Artists' little helpers: thoughts on apprenticeship

 Matisse, La Danse mural

Donald Judd, Untitled (for Susan Buckwalter), galvanized and aluminum.

(I'd be very interested in any comments on these thoughts...)

It has been a tradition of artists for centuries now, particularly Western artists, to have numerous assistants (in earlier parlance, apprentices). In exchange for experience, remuneration and perhaps some cachet, they work for these well-established artists, doing menial and preparatory tasks: canvas preparation, paint mixing, layout drawing or painting, fabrication, and so on. In the modern era (1890s until about 1990s), this relationship morphed more into the assistant category than apprentice: though many of the assistants undoubtedly went on (and still do) to further their own careers through connections they made, or references found through their “masters”, it wasn’t necessarily as much a given as it would have been under the earlier definition of “apprentice”. There the younger artists were part of a more rigid and established pattern of master and trainee, not unlike the trade guilds of medieval Europe, and likely were more subject to the system’s parameters, not to their own desires or whims as to when hanging out their own shingle was finally possible: following the system was mandatory to be accepted as a serious artist in the market (then largely ecclesiastical).

Here are two interesting aberrations of the general modernist model, which might be worth investigating in light of the older model of apprentice: Henri Matisse and Donald Judd.
Matisse, in La Danse, his canvas-cum-mural commissioned in the early 1920s by Dr. Barnes of Pennsylvania, was already laying the groundwork for his famous, late-career cut-paper works. The nearly forty-foot long mural incorporates large areas of color, depicting frolicking grey female figures against a backdrop of pink, blue and black. Spending time with the mural it becomes obvious that, along each edge of the positive shapes, there seems to be a painted, undulating band or border, in a slightly different value and sheen than that of the larger field of color, that visually readjusts, balances and cleans up the edges of those shapes. There are also similar bands along the inside of the negative shapes. This toys with one’s perception of the negatives and positives: they seemingly float upon each other, like paper on a puddle, soaking in water at intervals, creating a set of complex, nuanced and mutable planes. Beyond simple description, however, this quality points to one of the many interesting anecdotes about this work: that Matisse hired a house-painter, presumably in Nice, where the studio for painting La Danse was situated, to paint in the very large areas of solid color. Matisse afterwards then likely applied those aforementioned “bands” which tidy-up – and edit compositional balance, as can be seen by the many line and edge adjustments – the areas the house painter covered. Was this done by Matisse as a time-saver; was he perhaps running past schedule? Or did he simply not feel the need to individually and directly apply every drop of paint onto a mural which would carry his name? This is not a very Modernist concept; modern expression at its height was so much about the individual’s expression, created by that very same individual; it wasn’t until more postmodern times when the direct creation of work and manipulation of material as an unbroken line from the individual’s idea was questioned, and became somewhat unnecessary, immaterial or even pejorative (such as in Donald Judd, who we’ll discuss next). Could this gesture of using a workman’s hand in a fine art application be of the same seminal token as much of Matisse’s artistic decisions? Or was it simply out of necessity…or both? And more importantly, could that humble (station; we don’t know his personality) house painter be considered the missing link between the ancient idea of “apprentice”, and the postmodern idea of the “hired tradesperson”, such as Judd and others used?

Donald Judd was a postmodernist artist of what is sometimes called the Minimalist school, and that title has much to do with our questions of “individuality” and “authorship” of an artwork. Minimalists became known for actively and deliberately divorcing the material creation of their work from the concept or idea. This would often take the form of farming out the fabrication of their sculpture and materials to workmen and craftspeople of the common variety: for Judd, this sometimes meant HVAC contractors, metalworkers and carpenters, who would fabricate his work for him according to his specifications and drawings. Artists have been doing this, of a sort, for generations, in the form of having other more specifically-trained artisans, such as bronze casters or lithographers, carry part of a project to completion that the author/artist was not well-versed in (or not interested in). That is not exactly what we speak of here: this is different in that it is (a) using skilled workers, but from outside the art “world”, and (b) using labor which is not personally invested in finding their own way, and making a name in the same milieu as the hiring or “master” artist. This is the major reason why Matisse’s use of a house painter to apply the actual paint surface of a painting is so interesting; a completely ancient and a completely postmodern gesture, all at once.

A good example of a Judd work that was fabricated by skilled tradesmen is one of his wall pieces of galvanized steel: not surprisingly, the same material used to make HVAC ductwork (the one I know personally is in a private collection in Philadelphia). The piece is expertly made – more expertly than perhaps Judd himself could have accomplished – but has its aberrations as any handmade object does. Was Judd revolutionizing the idea of an “assistant” for the postmodern era (that of an aesthetically disinterested tradesperson), or was he simply riffing off an idea begun quietly by Matisse?

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