Some of the best art being made today isn’t being made by artists.
Painters often hire specialists to stretch their canvases and assistants to help out in the studio, though it’s still their hands that hold the brush.
Sculptors don’t have it so easy. Hardly anyone carves marble anymore. Casting works in metal involves so many intermediary steps that it’s difficult to distinguish the artistry from the craftsmanship. And the newfangled materials made available by computer technology often require the expertise of engineers and scientists.
New York-based artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen turned to Carlson & Co. to oversee every detail of the design, construction and installation of their 65-foot-tall sculpture of a bow tie and tuxedo collar for the front of Disney Hall. (The sculpture will not be installed when the hall opens in October. A delayed street-widening project on Grand Avenue has pushed plans for its unveiling to October 2004.)
The manufacturing firm, whose offices and workshop are housed in a generic warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, fabricated the couple’s giant binoculars, which turned Chiat/Day’s former Venice office into a landmark. Their engineers, designers, draftsmen and fabricators also have completed projects with such sculptors as Ellsworth Kelly, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Lita Albuquerque.
Founded 33 years ago by Peter Carlson, the one-of-a-kind company is a boutique. But it’s hardly esoteric. No one on its 70-person staff harbors any delusions of grandeur about their role in the creative process.
Jeff Bennett, the director of engineering, puts it simply: “We’re glorified contractors. We make highly finished objects. We specialize in making large-scale artworks. But we are not artists.”
It’s clear that Bennett has thought long and hard about what he’s saying, and that it’s grounded in hands-on experience. “Our role is to help someone who says ‘I want to make an 18-foot-tall chair’ make it. Or to make a 9,000-pound Faberge egg that’s 20 feet tall, and then get it from here to the other side of the world in pristine condition. We are creative problem solvers. All of the clients we have are incredibly precise. They use us to get what they want. We just make it possible.”
These days, when it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between art and design, and it’s common to say that anything done well is a work of art, Bennett insists on distinguishing what he and his colleagues at Carlson do from the work of artists.
“In general,” he states, “I hate the word ‘collaboration.’ It’s overused and misused. We do not collaborate with artists. We work for them. We are intimately involved with every stage of a piece’s production. But I don’t feel any need to oversell or over-pitch our role in it. We’re very lucky we get to work with great artists.”
This attitude appeals to contemporary sculptors. Liz Larner, who has twice contracted with Carlson & Co. to fabricate large outdoor sculptures, says: “It’s this weird parallel universe for artists. We see things a certain way. The people at Carlson get it. You don’t have to educate them or fight them every step of the way. They know about art and respect it. They understand what artists are up to. It’s a sensibility. It’s different from working with a manufacturer who is used to producing things in runs of 100,000, where it’s common to run up against the attitude that art is stupid, or frivolous.”
Jennifer Pastor agrees. In May, she completed an elaborate landscape sculpture based on the tunnels and conduits buried beneath Hoover Dam. Just after shipping her muscular yet lyrical work to Italy for this year’s Venice Biennial, she said, “There’s nobody else in the country like Carlson, especially for artists who know exactly what they want. Other fabricators negotiate with you. Not only on their fees -- that’s normal -- but on how you should make your work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve presented my plans to a shop and been told, ‘I’ve been doing this 20 years, little lady, here’s how you do it.’
“Those old ship-hands don’t understand sculpture. It’s not that I don’t know there’s another way to do it, a way that’s probably easier and cheaper. It’s that I want it this way. One thing that’s great about Carlson is that they appreciate this.”
If any artist knows exactly what he wants, Jim Isermann does. Over the last 20 years he has built furniture, crafted stained-glass windows, woven fabric wall hangings, braided room-size rugs and designed vinyl wallpaper and window coverings, as well as modular relief sculptures made of vacuum-formed plastic. Until recently, he lived by the adage “If you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself.” Today he’d probably add: “Or hire Carlson & Co.”
Two years ago, the Palm Springs-based artist brought them a dollhouse-size model of a light fixture made of pingpong balls, construction paper and little wooden dowels that look like toothpicks. In April, they installed a magnificent chandelier in the 100-foot-tall lobby of a new research center at UC San Francisco’s medical school.
Before Isermann even submitted his proposal to the art planning committee for the Mission Bay campus, he approached three fabricators with his design. He felt that the university would be more likely to accept his plan if it included some in-depth engineering. Carlson & Co. was the only one to respond.
Isermann recalls: “Jeff jumped in immediately. He put together some ballpark figures. He understood exactly what I wanted to do and worked the engineering around that. His grasp of aesthetics and engineering made for a very convincing presentation.”
