PRINT October 2007


GLANCING THROUGH AN ENTRYWAY at Carlson & Co.—unmarked, save for a Warning: Eye Protection Required sign—was like peering through a Carrollian looking glass. Inside and to the right were jumpsuited workers hovering over an iridescent plinth worthy of Stanley Kubrick. To the left loomed a plaster model of a Play-Doh pile scaled to mammoth proportions. Straight ahead was a tentacular cluster of Tyvek-and-foam-tipped steel prongs. And this was just the foreground of an immense space, a forty-thousand-square-foot fun-house reflection of the lugubrious Pepsi-Cola bottling plant that sits across the street from it in San Fernando, California. Carlson & Co. is, of course, the eminent art fabrication and engineering firm that has extended—even exploded beyond recognition—the legacy of industrial fabrication in postwar art. That Carlson is so obviously thriving suggests that, long after the aesthetics of administration, the aesthetics of production shows no signs of abating: Making becomes a field of action in which services, media, technologies, and relations are never merely given or ready-made but are fair game for intervention (even when this agitation is behind the scenes).

Carlson & Co. is at once venerable and abstruse, its output plainly visible yet often sublated and anonymous, regardless of the company’s involvement in the production of a startling range of high-profile artworks. Indeed, many will recognize the polished plinth I saw as a John McCracken (being readied last spring for installation at Documenta 12) and the ten-foot-high Play-Doh form (slated for realization in rotationally molded polyethylene) as an entry in Jeff Koons’s “Celebration” series. Few, however, will know that the cagelike steel structure was a sophisticated crating system developed expressly for the transpacific transport of Charles Ray’s Hinoki, 2007, a painstaking rendition of a hollow tree trunk in hand-carved Japanese cypress. Carlson discreetly lies at the nexus of all these projects. If, as I stood at the plant’s threshold on my visit last May, I had continued looking into the space, I would have discovered the trappings of a vertically integrated network—machines, manpower, and materials—that has played a role in everything from producing Ellsworth Kelly’s pristine surfaces to developing Doug Aitken’s kinetic mirrors to fabricating, delivering, and installing Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Pop monuments.

But I was at the wrong entrance. No sooner had I peeked inside than someone redirected me through another door, into an airy suite of offices lined with Breuer chairs and flat-screen Macs—a world apart from and yet completely aligned with the hangarlike warehouse alongside it. Carlson has made a business out of this hybrid existence since 1971, functioning as a conduit between artists and “industry” and putting at their service a multifarious array that now includes subcontractors in computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and robotics as well as foundries. An in-house staff of eighty-five traffics in project management and digital design no less than in painting and sanding. What to make of this curious collusion of material and immaterial economies and its mooring in the art world?

It would be a mistake to conceive of the artist’s relationship with Carlson as a high-tech update on the relationship between, say, Rodin and Rudier’s foundry. Nor would it be accurate to think of Carlson’s services as completely detached outsourcing, to see the firm as a one-stop shop akin to the sign factory László Moholy-Nagy engaged to produce his “telephone paintings” of 1922 (or even to the fabricators on standby to participate in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s aborted “Art by Telephone” exhibition in Chicago in 1969). For Carlson bends both the authorial claims of the traditional studio and the subversion of the conceptualist gesture into a kind of post-Fordist pragmatism. To get the job done, the firm will work closely with artists and yet also disperse activity among assorted vendors. Far from merely applying prescribed techniques (such as sand-casting), its staff will solve novel engineering and organizational problems with both patentworthy and outmoded or discarded technologies. It is in this sense, too, that the impulse that continues to draw artists to Carlson diverges from the technophilia of postwar sculptural production—what in 1966 Dan Flavin cantankerously called a “scented romance in fiberglass or anodized aluminum or neon light or the very latest advance in Canal Street pyrotechnology.”1 In fact, this 1960s dalliance was never quite so straightforward in the first place, and its latent tensions continue to surface. Industrial fabrication, rife with contradictions that clearly haunted Flavin, offered no easy answer to questions of noncomposition, authorship, alienated labor, or administration. Fabrication was never simply prefabrication.

