artworks but in BP’s gas station at Robertson and Olympic, the titanium sun at the entrance of Disney’s California Adventure, and the giant chair in front of the Pacific Design Center.
Still, Carlson’s dual passions have always been to assist artists and to learn how to do the seemingly impossible. He broke away from his competitors in the 1990s because he and his crew began introducing increasingly advanced technologies into their practice.
"Peter Carlson and his crew have gone so far as to invent new tools and processes in order to accomplish what I wanted in my stainless-steel and bronze sculptures," says John McCracken, “which is a level of beauty and perfection that, in regard to metal, I have characterized as being perhaps attainable only through ‘UFO technology.’ I had for many years wished for the capability to make such things, and Carlson has immeasurably helped to bring that about."
While Carlson may have “authored” certain methods and techniques, he insists that he won’t use them for other artists. “I wouldn’t use a finish we developed for Ellsworth [Kelly] on a piece for Jeff [Koons], for example.”
McCracken adds that “while some seem to question the wisdom of using fabricators, to me that's a nonissue. Artists have always used tools and processes, and very often helpers, too. While what fabricators offer is often on a larger and more complex scale, it's essentially the same. For me, after the visionary thinking that brings a work into potentiality, it's simply a matter of using the necessary and best means of bringing that vision into physical reality. The means of materialization may differ, but the aim is always the same: to make the best art possible."
Artists do occasionally recognize the contribution of fabricators in some of their artworks. Oldenburg, Robert Longo, Takashi Murakami and Hans Haacke have all added “credits” to certain sculptures. Sam Durant even went so far as to have the names of all the Chinese craftsmen who made his recent set of porcelain chairs, which were shipped to London for his show at Sadie Coles HQ last month, inscribed right into each sculpture. For Durant, that was essential to the meaning of the works, since they are replicas of the most universal and democratic piece of furniture in the world: the ubiquitous, all-plastic, injection-molded chair. Thus he turned questions of manufacturing, international trade, labor exploitation and value into essential aspects of the work.