Artists’ assistants are omnipresent in the art business. Yet, as a rule, they are all but invisible. Ever nameless they disappear from view in artists’ studios; their work is absorbed into their employers’ production and their independent creative participation in the works is subsumed by the artistic “brand” they have helped to form. However, things do seem to be changing. Not only has “Artist’s Assistant” become a recognized occupation, but assistants are starting to emerge from their anonymity and raising their profiles as artists in their own right. Hans-Jürgen Hafner sketches out the situation.
"Carroll Dunham worked for Dorothea Rock burne, Barnaby Furnas worked for Carroll Dunham, Christopher Wool worked for Joel Shapiro, Josh Smith worked for Christopher Wool, Annette Lemieux worked for David Salle, Jacob Kassay worked for Josh Smith, Jackie Saccoccio worked for Christopher Wool, Alexander Ross worked for Julian Lethbridge, Sarah Morris worked for Jeff Koons, Jennifer Rubell worked for Koons, Tony Matelli worked for Koons, Carl Fudge worked for David Reed, Matthew Weinstein worked for Ross Bleckner, Darren Bader worked for Urs Fischer, Rob Pruitt worked for Richard Artschwager, Daphne Fitzpatrick worked for Robert Gober, Robert Gober worked for Jennifer Bartlett, Banks Violette worked for Robert Gober, Margaret Lee worked for Cindy Sherman, Rirkrit Tiravanija worked for Gretchen Bender, Udomsak Krisanamis worked for Rirkrit Tiravanija."1
These days, when artists’ assistants suddenly step out of the shadows of their employers’ studios and demand recognition as autonomous players with their own projects, it is the outcome of more than just a new sense of self-worth amongst the members of a hitherto largely ignored group of workers. For art itself is undergoing a process of change where the role, the function, and the self-image of artists are all in flux. Meanwhile the conditions of production and the reception of art are increasingly geared towards the standards set by the "culture industry" and the luxury business. "Production" has never been so important. Although artists as the (often self-promoting) producers of art goods have always been players in the wider economy, the pressure to professionalize their activities is growing.
Today’s successful art producers behave more like multinational CEOs or show business celebrities. Studio doors are increasingly left ajar. Artists have learnt to open their lives and work situations up for public scrutiny and present themselves in the ever more popular format of home stories that the lifestyleconscious art, fashion, and popular press serve up to their readers (instead of actual art criticism) as the ultimate in authentic reportage – preferring to portray artists as successful entrepreneurs rather than make the effort of engaging with art. Nowadays being an artist can be just a job like so many others: a career whose components – aesthetic and social capital – have to be skillfully managed and effectively orchestrated. Not everyone is as aggressively "open" as agent provocateur and practiced self-publicist Damien Hirst, whose live feed on his homepage allows anyone to observe the work underway in his studio in rural Gloucestershire. Either "live and direct" or in fast motion videos we can watch Hirst’s team of assistants as they fabricate his works.
Of course full-scale art factories like Hirst’s, or that of Japanese superstar Takashi Murakami, each with over a hundred assistants, are the exception. Yet even in comparatively small enterprises – such as Katharina Grosse’s Berlin studio or that of American artist Julie Mehretu – management and business acumen are at least as important as the artists’ own »hand« in their works. Even in the case of an artist such as Tracey Emin, whose visibly idiosyncratic work is both intimate and exhibitionist, her studio is run with a level of calculated professionalism and "means-to-an-end" efficiency that might surprise some. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2012, her new studio – a painstakingly restored, seventeenth-century building in Spitalfields in central London, not far from her own home – has fifteen employees. In 2009, Emin, the once infamous Young British Artist known for her alcoholic excesses and scandals, commented in an interview in The Observer that her studio was just "a place to execute ideas". At that time she had four assistants, including the sculptor Steven Gontarski, her long-term expert for stitched works and textiles. By contrast, her artistic ideas – as she herself said – come to her by chance, in a swimming pool or on an aeroplane, when she is truly alone. Emin’s separation of the Taylorean production of her art by a team of employees and her own individual artistic creativity in the rewarding loneliness of a swimming pool is unlikely to obscure the fact that specialization and the division of labor have always played a part in art. A glance into the workshop of a Renaissance artist would show that behind the scenes, the processes of production and even artistic invention might be divided among various individuals, often requiring outside experts with specific skills or knowledge. Things have changed since the time of Ghiberti and Donatello. The staging of the act of creation as the achievement of a lone genius, still seen in historic photographs taken in the studios of artists such as Henry Moore, Jasper Johns, and Anselm Kiefer, has now been superseded by a younger generation of artists who pose amongst a band of happy assistants – as illustrated in Elke Buhr’s Art magazine feature on the multi-employee creative factories run by Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger, and Anselm Reyle. These images seek to prove that production is in full swing, and assure artistic quality and the statistically required output.
"Kippenberger had somehow delegated both the conceptualizing and making of this work to Krebber, all he retained for himself was the name, the controller standing in the background, laughing", observed Merlin Carpenter in a lecture at the Städelschule in 2002.
If, however, a division of labor in the conception of art and the materialization of an artistic idea has always been the case, how is it that in the past we only knew of it in isolated instances? The answer is simple: Even the most pre-packaged art goods will sell if they are shrouded in the mystery of artistic genius. Only when it came to the point of undermining this tacit agreement between artist and consumer could we discover more about how authorship was shared out between an artist and their assistants. Only then could we find out what had not been done by the artist. In the case of Martin Kippenberger’s installation Heavy Guy (1991), for instance, the original paintings, symbolically "destroyed" and discarded in garbage bins, were not done by Kippenberger but by his assistant Merlin Carpenter. And many of the objects in Kippenberger’s famous installation Peter: The Russian Position (1987) were made by Michael Krebber, who at the time explicitly did not want to be named as an "assistant" to the artist, but regarded himself Kippenberger’s "employee". While Carpenter has since described the complex relationship of artist and assistant as almost parasitic but with parasitic/appropriative reciprocity, the recent documentary Richard Deacon – In Between presents the working relationship between the English sculptor and his chief assistant Matthew Perry as the perfect symbiosis. The suggestion in the film is that rather than Perry denying himself a career of his own, he feels his own artistic aspirations fulfilled in the "shared" process of realizing Deacon’s works.
"Behind every great artist there is an assistant. Or more accurately, behind the artists most often called 'great' there are two, or twenty, or enough for a full-time accountant", wrote Graham T. Beck in The Brooklyn Rail in 2008.
Assistants – whether involved in the workshop or office, in the conception of a work or "only" in its production and quantification, whether installing exhibitions or standing in for the artist in the planning and realization process – are only in exceptional circumstances acknowledged by name. All credit for the work still goes to the artist. Isn’t it then naïve to still ask who actually made the art? The fact that analyses of the art world are again focussing more and more on its production processes and distribution methods indicate that there is a change underway. And this fits with the new phenomenon of the assistant taking the stage as a player in their own right and increasingly becoming the subject of art-historical or journalistic interest – as in the case of the many assistants involved in the "Kippenberger project", from Carpenter to Ulrich Strothjohann and Johannes Wohnseifer. At the same time, there is still a considerable degree of uncertainty on all sides, as the research for this text confirmed. Assistantships are still not standard issue on official resumes, because although they can crucially influence an artist’s career, and are increasingly being used with deliberation, many artists who are active in their own right don’t want to be publicly associated with their employers. Clearly they are keen to distinguish their own work from that of their (more celebrated) bosses. The situation today is not so very different to the somewhat disillusioned conclusion drawn by the sculptor and writer Wade Saunders in 1993, following his exploration of this topic through interviews and questionnaires: "It used to be that writers wouldn’t work as editors, painters wouldn’t do commercial illustration and sculptors wouldn’t work as industrial designers for fear of misspending their creative energy. Now young artists seek jobs in their own discipline, hoping to learn while they earn. They may feel that success in today’s art world hinges as much on who you know as on what you do." At the same time it is still very much the exception when artists such as Vito Acconci or Olafur Eliasson (sometimes) not only reveal the names, but also the exact nature of the contribution of all those involved in a particular project. Perhaps significantly, the transdisciplinary practices of both these artists go far beyond the bounds of traditional art. And yet, there is no denying the fact that artist’s assistant has become a recognized "occupation" specific to this field, even if in most cases it still marks a precarious transitional stage in the concerned individual’s career – particularly in the context of the changing structures in art today.
