Considering Craftsmanship

Text by Hudson Cooke

Above: Illustration by Freeda Michaux

Craftsmanship is a podcast discussing technical skill in the contemporary art world told through the oral history of fabricators,” begins the intro to a recent series hosted by Harriet Salmon. As of this writing, there are 13 episodes to date, and all feature guests whom you’ve probably never heard of. Salmon’s guests are those unseen specialists who put in the physical labor behind the work we see in museums, galleries, and in public places.

Most people know that artists, particularly those working in three dimensions, rarely fabricate their work entirely by themselves. Sculptures nowadays are often so technically complex that they require specialists’ knowledge to bring the concept into existence. This might bring into question the idea of who really made the work, and, in fact, the art world had a debate about this very topic—some fifty years ago. The philosophical questions surrounding so-called “true” authorship have been talked to death in essays centering on Donald Judd, who notoriously outsourced many of his minimalist sculptures to the sheet metal specialists at Bernstein Brothers, and Anne Truitt, who equally notoriously made most of her work herself, by hand. 

Like most philosophical problems, the question of true authorship seems to be demonstrably unanswerable. At the very least, each side of the craftsmanship spectrum has pros and cons, such that choosing a side amounts to a subjective value judgement more than anything else. For example, surely Koons (one of whose countless previous assistants, Jason Brown, is one of Salmon’s guests) relinquishes some creative control when he employs as many people as he does—but isn’t it better that Puppy (1992) was made at all, rather than existing as a mere sketch? The trade-offs inherent in the artist-as-manager model could spark endless debate, no doubt, but all that’s left for the essayists ultimately is the debate itself. Neither side has any hope of winning this argument, among the countless others 

Take episode 8 as an example, where Salmon interviews the founding members of Brooklyn Research. The team is often tasked with conservation projects, another topic of endless debate among critics (did the Italian government fundamentally alter Michelangelo’s David when they made the controversial decision to clean it, effectively erasing centuries of history, or did they do the public a service by returning the sculpture to the state in which it was originally displayed?). While the team at Brooklyn Research could have spent months arguing about whether they should preserve the sporadic black and white specks found in some of Warhol films (while alive, he exhibited the work with specks and all), they didn’t—they were on a deadline. 

Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1992. Stainless steel, soil and flowering plants, 40 feet 8 3/16 inches x 27 feet 2 3/4 inches x 29 feet 10 1/4 inches (12 meters 40 cm x 830 cm x 910 cm), Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa. © Jeff Koons

Salmon’s guests rarely pontificate on art’s various philosophical quandaries, mostly because they don’t need to. Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes, and Salmon’s guests’ contributions to the debates of the art world are implicit in their deeds. Take Episode 2, an interview with the glassblower Anders Rydstedt. He doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around wondering how artists’ fantasies get curtailed by the realities of the physical world; his job is to explain what’s possible in the medium of glassblowing to demanding artists, manage their expectations and execute their plans. Sure, fabricators might make mistakes (it seems that Matthew Lange in some sense shouldn’t continue to print new editions of photographs from the estate of the late Sarah Charlesworth), but they’re getting into grimy trenches of the Big Questions About Art, solving problems using the same techniques as Mother Nature: trial and error. 

Within the seemingly narrow job description of “fabricator,” Salmon seems to say, is the responsibility to stop talking and start doing. Art exists as it is made manifest—the issues are too rooted in the physical to theorize independent of experience. In other words, critics are paid to ask questions; fabricators, to answer them. In this equation, artists continue to do as they have always done, which is to make art.

Anders Rystedt and his team blowing glass into Martha Friedman’s finger molds. Courtesy of Anders Rystedt.

Hudson Cooke is an emerging artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY, where he currently works as a studio assistant for a sculptor based in Greenpoint, and previously worked in a metal shop that fabricates fine art and custom furniture.

Listen to “Craftsmanship” at and on Apple Music.

Share your thoughts