Contrary to near-mythical accounts of artists employing industrial manufacturing at arm’s length—the (largely false) story of Donald Judd blindly ordering boxes from Bernstein Brothers is only the most famous example—the disconnect between conception and realization has rarely been total, never so archly aloof as it might first appear. Crucial disturbances persist in the lag between thinking and making. And as that delay has only grown more elastic and complex, industrial fabrication is now hardly recognizable in its breadth. Plunged into a murky postindustrial bathwater, it is a rubric that currently encompasses both the crude and the custom, both the serial production of multiples and the highly circumscribed, often absurdly expensive one-off work of art. It is the logic of clumsy tinkering and perfect gloss, of the hand-wrought and the algorithmic. It is a mode of working that stretches to unexpected artists, so widespread as to be invisible. Besides utilizing the likes of Carlson or the London-based fabrication and design firm Mike Smith Studio, artists have armed themselves with their own formidable fabrication and research facilities (Koons, Takashi Murakami, Olafur Eliasson) and developed long-standing relationships with industry (Richard Serra with Bethlehem Steel and now the German firm Pickhan). Artists may go to foundries such as Polich Tallix in upstate New York; they may take part in the explosion of low-price-point multiples or utilize globalized outsourcing facilitated by dealers and even collectors. Attention to the history of these mutinous “post-studio” conditions is hardly new—from Caroline A. Jones’s pioneering study of Stella, Warhol, and Smithson to the critical research of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, James Meyer, and Helen Molesworth. But there are lesser-known scenes of the crime that bear scrutiny, and if we are to understand the full implications of fabrication and its uncanny persistence, we must trace the activity that has transpired there, charting a minor history of these sites.

OVERTURES TO INDUSTRIAL FABRICATION during the early ’60s gave and took in equal measure. For the factory setting of presses and mills was rarely one of completely de-skilled banality, functionalist transaction, or unbridled machismo. Industrial fabrication often required dexterous tit-for-tat negotiation. Many of the companies that agreed to work with artists were custom metal fabricators like the legendary Treitel-Gratz Co., Inc., a family business in Manhattan (now Gratz Industries, in Long Island City since 1968) that prided itself on close collaboration. This entailed parrying on both sides. “Sometimes, it can’t be done,” Bill Gratz said in 1989, recalling the falling-out his father, Frank, had with Frank Lloyd Wright over chair designs for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum cafeteria. Wright had insisted on two cones set vertically point to point. “There was no way you could make it strong enough,” Gratz said. “But [Wright] thought he was God. You couldn’t discuss things with him.”2

When the likes of Judd, Barnett Newman, or Sol LeWitt went to work with Treitel-Gratz, they found themselves not on some Taylorist assembly line but engaged in the dialogic dance of high-end industrial design. Founded by a shrewd salesman and an MIT-educated engineer in 1929, Treitel-Gratz evolved into a successful producer of modernist fixtures. In 1948, it became the first US manufacturer of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona furniture, turning out five exquisitely curved chairs per week. (Fittingly, the firm’s initial client for sculpture in 1962 was better known as an art director: Condé Nast tastemaker Alexander Liberman.) This was the shop where Newman realized the pieces Here II, 1965, and Here III, 1965–66, experimenting with hot-rolled, Cor-Ten, and stainless steel in both rectilinear columns and irregular contours shaped by oxyacetylene torch. He worked intimately with Donald Gratz (Bill’s brother, who would later take over the firm from their father)—going so far as to steer the welder’s flame for Here II and then to request the exact replication of that wavering border in the sculpture’s second version. (It couldn’t be done.)3 Judd occupied the other end of the spectrum. One of the first pieces the artist produced with Treitel-Gratz was Untitled, 1965, his anodized-aluminum “Progression” featuring ten boxes lacquered in Harley-Davidson’s Hi-Fi Purple DuPont cellulose nitrate paint. As in his work with Bernstein Brothers, whom Judd had begun to employ the previous year in lieu of his own father, Judd often visited the site and was attentive to the refinement of every formal detail—and, according to Treitel-Gratz records, the artist had his pick of Hi-Fi hues.

All artists working in this setting had to contend with the constraints of mass-production techniques and synthetic material properties. But they were not so much ruled by this industrial palette as they were enabled to selectively cull materials and even alter the methods by which their work was manufactured. If Newman probed the qualities of press brake and welding torch, repetition and gesture, Judd delved into the permutations of commercial chroma and metallurgy in his peculiar fusion of the artisanal and the mechanized. Even LeWitt, who would often mail or telephone instructions to Gratz, left detailed drawings and maquettes at the firm—suggesting that his earlier use of skilled carpenters and that of the “factory” situation were similarly belabored processes rather than progressively immaculate ideations. To achieve the sheen of mechanized production paradoxically meant customizing standardized procedures. Under these guises, artists were far removed from David Smith’s valiant Vulcan; yet they were not exactly corporate managers or debased proles, either. They did not imitate existing positions but intervened in extant methods.

Such maneuvers were equally operative at Milgo Industrial (now Milgo/Bufkin), Brooklyn, New York, a truck body shop turned architectural fabricator of midcentury curtain walls and window mullions. “Milgo quickly became the largest fabricator of contemporary sculpture in the world,” architecture writer (and Milgo consultant) John Lobell pronounced in the June 1971 issue of Arts Magazine, and the client roster was indeed packed with big names (and the firm’s workshop with even bigger pieces): Judd, Oldenburg, Robert Grosvenor, Serra.4 At Milgo, new processes in the forming and finishing of metal for skyscrapers were redeployed in novel sculptural gambits. It was there that Grosvenor had Untitled constructed in 1968, employing a risky internal steel support for a one-hundred-foot-long painted aluminum V (which began to crack precipitously when installed at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, literalizing the implied danger in its cantilevered form; as Larry Aldrich recounted in 1972, “Anybody could easily get killed”).5 Oldenburg went to Milgo to realize an early model Typewriter Eraser in 1970, upending conventions of modeling and casting with an extraordinary hybrid of vacuum-formed plastic and sandblasted aluminum sheet. Serra executed his 23,000-pound plate/pole Moe, 1971, at Milgo with hot-rolled low-carbon silicon-killed steel (read: more ductile, less expensive), stretching the firm’s capabilities in both cutting and rigging.

The astonishing diversity of activities that traversed the shop floors of Treitel-Gratz and Milgo showed that, far from being utterly determined by the imperatives of mass production, artistic practice in the realm of industrial fabrication offered strange latitude. Where familiar indictments of Minimalism and its peers envisioned capitalist design swallowing art whole, might we not instead view artists in this period as less easily ingested—as deforming industrial conventions, as literally conscripting both the means and the morphology of industrial design (the chaise longue, the curtain wall) for alternative ends? In this scenario, the possibilities offered by industrial fabrication arose not only from manufacturers’ most refined patinas but from their scarred refuse as well. Judd’s glowing surfaces and the warped topologies of the Park Place Group (whose members included Grosvenor, Peter Forakis, and Forrest “Frosty” Myers, who was deeply involved with Treitel-Gratz and Milgo) can be seen to share a rubric of protracted production and active process with Serra’s early cast-off vulcanized rubber belts and brutally forged Cor-Ten plates, with Robert Morris’s lumbering I beams and concrete, and, later, with Walter De Maria’s force field of stainless steel lightning rods (made at Treitel-Gratz). The space of industrial fabrication becomes a crucible for experiment—its structures not just replicated, affirmed, or revealed but vigorously tested and reworked.

Co-opting also meant cooperating. Appropriating strategies normally reserved for mass production was an interdisciplinary and interpersonal affair. The adaptation of industrial techniques opened onto overtly collaborative practices, straining the already contorted limits of artistic agency. Established in 1966 in this vein, Lippincott, Inc., billed itself as the country’s only industrial fabricator dedicated to sculpture. The firm’s founder, Donald Lippincott, was a young real estate speculator and the son of an industrial designer, a “tall, lanky, energetic, mustached master of metal crafts,” as the February 1976 Art News described him.6 He began by assisting his brother, Steve, with a fifteen-foot-high steel piece on ten acres of land Lippincott had purchased as an investment in North Haven, Connecticut. He enlisted Roxanne Everett, a friend and former dancer, and two of his construction employees, Eddie Giza and Frankie Viglione, cement finishers who learned to weld on the job. Though this makeshift group sounds a bit more crime family than neo-avant-garde partnership, they soon counted Oldenburg, Morris, Newman, Kelly, Robert Murray, Louise Nevelson, and Lucas Samaras among their regulars. The particular draw of Lippincott, Inc., lay in its invitation to artists to participate directly in the execution of specific pieces and to experience their construction at actual size—addressing the contemporary concern with monumental sculpture and phenomenological issues of relative scale. The firm’s vast archive of photographs documents artists working intently at the site, whether in chin-stroking discussions with Lippincott and his structural engineers or physically assisting with bolts and screws. Such interactions warded off the perceived danger of divorcing a priori model from material result, of wantonly inflating works better suited for the living room into grotesquely ballooned public baubles (“one ought certainly to note the colossal Nadelman white porcelain ladies that tower over the lobby of the New York State Theater like twin mountains of lacquered meringue glacée,” Barbara Rose wrote in her 1968 Art in America article “Blowup—The Problem of Scale in Sculpture”).7 Lippincott, then, offered an antidote to the apparent failure of civic sculpture, its impoverished relationship to both embodied experience and social life: Open-ended technical experiment and intersubjective collaboration in production held the promise of similarly radical conditions of unadministered collective reception.

Lippincott thus provided the perfect cohort for Oldenburg’s first feasible anti-monument. The notorious Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969–74, was a collective effort between Lippincott and the Colossal Keepsake Corporation—the “Corporation” being a sardonic entity cooked up by Oldenburg and the Yale School of Architecture students who had commissioned the piece for the campus without university approval. The group’s concentrated efforts triggered multiple shifts in the work’s form, including the transposition of the initial inflatable plastic lipstick into an erect metal column (after difficulties during installation rendered the vinyl version too perpetually limp, even for Oldenburg). This shared and contingent undertaking proved a canny analogue to the sculpture’s provocations in the public sphere, its temporary incarnation as a seditious soapbox at the height of anti-Vietnam protests (pumping up the pneumatic lipstick was meant to announce a speech or demonstration) that was sited pointedly between the Yale Alumni War Memorial, the president’s office, and the “tombs” of two of the university’s secret societies.8 The “Corporation” had, in fact, been inspired by Herbert Marcuse’s 1968 assertion that if an Oldenburg monument were to be realized, “this society has come to an end. Because then people cannot take anything seriously: Neither their president, nor the cabinet, nor the corporation executives. There is a way in which this kind of satire, of humor, can indeed kill.”9 Oldenburg underscored this winking assassination of modernist monumentalities by likening the Lipstick to both Tatlin’s tower and Newman’s Broken Obelisk, 1963–69, which was being constructed at Lippincott when Oldenburg first visited the firm. The collective proclivities at play in the making of Lipstick—whether invoking the company or the commune—were also brought to bear on Morris’s Untitled, 1967. The Lippincott crew labored side by side with the artist on the expansive, forty-footlong trusslike configuration of structural aluminum I beams installed outdoors as part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s “Plus by Minus” show in Buffalo, New York, in March 1968. This hands-on study in tectonics and weight distribution paralleled Morris’s contemporaneous explorations of gravity and antiform. It presaged the artist’s collaboration with the Lippincott team in manually depositing weighty concrete, steel, and wooden elements in his 1970 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, a project that scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson has incisively read as a performative critique of alienated labor and auratic authorship.10

But if Lippincott allowed Oldenburg and Morris to investigate the potential reanimation of public discourse and collective production, however futile, these and other projects also laid bare a system of extreme individual customization. To this end, Lippincott diversified the traditional foundry or fabricator’s activities, expanding techniques so as to accommodate artists to the fullest extent possible. Don Lippincott gained a reputation for bootstrap resourcefulness and engineering finesse. He and his team had, after all, resolved how to stand two pyramidal forms end to end (employing the high-performance steel used in aircraft landing gear) in Newman’s massive Cor-Ten Broken Obelisk, thereby besting Gratz and Wright. The firm acquired facility with plastics, fiberglass, and ceramics—working, for example, with Robert Breer to devise a molded fiberglass shell and motorized interior for his kinetic and aleatory Rider Float, 1971—and it began to specialize in designs that preemptively accounted for the vagaries of transportation and installation. By 1970, the operation had moved into a twentythousand-square-foot work space on the original site in North Haven, complete with a field to showcase the gigantic sculptures for sale. Lippincott declared that his firm offered “the whole package of services that take a piece as smoothly as possible from the stage of conception through to the final installation,” even financing and soliciting buyers for pieces that had not been commissioned.11 On the one hand, the firm stressed its agency—Lippincott emphasized that “we often make major changes during the fabrication process,” contributing a great deal of “interaction” and “thought”—while, on the other, asserting its total subservience to the artist. As foreman Robert Giza once remarked, “We’re like their hands, or like seeing-eye dogs.”12 Part individualized prosthesis, part problem-solving collective and service bureau: If Buchloh has seminally read twentieth-century sculpture in terms of the patent contradiction between collective social production and individual aesthetic (and its false resolution in welded assemblage from Julio González to Anthony Caro), this opposition started to give way in the vertically integrated incongruities of Lippincott.13 And it verged on collapse in another context as well: the emergence of sculptural multiples in the postwar printmaking studio.

Sculpture and printmaking were, of course, the primary engines of serial workshop production, and the dying embers of the antiquated atelier and foundry—even of the fast-obsolescing Warholian Factory—were stoked and blown apart in combustion with new models of industrial research and information management. Perhaps nowhere were these sparks more volatile than at Gemini G.E.L. Begun as a printmaking studio in 1966, Gemini broadened its reach to include three-dimensional multiples when Oldenburg came to the Los Angeles company in January 1968 with his proposed Profile Airflow project. This was the latest installment in the artist’s series of riffs on the 1934–37 Chrysler Airflow, the first mass-produced aerodynamic automobile (designed by none other than Robert Breer’s engineer father, Carl). Oldenburg sought to capture the dual fluidity and stringency of the car’s contours in a translucent molded relief superimposed over a lithograph. But to achieve the right degree of malleability at the size Oldenburg desired required a year’s extensive research in vacuum forming and new applications for polyurethane. Profile Airflow brought the Finish Fetish penchant for sophisticated plastics (think of Craig Kauffman’s advanced work at Planet Plastics in Paramount, California, at the same time) into the fold of an exploratory team of engineers, printmakers, artists, and outside vendors.

And this, it could be argued, is where Carlson & Co. got its start. Peter Carlson, who would go on to found the company that still bears his name, was not yet out of college when he joined Gemini and assisted with the Profile Airflow project. Trained in both electrical engineering and studio art, Carlson remembers the heady atmosphere of discovery and the dicey trials of the mold-and-vacuum process: “There was a Plexiglas dome on top of the vacuum chamber that removed trapped gasses on the resin before molding. One day the dome spontaneously imploded. Shards of Plexiglas put holes in the walls of the room and could have killed anyone had they been inside."14 What’s more, the polyurethane resin used turned out to be unstable upon exposure to ultraviolet light. When the initial edition was made, the works’ brilliant aqua tone turned a dim olive—and the pieces were “recalled” in typical Detroit fashion. With this assembly-line glitch, the project’s logic starts to resemble a kind of arrested product development. Technical research, normally funneled into mass production, is here diverted to other ends. What better emblem for this deflection than Profile Airflow, with its extruded mold that literally redirects the flow of routine industrial processes, and its grid that pretends to diagram, as if on an engineer’s drafting table, the ethereal curves of a functionalist commodity that failed because of its figure (Chrysler pulled the original Airflow after just three years due to its unpopular look)?

This repurposing of research and design was the wellspring for subsequent engagements with fabrication. Carlson himself cites Oldenburg’s kinetic Giant Ice Bag—Scale A, 1970 (along with the entire Art & Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, of which it was a part), as central to the formation of his practice. Gemini oversaw the production of the Ice Bag with Krofft Enterprises, an animation house perhaps better known for its 1969 psychedelic children’s television show, H. R. Pufnstuf. Aligning the work’s making with the system of film production, Gemini and Krofft directed the construction of complex hydraulics and cybernetic servo drives that dramatically torqued the ice bag, offering a wry simulacrum of Hollywood animatronics. This venture had no stake in improving the industrial situation or its productivity but instead détourned its leftover technologies and liminal spaces. It is here that Warhol’s work provides another apposite model—not the Factory-made silk screens, however, but the entropic Silver Clouds of 1966. The artist’s unlikely collusion with Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Harold Hodges precipitated a switch from Warhol’s initial request for “floating lightbulbs” to balloons made of metallized laminate Scotchpak, a material the engineers recommended because it could be heat-sealed and inflated. The resulting unbounded series of drifting pneumatics was a perfect allegory for the engineers’ “free” time, a brilliant recognition of the fact that quixotic and indeterminate invention had already been institutionalized in the postwar corporate laboratory itself—this was, after all, the heyday of R&D as a haven for freewheeling and undirected thought.

