Those Fabulous Fabricators and Their Finish Fetish
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.”
But it wasn’t pop art that put Carlson on the map. Many L.A. artists in the ’60s and ’70s were using industrial materials and manufacturing techniques to create their sculptures — DeWain Valentine with polyester resin, Larry Bell with glass, and the late Norman Zammitt with translucent acrylic. That, in turn, led to collaborations with manufacturers and fabricators, such as Craig Kauffman’s work with Planet Plastics in Paramount. “There was almost an extreme desire to explore technology as it relates to art,” recalls Carlson. “It was just in the air, it was a buzz, and Gemini was at the heart of it all.”
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.
For his part, Carlson says that he harbors no illusions of laying claims to co-authorship. He sees his company as nothing more than an extension of an artist’s studio. “We do not consider ourselves co-authors of the work in any way, but we do want to be recognized as being the fabricator of the work.”
No worries there: Carlson & Co. has been getting plenty of recognition lately, mostly because of its collaboration with Koons, which began in the 1990s. At the time, Koons had been working on various forms of statuary, including his famous stainless-steel bunny, with a foundry in Pennsylvania. But when he tried to “point them up” — to increase their proportions significantly — the results were poor. So his London gallerist, Anthony d’Offay (who also represents Kelly), put him in touch with Carlson and together they set out to create the first Balloon Dog, Koons’ now-famous stainless-steel sculpture that looks like an exact replica of a giant Mylar balloon twisted into a puppy. (One version recently sold for $19 million; another will be on view in the new Broad Contemporary Museum at LACMA.)
Talk to either Suman or Carlson and they’ll go into great detail about how incredibly difficult Balloon Dog was, given that it stood over 10 feet tall and weighed more than a ton. “It was divided into 40 different sections, which had to be welded together without distortion or flaws,” explains Suman. What’s more, Koons demanded that it have a pristine, mirror finish. Suman: “To achieve an object that approaches optical perfection on that scale was unprecedented at the time.”
That’s also around the time Carlson & Co. introduced digital technologies to its practice; this eventually led it to various types of 3-D modeling programs, which support the kinds of CNC milling practices that are generally more common with architects. This has given its clients the ability to scan an object or maquette, and remodel it in a digital environment, which means infinite scalability, detail and flexibility. Charlie Ray did just that with Father Figure, the three-part sculpture he showed at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York last month. The solid-steel sculpture is an exact replica of the most common, mass-produced kids’ toy from the 1950s: the little green plastic man and his tractor. (Only now it weighs 18 tons.) “Computer software programs have undoubtedly revolutionized the business,” says Suman. “But I think we’re only at the beginning of what we can do. Things are going to get pretty interesting very soon.”
That’s not necessarily a good thing. Carlson says that he’s seen plenty of multimillion-dollar, overproduced artworks in recent years. So has Koons’ New York dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, who recently remarked, somewhat ironically, “There is a post-Koons cult of extreme production values in which the expense of the production overshadows the content.”
That may be because we’ve jumped headlong into an era of grand and spectacular artworks, which typically come with a bullish art market. Charlie Ray uses the term “wow factor” to describe his own desire to instill a sense of awe in viewers, and the same could be said of Koons, Olafur Eliasson, Takashi Murakami and other highly influential artists. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a kind of Bilbao effect among museums and biennials alike, where the more opulent and sensational the piece, the better. Koons’ proposed steam locomotive for LACMA, which will hang upside down from a 161-foot-high crane and which Carlson will produce, certainly fits into that category.
But this sort of art-world moral quandary is pretty remote to Carlson, who remains the optimistic technical enabler. “When I started, there was a feeling that virtually anything was possible,” he says. “Artists still feel that way today, but because of technology, the bar has been raised higher than ever before. So what was done 20 years ago is now unacceptable. It’s like running the four-minute mile. What was impossible is now expected. There’s no telling where this will lead.”
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