PRINT October 2007



IN 1980 I WANTED a closer relationship to the sun, and to get that I decided to make a gold field. I found an engineer at Engelhard Precious Metals in Massachusetts who helped me figure out how to produce a gold mat of four by five feet. It needed to be as thin as possible. It needed to hold together as an object, and it needed to be one hundred percent pure gold. This meant no glue. We came up with a thickness of six ten-thousandths of an inch, which is considerably thinner than a human hair. I was happy about this because it made the object pretty much all surface. We figured out that the gold had to be specially annealed (a cooling process that makes the metal softer and stress-free) so that when it was hammered flat it would stick to itself (“compression welding”). I received a three-inch-wide roll of gold via FedEx, which was supposed to be something like seventy feet long but had shrunk in the mail, so I was short of what I needed. But once I had enough material, the gold mat was welded in the studio.

Financing the piece was the most difficult part. A friend of mine put me in touch with a guy named Vic who hired me to work in an extremely well-paid job. The drawback was that the job was seriously shady. Nevertheless, I went to work with Cloud, which wasn’t his real name. (I never found out what his real name was.) Cloud was raising money for a sex change. Vic referred to him as “it.” Cloud and I worked through the night on twenty-four-hour shifts. I walked away less than six months later with enough cash to produce a gold field.


FABRICATION DOESN’T ALWAYS PROCEED with the factory precision that people imagine. In 1995 I set out to build three travel trailers from the ground up—but no fabricator was willing to take on the job. My mom finally found Callen Camper Co. when she spotted their trailer yard off Highway 8 in El Cajon, California. They are a family outfit specializing in custom “toy box” trailers for people to haul quad and dirt bikes to the dunes at Glamis for weekend off-roading. Their office has a huge baseball-hat collection hanging from the rafters as well as a lot of hunting memorabilia. They also make trailers similar to regular house trailers but with ramps at the end that winch down so that the owners can load ATVs between the sofas, kitchenette, and beds. Callen amiably told my mom that they would build trailers for her daughter who was an artist in New York. They later told me that they had no idea what that meant.

In the art world there is generally a consensus that the artist is right, even when they are wrong. I’ve noticed that basically what today’s artists do is make decisions that other people carry out. But there was none of that at Callen. Control had to be (awkwardly) wrested from them at every stage of production. Eventually I ended up staying at a $30 motel across the street to obsessively monitor that all my specs were carried out. No smoked windows (unless I had asked for them). No corrugated metal. I wanted flat metal, which they disagreed with because it might get dinged. Turns out they were right. (I learned a lot from them, and vastly revised some of my opinions about good taste.) Richard, who did all the interior finishing, decided to surprise me with some extra-fancy router work on the Yard Yacht I made for Andy Stillpass, in spite of the simple half-inch round over I had specified—but by the time I found out, it was too late.

Over the years, I worked with Callen Campers to build three twelve-foot Travel Trailer Units, two twenty-foot Yard Yachts, and ten Escape Vehicles. I have always seen the production of these works as the result of an intense social engagement. The folks at Callen were always my first audience, and conversations with them often made me question my own role as an artist, as well as the social worth of art in general.


WHEN I STARTED studying art in Düsseldorf at the end of the 1970s, I wanted to transform myself into a small manufacturing company. Many of my fellow students were shocked when I announced that I wanted to print pictures and mass-produce sculptures and sell the resulting works in large numbers. The inspiration came from my grandfathers—one of whom was a salesman for a chocolate factory; the other, of pencils—as well as from Joseph Beuys and his multiples, along with Fritz Schwegler, Gerhard Richter, and Sigmar Polke, who were all suspicious of egomaniacal art that claimed to express artistic genius. Also, at the time I was financing my studies with a job in a factory, which was another major inspiration.

In fact, my studio does seem to have become a kind of company, where over the past twenty-five years many series of three- and, more recently, two-dimensional artworks have been manufactured—partly with the help of industrial suppliers but also often made by my assistants by hand. In such a situation, it is important to avoid becoming a market-driven, calculating, cynical money machine. The art produced has to be good art, and that still has something to do with the poetic existence of the artist. Like the products I make, the idea of the company should tread the fine line between image and reality.


IN 1998 I built a thirty-foot-long model of New York’s Hell Gate Bridge out of vintage Mysto Type 1 Erector parts. One of the parts I used, which I found to be extremely beautiful, was produced between 1913 and 1923. To make the bridge, I purchased so many of these parts that they became scarce in the Erector collector’s market and their price started to escalate dramatically. Because the part is stamped out of mild steel, it is very susceptible to moisture and corrosion, so in 2001 I collaborated with Fred Hoffman Fine Art to fabricate dies to stamp out a replica of the part in stainless steel. I produced a series of bridges with these stainless steel parts, the most spectacular being Curved Bridge, 2003, which is thirty feet long and stretches the physical limits of the Erector building system. I am currently building a sixty-five-foot-high skyscraper with this same specialized part. The skyscraper will consume approximately one million parts and will take a staff of twenty-five people thirteen months to build. For the skyscraper and the bridges I do my own intuitive engineering. The stainless steel is milled in the United States; the stamping and electro-polishing are done in Los Angeles County; and the sculptures are assembled in my studio—also in LA County—under my direct supervision.


AN ARTWORK CONSISTS of the formulation of an idea, which has generally been materialized as a painting, a sculpture, a video, a text, or some such that conveys the message to the viewer. Today, an artist’s conception of a work is more intimately related to mass production and to industrial and scientific developments, so that the method of making a work not only conveys the concept but is itself a part of it.

In my own practice, I always think of an artwork not just as the final product but also as the whole process of how it was developed and handled along the way. The people who are involved in making a work contribute to its character. Materials, labor, and financial aspects also strongly influence a work and add meaning to it. In that sense, a new method or technology for making things opens up not only practical possibilities but also new modes of expression and understanding.

Traditionally the artist was a kind of craftsman, but this is no longer necessary. Now the artist acts more as someone who comes up with an idea, directs the production of a work, and makes judgments. Such an approach to artmaking frees the artist from having to master particular skills and introduces novel materials and techniques—along with the meanings behind them—into the so-called art world. This points to a radical change in the condition of both art and artists. As a consequence, artists have to learn how to express their ideas through the process rather than through the skills that create a particular result.


I ENJOY COLLABORATION with other artists and fabricators and printers and designers because I like transgressional boundaries, leaky distinctions, dualisms, fractured identities, monstrosity, and perversity. I like contamination. I like miscegenation.

I don’t think it’s useful now to see industrial or information culture as monolithic. I’d rather see them as polyphonic with unconscious voices, which may be at odds with one another. If I am attentive to these voices, perhaps I can collaborate with them to create something almost new.


THESE NINE UNIQUE porcelain reproductions of different styles of monobloc resin chairs were handmade by craftspeople at the Jiao Zhi Studio in Xiamen, China. How and where they were made is important to the meaning of the work in several ways, most obviously in the contrast with the manufacturing process of the original mass-produced resin chairs, which are made by injection molding. There is no patent or copyright on this process or on the design of most such chairs. The resin chair is probably the most democratic and universal piece of furniture, found in nearly every country in the world.

Many American and European early modernist designers researched single-material or monobloc furniture. Ironically, the resin chair might be the fulfillment of the modernist dream of modular, single-material, industrially manufactured, cheap, and widely available objects. It is also indicative of globalization and the spread of (Euro-American) postnationalist capitalism: Resin chairs can easily be manufactured in the country with the cheapest labor and/or the most advantageous business climate, and then shipped for sale anywhere. This system, geared toward maximum profit, usually through maximum exploitation, might be seen as another type of fulfillment of Western modernism.

Producing a ceramic copy of a chair transforms the original into a work of art, allowing the viewer to make distinctions between them. These comparisons might extend to the economic, political, and aesthetic systems in which both the resin chair and the artwork derived from it are embedded. Western standards of taste obviously assign very little aesthetic value to the resin chair, but by handcrafting it and rendering it as a unique artwork, its functionalism and corresponding low aesthetic value are brought into conflict with the value-added status of the artwork.

The titles of the porcelain chairs include the names of all the workers involved in their construction to ensure that this information will never be lost. Foregrounding the Chinese fabricators encourages more comparisons: Globalized production has spread mass-produced Chinese goods throughout the West, where they are often stereotyped as being substandard, but the aesthetic value of these porcelain chairs rests on the fact that they are Chinese goods, conceptually and physically, as well as, of course, on them being attributed to a recognized American artist. Through these various comparisons, the chairs’ relationships to modernism and design, to globalization and trade, and to systems of aesthetic value and cultural capital come into focus.


THE FIRST TIME I used fabricators was in 1992 for House, a life-size concrete cast of an actual house. They weren’t exactly fabricators but a group of people including administrators from Artangel, engineers, concrete sprayers, laborers, and my very engaged assistants. It was a team effort, 100 percent. To some degree, I have continued to work this way for the past fourteen years with different fabricators in Europe and the US. In London, I had a great team of studio assistants, who have now set up their own business, OPS (Other People’s Sculpture). I still regularly work with them.

Pushing materials to their limits involves leaps of faith combined with creative thought. This approach can cause problems with some of the more technical fabricators. I think I am quite exacting to work with and tend to be very controlling about how my sculptures should look, which influences how they can be made. I have never wanted any kind of artistic input from fabricators. I only use them as a means to make my artistic vision happen.

At the moment, I work with one studio assistant, predominantly making my own work, with my own hands. My studio practice has once again become an intimate process, as it was in the early 1990s, when I simply worked alone.


IN STARTING ONE’S LIFE as an artist there can be a point in time when you feel you know what has happened in the immediate past and, maybe, also in a more distant past, and you feel you know what your contemporaries are doing. You are poised, as it were, in a kind of awareness of the situation you’re in, and of the time you’re in. In painting, it seemed to me that the qualities that in the past had been so wonderfully used in the service of rendering likeness, such as the rich variety of handling, the viscosity, the thickness and thinness of the medium, no longer seemed essential. The real purpose of painting now was to convey sensations. As making moved further and further away from trying to master external reality, it seemed to me inevitable that this new content should be directly expressed. This meant laying my own hands aside and asking someone else to paint the work out. It didn’t need to be one particular person; it could be anybody, anybody whom I had trained to apply paint without emphasis and with no trace of handling.

The thing that I chiefly ask of my assistants is that they don’t tell me what they think: I don’t want their views. Being sensitive, they know quite well that when one is in any kind of uncertainty, as one inevitably is when working, one is extremely open to suggestion, and so can easily find oneself responding to things that one actually doesn’t want to respond to. Their tolerance has been crucial. Also crucial is the fact that they help me establish distance. The way I work means that I am, inevitably, my own spectator. Since the spectator who looks at my work is part of the work itself, it helps very greatly to be as objective as possible. For me, distance can often be established simply by going into another studio, or by an interval of time, or by the detachment that results from not having painted out a big cartoon myself. Nevertheless, I want my works to be perceived as “made,” I like them to be well made, and I never want any kind of mechanical look. The people who help me enjoy the process of making the paintings. Even though I don’t think it’s true, one of them once said, “We do the nice part, you do the hard work.” Good friends, they have helped in endless ways. Above all, the freedom that they make possible has made me sharpen my focus. Paring away so many of the little jobs, props, and sidetracks, I was left with very, very stark facts. I was pushed into tight corners—which was demanding but good.

—As told to Lynne Cooke


MY INSTALLATIONS REQUIRE the expertise of people from very different backgrounds, which has been inspiring on many levels. It is crucial for me to interact with people who are not involved in the art world, although it has led to some humorous misunderstandings and has sometimes been stressful—try telling a guy at a building supply company what you need without his explaining to you, a young lady, why you need this or that instead. Or, “Hey, Mark, the lady here needs a very long screw . . .” The first time I installed Wallfuckin’, 1995, the entire construction crew was staring in ecstasy at the video of the naked woman masturbating on the wall, and for a moment I thought about making the work accessible only to women.

When I covered the floor of the Vienna Secession with drywall for Plastered, 1998, the Austrian company that donated the material sent a truck full of the wrong panels. This was after months of communication, during which they had confirmed the number, size, and color of the materials I needed, but still they delivered a thousand square meters of brown panels, no doubt thinking that they were just right for putting on the floor—after all, what do women artists know about construction? But I had them drive back and bring me the gray panels I had ordered.

The construction workers I asked to change a Sol LeWitt cube into Das Eismeer by Caspar David Friedrich (for Minimal Romantik, at the 2005 Venice Biennale) were at first irritated by the lack of guidance from my side, but then they wanted simply to make something “beautiful.” It’s always interesting to discover what people outside the art world think art is or should look like. This goes for architects, construction workers, metalworkers, advertising agents, actors, filmmakers, and sex-toy retailers: Their comments and suggestions are normally quite special compared with those of art-world veterans.

Over the past few years I have established relationships with a few industrial materials companies and with two small businesses in Berlin that specialize in the production and installation of art. I also produce works in the studio with assistants. Whichever the case, I follow the fabrication process from beginning to end. I am quite a control freak, and I can have long discussions over the smallest screw. Sometimes there is really nothing more hard-core to talk about.


HAVING ASSISTANTS IS HORRIBLE. You need a certain intimacy to operate, but the people who work for you want to know what to do, and some days you just don’t know what that is. They expect things from you: They want to be successful, or just want a job, or think you’re stupid. You’re running a small business, which takes a lot of energy. Hiring people outside the studio isn’t the same. They work; they have a place; they’re fulfilled with what they do. I usually work with old friends, and because we have a history, we can do things very simply. You don’t start from scratch. The person who builds my robotic parts was a graphic designer who inherited a precision ruler company from his grandfather. We don’t need to talk much, because we have equal standards. Some of my pieces I can order over the phone.

At the moment, I’m having a huge custom-made printer built, because I can’t find one that does what I want. I’m not an engineer or a programmer, so I have to work with other people. There’s a place that makes inks especially for me, and another that tests the samples by blasting them with UV light. Artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre opened up a new language by taking things from industry. But I don’t necessarily want to talk in that language; I’m not a purist in that sense. The high-tech work runs parallel to doing something very crappy in the studio. I don’t think it’s necessary to decide between one and the other anymore. Sometimes it’s good to have the help of people who aren’t specialized, because I’m not specialized either, so you figure it out together. It can be useful to be misled by technical problems. A dilettante approach can leave more open than mastery. You can kill a work with production.

There’s a laziness about Andre that I really like. In his early sculptures, it looks like he started and then got too tired to make a Brancusi. He just attacks a material, whether he’s cutting blocks of wood or extruding ceramic mounds. It’s vulgar; it’s direct; you just put it there. It’s very different from “making” something. Once Andre started stacking things, he didn’t even have to make a cut. You take these materials and you don’t have to force them into a form. When I made my piece for the 2006 Whitney Biennial, I thought about it for a long time and then just took two branches off a bush. My side took thirty minutes, and then other people made the cast and the motor. The production doesn’t matter in terms of craft or who does what. You do what you do; you get what you need; you do what you need. It’s kind of the same when I pick up the phone.