"Nam June Paik didn’t even know how to turn on a TV."
There is much evidence to suggest that these structural changes first started to emerge in the late 70s. Writer Anthony Haden-Guest remarked on a group of aspiring artists in New York at that time, known as "the assistants". And it was true: the young Robert Gober, Jack Goldstein, Jeff Koons, Annette Lemieux, Robert Longo, David Salle, and Christopher Wool – soon to become seasoned employers in their own right – all took their first steps in the art world as assistants to leading artists and strategically (in Jack Goldstein’s case aggressively and publicly) found ways to utilize that experience. Having already pioneered the division of labor in the 70s while working with professional film crews, editors, and animal trainers, in the 80s Goldstein began to use assistants in the realization of his voluminous production of large-format paintings. Goldstein (who had himself been assistant to Nam June Paik and Ed by the abstract painter Pat Steir), an ambitious and skilled air-brush artist who was responsible for the technical perfection and cool brilliance of Goldstein’s paintings, which were conceived as industrial productions, made from press images, and even signed by an assistant wielding a stamp. While Bickerton soon became a star of Neo-Geo, Goldstein’s sales collapsed. Having moved from gallery to gallery, in the mid-90s, still only in his early fifties and suffering from financial, physical, and mental burnout, Goldstein withdrew from the art world. Oddly enough, in the early years of that decade, when easily quantifiable production principles (albeit with a hand-made look) were status quo for big-name artists such Julian Schnabel, Goldstein’s paintings were regarded as too conceptual, artificial, and consumerist. And it was none other than notorious collector-tycoon Charles Saatchi who complained that there was too little of Goldstein’s own hand in his works.
Today even conservative collectors would find a comment of this kind grotesque. A whole generation of young, "hip" artists such as Darren Bader (who worked for Urs Fischer), Kerstin Brätsch (Seth Price), André Butzer (Albert Oehlen), Nathan Hylden (Christopher Wool), Jacob Kassay (Josh Smith), Gedi Sibony (Chuck Close), and Lucien Smith (Dan Colen) clearly found ways to treat their work as assistants not merely as a making a living or a paid apprenticeship. Many developed ways to profit symbolically from their time as assistants – witness Darren Bader who now contributes to exhibition catalogues as the official interpreter of his former employer’s work and – outclassing any art historians or critics trying to do the same thing – brings to bear his own experience of the technical and conceptual nature of Fischer’s work in his "studio chats". Elsewhere former bosses and assistants join forces and take delight in upsetting old hierarchies – for example, in the Photoshop pastiches made by Christopher Wool and his onetime assistant Josh Smith for their artists’ book can your monkey do the dog (2007), which has choicely been described as an improvisation "for four hands". For both artists, reproduction is of course not just an artistic technique, but an essential feature of their work, with Smith proving to be a more than adept pupil who takes the reproduction techniques Wool has cultivated in the medium of painting and mixes them with vigorous self-promotion in his own paintings. While Wool and Smith are a readily marketable duo, it is still the exception for an artistic work to appear to be a satisfactorily "joint effort", as in the symbiosis achieved by Richard Deacon and Matthew Perry. Accordingly, the new self-confidence of artists’ assistants seems likely, if anything, to stabilize traditional power-relationships, as long as it does not sow the seeds of fundamental doubt in the concept of authorship and originality. Nevertheless, this also shows how fluid the roles and functions of players in the art world can be today. And yet, this in turn only poses a much more important question: If it no longer matters who creates art, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out what actually constitutes art today?
1) Jerry Saltz, “Help Jerry Saltz Build an Art Family Tree”, in: www.vulture.com/2011/06/help_jerry_saltz_build_an_art.html
2) Richard Hertz (ed.), Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, Minneola Press, Ojai/California 2003.
Translated by Fiona Elliott
Hans-Jürgen Hafner is director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen