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Exhibit Exposes the Artists Behind the Artists

Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt, Kehinde Wiley; there is no doubt that these well known contemporary artists have talent and a deserved fame. However, artists of this standing rarely can do their work alone, and it is their many un-named assistants that make it possible for the work to be completed. As it has been through history, it is a right of passage for young artists to assist or apprentice with an established artist, gaining experience and connections by working under the name of someone else. In a new group show at Mark Miller gallery, 30 young art assistants will show their personal work, highlighting the art they do when not working under some of the top contemporary artists.

The WILD spoke to Trek Lexington, the curator of “Behind The Curtain,” about the secret life of assistants, the history of art apprenticeships, and the importance of learning from others.

Margot Werner, Ladies LuncheonMargot Werner, Ladies Luncheon

What got you interested in the secret life of art assistants? Have you acted in this position and if so, what was your experience?

I haven’t, but both of my curatorial assistants (Michelle Doll and Dina Brodsky) have worked as art assistants for years. It is through them that I have become aware of the world of studio assistants, in which emerging artists often labor for years creating the work of more established ones. Most of the time the relationship is symbiotic, giving assistants time to establish a career for themselves, and the established artist an opportunity to execute projects larger and more complex than they would be able to on their own.

Do you feel that artists should give more credit to their assistants?

Not necessarily: there are all different kinds of collaborations. Sometimes a fabricator simply manages a material or process that is absolutely outside of the artist’s technical capacity and interest. Usually outside intervention of this nature affects the substance, not design, of the artwork. For example, very few artists casting in bronze actually handle molten metal. No one strolling through Chicago’s Millennium Park expects to see a list of the dozens of collaborators–from computer technicians to engineers and steel workers–who created Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate.

Other times, assistants are predominantly mechanical facilitators who expedite the work of an otherwise capable artist who needs more than two hands. While I don’t feel it a moral responsibility for every technician to have his/her name engraved in the final artwork, I don’t think the signing artist should pretend, if asked, to have labored without assistance.

Assistant collaboration has been an acceptable practice in artistic workshops for millennia. Often they can resemble a family, or organism with semiautonomous parts. Some studio leaders will bounce ideas off their helpers, respecting their eyes and opinions as visual artists in their own rights. Contemporary choreographers will ask dancers to improvise, gathering ideas for movements. Solo artists such as Sting have competent musicians flesh out their respective instruments’ parts. This is not a new invention; it was the modus operandi of Gothic architects to allow each carver the freedom to choose his own ornaments and gargoyles, as long as they were legible as a cohesive whole.

Angela Gram, ThreeAngela Gram, Three

Is there a time when it makes sense for an artist to be vague about the people helping them create the work?

Other than possibly wanting to conceal trade secrets, the motivation for artists withholding information is usually based in the desire to create or maintain a perception. To reveal the full picture would somehow be injurious. If they are being honest with themselves and their audience, there is never a time for deception: many disappointments come from false expectations promulgated, or at least left uncorrected, by artists seeking to maintain an aura of heroic accomplishment.

Many artists who use assistants are transparent about their process, but many others are vague, or even secretive about the fact that their assistants do most (or at times, all) of their work. There is nothing wrong with hiring assistants to execute a vision that the artist does not have the time or technical expertise to complete his/herself, and the viewer knows that what they are looking at is the artistic vision of one person executed by other hands, such as an orchestral symphony arranged and conducted by a single composer. I do, however, have an ethical problem with artists who use assistants without admitting to it, insisting on solitary authorship. While it is acceptable for a best-selling author of a mystery series to openly hire ghostwriters for sequels he does not have time for himself, a poet hiring others to compose his poetry would be a fraud.

Of course, in the end, much depends on the philosophical perspective of both creator and viewer: is the art in question a personal artifact, in which the hand of the artist is of paramount importance, or a commodity in which what matters is the idea and the brand name? In either case, viewers should know exactly what they are looking at.

Chie Shimizu, Walk FrontChie Shimizu, Walk Front

How does your show highlight those people who are so often helping other artists create?

“Behind the Curtain” is a show that has been in the making for over two years. During this time, my curatorial assistants and I have been researching the history of studio assistantship through the years, and learning about which contemporary artists employ assistants. We would then seek out the assistants and look at their personal work. The 30 artists in this exhibition were the ones we finally picked on basis of having the strongest personal vision and work that we thought deserved a spotlight of its own. At times the work of the assistants is related to the work of the artists they are assisting, other times is is completely different, however, all of the work in this exhibit is technically and conceptually phenomenal – we want to show them as artists in their own right, not just the hands executing someone else’s concept.

How important is it to assist another artist? When is it not worth it?

Importance is a relative term. An assistantship, ideally, is an apprenticeship – a chance to hone skills and ideas while working for an established artist you respect, a chance to learn from your mentors. However, the main benefit of working as an assistant is that it is a stable job that sustains emerging artists while they develop an art career of their own. It is also one of the few job options that gives young artists a chance to keep refining their skills.

Unfortunately, working as a full-time assistant frequently leaves these artists so drained, both physically and emotionally, that they no longer have the time or desire to create their own work. In that case, the job becomes an end, not a means, and risks destroying the budding artistic growth it was supposed to nurture. Brancusi famously said, “No other tree can grow in the shadow of a great oak,” when he left his post as Rodin’s studio assistant after only a few weeks. He was fearful of being stifled by the artist’s influence. Today, the worker-bee production pace creates new risks: one of the demoralizing aspects of curating this show has been discovering so many talented young artists who have entirely stopped creating their own art due to the fact that their time and energy is so preoccupied with their work as assistants.

Jason Maas, RunawayJason Maas, Runaway

In the art world, what is there too much of and too little of?

This is only a personal opinion, but I believe that the art world at present contains too little visual art – by that I mean art that does not need a knowledge of contemporary critical theory, nor an essay explaining its’ significance in order to be understood and appreciated. The various art movements of the 20th century put a lot of emphasis on breaking the rules, and rebelling against the establishment, but what happens when all the rules are broken, when the rebellion itself has become a form of establishment? I believe there is too much theory and form, and not enough content, not enough earnestness.

Grant StoopsGrant Stoops

What are the positive aspects of working with high profile artists? Do you know of any success stories?

Working with accomplished artists exposes assistants to many aspects of professional life, far more than the technical chops and theory learned at school or in solitary research. Interacting with clients and collectors; navigating relationships with galleries; crating, transporting and possibly installing artwork; problem-solving and fixing broken art; sometimes even insights into how they juggle the responsibilities of their personal lives with career demands.

As far as success stories – yes, some of the artists who start off their career as an assistant rise to prominence and establish their own career – I cannot say that I have any direct information about employers giving their assistants these opportunities. A “success story” implies a meteoric rise to fame – these, much like in any career, are few and far between. However, I believe that every artist in this show is a success story – they have persevered with their own art despite spending a considerable amount of time and energy, assisting with someone else’s, they have remained true to themselves, they are dedicated enough to what they do to keep at it no matter what, and that, to me, signifies success on a different level than the kind attained by money and recognition. And work as an assistant, which provides a stable salary, more flexibility than most other employment, and, perhaps most importantly, the chance to interact with other artists on a daily basis, provides a better context for continuing to create your own art than most other forms of employment, so in a way, the “opportunity” that the employer provides to their assistant is just that: the opportunity to keep making their personal art.

Michael Meadors, Standard BearerMichael Meadors, Standard Bearer

What is your next project?

My next project is top secret – all I can say is that it involves the New York Subway system, and an art collective called Paint Anyway.

What is your WILD Wish?

That the enormously talented artists in “Behind the Curtain” get the recognition they deserve, of course!

Alexis Hilliard, Study for tideAlexis Hilliard, Study for tide

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Check out “Behind the Curtain” at Mark Miller Gallery, 92 Orchard Street, on view October 10 – November 9.

text by: Kate Messinger

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