Fabrication was no longer a utopian imagining of the collective or the autogenic but a leveling of both in the name of research and development. As Carlson splintered from Gemini, starting his own business in 1971 (several other Gemini employees were to do the same: Ron McPherson, for example, launched the fabrication firm La Paloma in 1977), production was increasingly distributed among a network of independent actors. Collaboration took its cue from the postindustrial think tank and the engineering lab. Carlson’s growth over several decades from a subcontractor of one to a staff of eighty-five entailed forging relationships with the aerospace, automobile, defense, architectural, and entertainment industries. Whether bead-blasting surfaces or designing pigments and metal composites for Ellsworth Kelly or developing techniques to adhere transparent acrylic polyurethane to mirror-polished stainless steel for Koons’s famously perfectionist Balloon Dog, 1994–2000, Carlson represents a growing convergence of artisanal craft, the factory model of production, and the organizational services and informatics that bind these disparate elements together.

Such an amalgamation might seem paradoxical or even obsolete. But the repurposing and rerouting of the networks of production operate most forcefully in this hybrid situation—in the interval between product design and serial object, the gap between prototype and mass manufacture. That is, the prototype can serve as both dead end and inauguration. It marks the intersection between specialization and standardization. Typifying this crux is Carlson’s work with Josiah McElheny on The Last Scattering Surface, 2006, facilitating a relationship with a computer-numerically controlled (CNC) milling operator and jury-rigging custom tools for the artist; or the firm’s liaising of new-media artist Christian Moeller with robotics engineers based in the automotive industry to design responsive surveillance systems. Such strategies are also in play at Mike Smith Studio, whose work with Cerith Wyn Evans, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger, Mona Hatoum, and Darren Almond cuts across the employ of reverse engineering, rapid prototyping, casting, and 3-D scanning, arbitrating between artists and myriad advanced technologies.

In each instance, the work of Carlson & Co. or Mike Smith Studio is an approximation, a necessarily provisional version of the actual production values of industry (whether BMW or Boeing). For high precision and mass production now, ironically, go hand in hand. As Carlson project manager Mark Rossi puts it, “A mass-produced object, like an automobile, is incredibly refined. It has ninety-plus years of development and millions of hours of engineering behind it.”15 The firm’s principal partner, Ed Suman, further observes that “artists often want qualities that could previously only have been attained through mass production,” but that “it can be extremely expensive to produce a prototype of something that is designed to be mass-produced, to attain the perfection of mass production. When it’s required, we try to push the prototype as far in that direction as possible.”16 Carlson portends a moment when there is absolutely no standardization, because everything is made to order; but this is a postindustrial dream perpetually deferred.

One could easily see the Carlson phenomenon—exemplified in the company’s relationship with Koons— as fetishizing production itself, perversely collapsing the romanticization of craft with the logic of simulation. Yet the firm and its work disclose a vital truth about so-called postindustrial production: The law of industry has gone far beyond that of serial production and differential consumption; it now hyperbolically assumes the digitized fantasy of infinite customization. Fabrication becomes a projection of our late-capitalist wish for total specialization and luxury material in everyday forms and experiences— which may be precisely its allure and its undoing. In this elastic arena where artists have sought to mine the possibilities of contemporary production and design and exploit the unpredictability of such adaptations, the large-expenditure project and the casual outsource operate in simultaneity—equivalent prospects dwelling in the loopholes and diversions of our technocratic regime. This scenario of promise isn’t a fabrication. But perhaps it remains hopelessly oneiric.

Michelle Kuo is a Boston-based art historian and critic.