Mass produced or delegated artwork

This Boston Globe story exposes how some contemporary gallery art is not actually fabricated by the artist. It’s well worth reading.

The focus of the article is a Tara Donovan work titled “Untitled (Pins).”


As you can see, the piece is cube of pins. Donovan designed the sculpture, but in this case a museum curator actually created the three-dimensional item. The artist did send instructions.

Other examples are given in the article of such collaboration, and the end of the article points out what I was thinking from the beginning: This isn’t such a new phenomenon. Renaissance painters and sculptors (the Globe cites Rubens often employed entire workshops. The masterpieces we know were not necessarily executed by a solitary individual.

This bears very interesting ramifications in our own culture. From the article:

    “‘It’s delegation,’ says Baldessari, 76 [a pioneer in the realm of conceptual art]. ‘An architect is a classic example. He doesn’t have to build a house. A composer doesn’t always have to conduct his work so why should an artist?.”

I’m not comfortable with the comparison of a sculptor or painter to an architect (There are generally a lot more aspects to building a house than to stretching a canvas and applying paint, even excepting the building process and considering solely the design process.), but I’m also not necessarily opposed to delegation. Admittedly, I find Donovan’s delegation somewhat flakey; the cube of pins lacks most appearances of learned craft. Indeed, if her work is purchased by private collectors, some assembly is still required.

Such, perhaps, is the nature of conceptual art these days. Duchamp’s urinal could be replicated at will by people with the desire to do so. The importance of an idea supercedes craft. In this light, it’s easy to see how culture perceives artists as geniuses, giving such precedence to their minds. It’s easy to see how southern folk art gains popularity when craft is second class.

Donovan suggests that if she were the one installing her work, she wouldn’t have any time in the studio. “I’m interested in developing the phenomenological aspects of the material. Once that’s done, my part is done.” She’s sold about three dozen of the cubes in different sizes and materials (“Toothpicks” sold for $45,600 last year). As I mentioned above, delegation is fine. I can’t imagine trying to create Pisano’s baptistery on my own. As a comparison, if I was getting paid $45,000, that would give me about nine months to finish the ornate project and still walk away with a lower-middle class wage after taxes. Pisano spent roughly five years on the project with the help of several assistants. He may not have worked solely on the baptistery during that time, but he probably spent more than nine months on it regardless. Hopefully the commission paid significantly more than the the 13th century equivalent of $45,000.

Donovan’s cubes possess a certain aesthetic, but they are more or less conceptual works. She is paid for her ideas, not her craft.

The article points out that people like to feel a connection to the artist through the works they view. When a 23 year old art student was told “Untitled (Pins)” was not actually fabricated by the artist, the student was disappointed. “I’m not really sure it’s a successful piece of work,” she replied.

Edger’s article reminds us that art is a business as well as a calling, whether we talk about Rubens or Donovan.

Above photo from the Boston Globe website.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

7 Responses to Mass produced or delegated artwork

  1. Marissa says:

    I would have so much more work if everything that was in my head or in my sketchbook was made by somebody else. But I am an artist and I believe in making my work. Even if I had assistants they would be just that, assisting me. Not making the whole thing while I am off thinking of more great ideas. This makes me upset as an artist who would never dream of having somebody else put together pieces. The more high brow the gallery the less I like the work in most cases here in Boston.

    “When a 23 year old art student was told “Untitled (Pins)” was not actually fabricated by the artist, the student was disappointed. “I’m not really sure it’s a successful piece of work,” she replied.”

    This gives me some hope.

  2. TAE says:

    Yeah, I’m trying myself to understand how a person who calls herself an “artist” can seem so uninterested in the making of the work. I suppose it can be so, but personally I am driven to be equally involved in concept and fabrication — design/build, if you will.

  3. Pingback: Continuing conversation on abstraction « The Aesthetic Elevator

  4. Mo-Coffee says:

    Read Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual art.

    What I love about Tara Donovan is that her work rides the border between conceptual art and craft. And, I think, that’s good for craft.

  5. Pingback: Art for art’s sake, part I « The Aesthetic Elevator

  6. Pingback: Genius Grants 2008: Weaving straws and grass « The Aesthetic Elevator

  7. tam says:

    She didn’t make that one in particular, but she did make the first one. She perfected the process and exact quantity to make her cubes. Then she wrote up an instruction list for it. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to make her own work, or that she never has, she just doesn’t have the time to fly all over the world to install them. That is what curators do isn’t it? Install.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: