From Tara Donovan to Jeff Koons, many of today’s art stars never lay a finger on their own art. Haniya Rae spoke with some of the laborers working in “factories” underneath these well-known artists.
At Tara Donovan’s studio, an acquaintance of mine used to toil over the well-known artist’s sculptures, push-pinning thousands of push-pins in an assembly line of art laborers to fabricate one of Donovan’s massive, generative sculptures. Produced by her minions, the sculptures are composed of everyday materials and often fill entire gallery spaces.
One summer afternoon, I had asked this friend of mine, “…but what is it that you do?” Although I had graduated from an art school myself, I was oblivious as to what working for a well-known artist actually entailed. It never occurred to me that becoming an art minion was a way to make rent. Sure, I’d helped out teachers and other, not-so-well-known artists, but I was always helping out as a friend, and payment was usually a nice lunch. To be a professional studio assistant is to devote a large portion of one’s life to someone else’s creative practice.
Exceptionally profitable contemporary artists often have studios full of employees to help manage both the technical and logistical aspects of producing and displaying their work worldwide. Large art studios are nothing new; from Rubens to Da Vinci, prosperous artists hired apprentices and studio assistants long before the Warhol factory became a sensation and set the tone of productivity for everything since. Warhol brought the role of the “businessman artist”—an artist who fully commodifies his or her work so that it can bought and sold globally for optimal profit—to the forefront of contemporary art practice. In his book After Art, art historian David Joselit makes a claim that Warhol was the first artist to bring the particularly American logic of optimized industrial productivity into the studio.
An artist’s factory generally consists of a group of hired workers (studio assistants) attempting to streamline an artistic process. Many of these processes are automated, and many artists working with extreme scales, minute details, or prolific outputs never lay a hand on the art itself. Art products are scaled according to the venue, whether they’re selling at auctions or galleries or to very wealthy collectors. Apprentices and studio assistants are often young artists eager to gain experience under the wing of a well-established name, and these positions are framed as a form of paying dues: help the esteemed artist with his or her work to be granted gallerist connections and trickle-down fame in return. Artist’s assistants are often asked to live monastic lives, surviving with the hope that each gig might be their big break.
After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2010, a young artist named Spenser Agoston traveled to South Korea determined to network with well-known artists and potentially land his work in a few international shows. Agoston currently spends his working hours as the assistant to Lee Yongbaek, a multidisciplinary artist in Gimpo, near Seoul. He isn’t paid much, though he doesn’t have to worry about food or rent, and spends most days of the week in the South Korean countryside at Yongbaek’s residence. “I’m treating my time here as graduate school,” he explains. “I’m reading constantly and studying Korean while trying to make art and failing horribly.”
Before finding Lee Yongbaek, Agoston worked underneath Lee Jae-Hyo, who also works in sculpture. Yongbaek is represented by Arario Gallery, a large contemporary Korean establishment with branches in Seoul, Beijing, and New York. His art is extremely conceptual and—as our young artist friend insists—derived in part from conversations he has with Agoston. Once an idea is finalized, Agoston materializes these abstractions by beginning work on the actual sculpture. Two other assistants aid with the artist’s paintings, which are generally hyper-realistic—depicting objects very well rendered but not photorealistic, and often at a scale greater than life, like in the painting Plastic Fish. Yongbaek’s work ranges from clothing-as-sculpture to oil painting and video, to conceptual sculpture made with humanoid mannequins. Depending on the size and scale of the work, Yongbaek might bring in past assistants to consummate the completion of a piece. Selling points for festivals can range from the upper tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars.
Pieta: Self-Hatred by Lee Yongbaek for the Venice Art Biennale 2011
Image via designboom
Agoston, an American fluent only in English, communicates regularly with the artist, who speaks Korean and German. “I like the language tension,” Agoston says, “[Youngbaek] is indifferent about it.” Among Agoston’s troubles living in a faraway country are miscommunication and loneliness, but he thinks that working as Baek’s assistant makes up for it. “My boss is more of a patron than a boss. He introduces me to his art family and pushes me to make work. He wants me to live up to my promise.” Agoston is allowed a generous amount of free time to pursue his own goals while working for Yong-Baek, and when he is working directly with the artist, much of the work is talking and thinking towards an upcoming show next September.For some young art assistants, the experience isn’t as fulfilling.“It was never acknowledged and never talked about,” says one such assistant, who worked underneath contemporary art superstar Jeff Koons. “It was an unspoken, mutual understanding [that it was a bad work environment].” Koons’ studio requires that assistants sign confidentiality agreements protecting both the artist’s personal privacy and the particularities of their studio practices, so this assistant spoke anonymously. Working for the artist wasn’t necessarily a plan, but seemed to make sense for the young artist’s skill set. “I needed a job, and they were looking for someone with a painting portfolio. I met someone in the art world through artist circles, and applied that way.”
Koons’ studio employs a large range of people at varying skill levels and ages to perform very different tasks. The former studio assistant explains, “Most of the people that were there had MFAs already. A lot of them embrace formalist, 18th-19th century painting.” There was an “avant-garde crowd” among a spectrum of workers ranging from their mid-twenties to those nearing retirement, and “people who don’t paint at all, [who] just treat working there like a job.” When asked whether the assistants aspired to a slice of Koons-level success in the art world, the assistant replied, “Some people put their work in group shows, but no one is really going anywhere.”
For the budding artist at Jeff Koons’ studio, there was nothing glamorous or entirely useful. Every day, (s)he stippled for seventeen dollars an hour. “Stenciling originally made its debut on paintings that had dotted imagery,” the former assistant explains. “Using a plotter to feed vinyl through, we would print patterns of dots on sheets the size of tables. We would then apply the vinyl onto the painting, and with oil paint, stipple the paint by hand.” Much like with formally skilled trades like carpentry and pottery, an entire painting can now be completed with minimal human touch. “Vinyl stippling has now almost fully replaced the process of painting itself entirely,” my informant tells me. “They can now take a photorealistic image, break it down into hundreds to thousands of layers on the computer, then proceed to print a vinyl sheet with tens of thousands of minuscule specs to be stippled. Just imagine the most painstaking way of printing an image on a surface. There is no more need for skilled painters anymore.”
As with most other workers in the field, studio assistants make an entry-level salary for working with Koons. However, his former employee explains, “Jeff Koons doesn’t fund his studio with his own sales. If Jeff makes a set of work, he’ll keep one of every X amount he sells each year. He gets a cut from everything they sell, and keeps one for himself to increase his capital.” Most of Koons’ studio is backed by investors, who make a profit each time a piece of work sells.
“In 2007, Jeff had a painting show at the Gagosian Gallery in London. As a studio, we finished 25 large-scale paintings. It was really a brutal year,” the assistant recalls, describing the hours of factory labor, the ongoing, repetitive motions. For some time, it seemed like Koons’ studio could only grow. “But ever since then,” the former assistant tells me, “he hasn’t sold as many paintings. I don’t know how reflective that is of the market.”
It’s fanciful to think that an artist like Jeff Koons would ever have trouble generating enough capital to sustain their factory model for art production. The factory allows artists’ brands to expand globally through the sheer volume of work it can generate, scaling production up and down according to the demands of the market. Artistic processes will continue to be further automated, where software and machines will eventually take over jobs currently performed by trade laborers. And while physical production will require less and less manual intervention from artists and their assistants, perhaps a new model for artistic labor has begun to coalesce. As with the case of the assistant Agoston, the artist-employee relationship has the opportunity to become a continual education for both involved, whether or not the employee ever receives proper credit. In this case the art minion ceases to be a minion, and becomes, for the artist, a second brain.
Illustration by Nathaniel Flagg