Bennett, who studied figurative painting at New York’s Arts Students League, has long been a fan of Isermann’s work. He is drawn to its optimistic fusion of art and design, ornamentation and utility, rigor and playfulness.
Isermann says: “Now that the piece is finished and installed I’m amazed at how much it looks like the model. The chandelier is as fragile and delicate as I hoped. It isn’t overbuilt. Its proportions are true. It’s exactly what I envisioned.”
Engineering expertise and a sophisticated understanding of art are not the only rarely paired qualities Bennett brings to the job. “I get really excited about figuring out how to do things, like making a 30-foot-tall dustpan stand on a 4-foot base. That’s fraught with technical challenges I find invigorating.”
For a layman, it’s difficult to comprehend the equations and coefficients Bennett is on intimate terms with. But it’s easy to understand his love of engineering minutiae. Like true love, it’s infectious -- and selfless.
“The level of engineering in many of our projects,” he says, “is beyond what is in any building. And that is not going to be something people see. That is what our company is about, creating this thing that is ineffable, and being, ourselves, invisible.”
Pastor puts it like this: “I used [Carlson & Co.] as a tool belt, a giant tool belt filled with exotic tools.”
Larner concurs: “I was there a lot. I was bending everything myself. They were there with torches. It was like being in my studio, but with better tools, and really, really accomplished assistants.”
And Isermann is succinct: “I’m not a structural engineer. I can design anything I want. But if it can’t be built it’s just a drawing.”
Bennett’s outlook pervades all aspects of Carlson & Co. It’s part of the philosophy embraced by the three principal owners (Peter Carlson, Ed Suman and Mark Nelsen) and five project managers (Bennett, Mark Rossi, Gary Paudler, Chris Miller and Drew Medvez). None looks out of place in a hardhat; all work on all aspects of a project.
Despite their clients’ fame, Carlson & Co. keeps a low profile. Their 50,000-square-foot shop (with 45 full-time employees) and offices (with 25) in San Fernando are in a nondescript building that doesn’t stand out among its neighbors, a company that builds the armatures for freeway signs and a light-industrial strip mall housing such firms as Customcraft, Samco Scientific, Soltec, Motion Industries and Customized Box Co.
At Carlson & Co., no sign displays the business’ name, outside or inside. Tinted glass doors open onto a friendly receptionist’s desk and solitary sofa. Behind them is a row of ordinary file cabinets and a large carpeted room with skylights but no furniture. The decor recalls that of a single guy who got a great job, moved into a big apartment and, although three years have gone by, still hasn’t had time to decorate.
Peter Carlson got his start 33 years ago when he took a job at Gemini G.E.L., a renowned Los Angeles printmaking company. A conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, he had just finished two years of alternative service in a hospital and was taking night classes at Valley College. At the time, artists were experimenting with all sorts of materials. Following their lead, printers branched off from traditional silk screens and lithographs to make “multiples,” variously sized editions of three-dimensional objects.
Six months after Carlson was hired to make multiples, Gemini discontinued its in-house production of them to focus exclusively on works on paper. But they contracted with Carlson to wrap up several projects. In a borrowed garage, he completed those projects and took on more. His business was born.
“I had no formal business training,” he says. “If I had an MBA I wouldn’t have taken the chances I did. And I wouldn’t have been successful. Approaching artists from that angle just doesn’t work. You lose the direct communication.”
Throughout the 1970s, his company grew, primarily in response to the demands artists made from project to project. In the ‘80s, he began to make long-term plans and invest in more specialized equipment.
Larner, Pastor and Isermann are all eager to work on more projects with Carlson.
Larner says: “Places like Carlson are necessary because it’s natural for artists to want to use the latest materials and most advanced production processes. They are really expensive, but to get your studio to that point isn’t feasible. And even if it were, it would lock you into one type of production. Carlson gives you flexibility.”
The company enjoys similar freedom, subcontracting out manufacturing jobs that don’t require the high level of finish and sophisticated engineering they specialize in. “If you look at our facility,” Carlson continues, “anyone could get any of the machines and tools we have. Ultimately, that quality of being able to work with an artist -- to get into their thought -- is what distinguishes us. Other companies can do the work, but there’s something missing. It’s subtle and elusive. But it’s real.”
Despite the difficulty of saying just what it is, Carlson is clear about the role his company plays in the creation of art. “The artist is a catalyst. Everyone’s juices get flowing and people do amazing things to realize the artist’s vision. Without that, we’re a manufacturing company.”
But that doesn’t make him, or his employees, artists. “No one thinks,” he concludes, “that a contractor is the creator of a great building. Disney Hall is Gehry’s vision.”
Then he adds, almost mischievously but with undeniable truthfulness, “Not that anyone could build it.”