by Jacob Hicks and Angela Gram
Titian for Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo for Domenico Ghirlandaio, Raphael for Perugino-art history has a long track record of the master and apprentice relationship wherein-which tutelage from an older generation of skilled craftsmen/visionary artists establishes and readies the next. In an ideal world the style and vision of the master is carried forth in an act of education and generosity; the pupil is encouraged to learn and expand the precedents of those who he or she follows, thus creating a natural artistic evolution based in learning, skill, foresight, and growth.
“Behind the Curtain” is a rare moment of transparency where the contemporary relationship between master and assistant revels in the public eye. It is an intriguingly multifaceted conversation where the assistant’s work exhibits its own individual power within a larger sphere of their employer’s ideologies. In many cases these ideologies include the aforementioned vision of educational encouragement that can permeate a younger generation of artists. These relationships can often be seen through mutual influence and support of an emerging career. Yet perhaps the most striking dialogue of this exhibition occurs with the introduction of economics. Those with an eye for authenticity will know the following questions must be addressed:
What happens in a world where the master artist doesn’t touch the work he or she makes, in a world where he or she views the artist/artists creating 100% of their work through a purely financial lens, i.e. as cheap and replaceable labor? What happens when the employer outsources that “cheap labor” to skilled and even lower-paid workers in other countries?
Does it matter if the master artist is not capable of making the work they take credit for and sell at a premium price? How is it that having an idea and a large pocket book is enough to become a canonical voice? Does it matter if the actual creators have no voice, receive no credit, make no money, and are disallowed the time, instruction, and resource necessary to further their own work?
Reality has never been as simple as what would be ideal. Titian rarely encountered the elder Bellini who was of an advanced age and hardly touched his later works. Do you really believe that Rubens had a hand in the creation of every painting in his seemingly endless body of work? Money and power has and will always direct, take precedence, and be of primary concern in our capitalist era. The illusion is that the current state of things differs from our deeper history.
Yet lets return to the ideals of the first paragraph that defiantly exist in the minds and practice of many successful contemporary artists. Red Grooms for example, shares his studio space and materials with his assistants and encourages the growth of their personal expression. Mana Contemporary provides a studio residency and stipend to many of its employees and artist assistants, through the generosity of the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation (ESKFF). The moral shadings of the current state of artist assistantship overwhelm the mere black and white.
Another good bit of business happens when a curator like Trek Lexington makes opportunities for these usually underrepresented and unsung artists with “Behind the Curtain.” I am excited to see and take part in the exhibition, I wish these wonderful craftsmen and creators great success, and I hope they will run their future studio practice keeping in mind the ideal relationship possible between the master artist and his or her apprentice.