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Entertainment

When Is the Artist Assistant Just the Artist?

As lines of art ownership grow increasingly blurred, the role, credit, and compensation of its makers becomes harder to define.
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illustrated by Hunter French
May 26, 2020, 12:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.

When Andy Warhol introduced his New York studio in the early 1960s, it was a concrete, exigent manifestation of how art production would change forever. Aptly named “the Factory,” the hub introduced Warhol’s groundbreaking assembly-line approach to creating visual work—a business model that ultimately tied his name to creating art on a massive scale—which artists continue to reference today. In delegating much—if not all—of his artistic production to assistants, he gave birth to a new normal: the artist could call a work of art his own, even if he didn’t have a single part in its execution.

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As a practice, artists employing assistants to create work isn’t novel. Even in the 16th century, Michelangelo hired assistants to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Rembrandt was known to sign paintings completed by his assistants, passing them off as his own. But after Warhol normalized a hands-off approach to creating art, using assistants to create work at unprecedented scale and speed, studio assistants became widely accepted, if not expected. Across industries like photography and painting, we’re seeing more and more artists acting like creative directors—overseeing the work while still claiming it as their own.

For many in the visual art world, Jeff Koons is one of the first people who come to mind that fulfill this archetype. One of the richest, most well-known visual artists of our time, Koons is famous for his kitsch metal sculptures in the form of balloon animals. A 10-foot version sold for $58.4 million in 2013—at the time, the most expensive piece of art ever sold at an auction by a living artist. He’s also extremely open about his own factory-style way of working. Nathaniel Kahn’s 2018 documentary, The Price of Everything, illustrates this in unmistakable detail: in the film’s first few minutes, the camera follows the charismatic artist through his NYC studio, stopping to observe a studio assistant re-creating a Giotto painting for Koons’ Gazing Ball series. From the brushstrokes to the reflective blue sphere, Koons openly acknowledges that almost no part of these paintings was made by him. But when the works sell for several millions of dollars, his name will be the only one associated with the art—and he will be the primary holder of those profits.

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Koons and his department heads developed a stenciling process in-house so that the assistants can come in and stencil a painting for him—almost like filling in dots with coordinated colors on a palette. “Andy Warhol did a similar process when he had the Factory… where anyone can jump into the line and be able to do it,” Logan De La Cruz, a painter and longtime assistant to Koons, told VICE in March. Growing up in inner-city Miami, De La Cruz began working at Koons’ studio as a stenciler in 2015 for the Gazing Ball series to pursue his dream of joining the New York art scene, and he’s been there ever since.

In the studio, assistants are expected to create work that solely follows Koons’ direction—they replicate his process and his techniques. In practice, Koons’ assistants don’t function much differently from the more familiar scenario of photo assistants on set during a shoot, working almost as extensions of the head photographer. Christine Ting, a photographer who worked for two years as an intern and assistant to Ryan McGinley after moving to New York in 2017, feels that assistants are an integral part of production, especially as shoots increase in size and scale.

“As a photographer, you want to be focused on shooting. You don’t want to be distracted. We’re the extra eyes, brains, and hands, so [Ryan] doesn’t have to worry about that,” she explained. “And for big shoots, it’s impossible. The photographer can’t be setting up stands, lights, and screens. If the light looked weird, the photographer would have to put his camera down, get up, try some stuff, sit back down, pick up the camera, try it again. That’s wasting precious time that clients are paying for.”

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Size and scale play obvious roles in how many helping hands are involved in production, but the breakneck speed at which art is both digested and sold today has many artists relying on means outside of their own skill set to execute their work. Sometimes, as in the case of famous iPhone photographers, technology lets you skip learning the actual craft; other times, great assistants bridge that gap.

But at its core, the art world has long relied on a foundation of workers who make a fraction of what these high-end artists make from selling a single piece. And when artists like Koons or McGinley have pieces selling in the tens of thousands to millions, it feels pertinent to ask: Does it make sense that a single individual receives the credit even when they don’t—or can’t—make the work themselves? Is it time to reevaluate what it means to be an artist assistant and where ownership of art in collaborative processes begins and ends?

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While this debate seems rooted in contemporary art, it has actually gone on for centuries. As Wade Saunders wrote in Making Art, Making Artists, published in 1993: “Students in 19th-century ateliers learned, in part, by assisting; Rodin spent several years in Carrier Belleuse’s studio… Julio González worked for Pablo Picasso… Jackson Pollock for Thomas Hart Benton.” Despite the prevalence of assistants in Renaissance studios, certain telltale facts—like the debated value of a Rembrandt created by his own hand vs. his assistants’—showed that assistants were never truly accepted.

Aside from the era of Warhol’s Factory, another crucial moment in art history changed that: Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of “readymades,” such as his porcelain urinal titled Fountain. Exhibited in 1917, the radical piece forced critics to broaden their perception of what could be called art.

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Although there are still those who disagree, many in the art world now rarely consider well-known artists as less than an artist because they lack skill. As long as they’re able to acknowledge that weakness—and find ways around it—they still reach the same result. And at the end of the day, that’s what counts.

“It’s the photographer’s responsibility to hire the right people to get what they want. You don’t necessarily need to be versed on every single light [mode] or technology to be a good photographer. People hire you because you create beautiful images. If you can get the right team together to make that happen, then awesome. If you fuck it up because you decide to try and figure it out yourself, that’s on you, right?” Ting said.

De La Cruz added: “I think art—and this can be kind of cringeworthy for some people—but art today is a business. And like any business, you have your CEO, your president, and your department heads, etc. We don’t all come to this plane with all the tools we need to manifest our dreams, right? So being able to acknowledge that you could use this person’s help to create this vision, I don’t think that minimizes your involvement or devalues the work.”

But when taking into account the differences in income between these assistants and the people who hire them—on Glassdoor, for instance, the wage for a Koons Studio Assistant is listed as $21 an hour—the lines in that process get a bit more blurred again. While De La Cruz is happy at his job, he’s also aware that it’s not a high-paying one, and notes that the pay disparity between owners and executors exists across all sectors: “It’s another product of a supposed ‘free market economy.’”

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It’s arguably the artists who transform assistant gigs into multifaceted learning opportunities that create the best work environments. In fact, some artists actually make these hubs with the purpose of giving emerging artists a platform while employing them to do work. The Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami, famous for his bright cartoon-like imagery and signature multicolored flowers with faces, founded what would evolve into the Kaikai Kiki factory in 1996 with that purpose—using it as both a production house and artist management company.

Murakami modeled the factory after Japanese animation and manga studios—a business model he felt was effective at organizing mass production while still teaching students valuable skills. Many artists Murakami takes under his wing end up working at Kaikai Kiki, and people have often complimented the factory’s collaborative and intentional, albeit strict, culture.

Macau native Crystal Chan worked briefly in Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki New York City studio after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2018. Her schedule started promptly at 8 a.m.—the team began every day with a Japanese stretching exercise—and often ended around midnight, a day filled with silk screening and color mixing. Chan doesn’t miss the long hours but still felt she learned a lot through the experience. “I think he’s the first successful artist that’s able to combine his art with his philosophy and theory, but at the same time approach a commercial [landscape]. That experience was so helpful to understand how things work. It made me feel like, OK, I want to be him. Not in the same approach maybe, but I want to be able to make my work speak to a broader audience.”

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Assisting used to be perceived as a rite of passage: You started out working and learning from an established artist before learning the skills you need to make it big yourself. Now, with technology and social media, it’s possible to build your own skills, connections, and following on your own. Many artists still rely on assisting to make connections, and as a dependable source of income—but that may also be rapidly changing.

When Mike McGregor first started working for the acclaimed portrait photographer Platon in 2001, he saw it as a pivotal stepping stone to break into the New York photo scene. McGregor’s business and tech skills—acquired through extra classes as he earned his BFA in photography from Montana State University—set him apart from other assistants and helped him get into Platon’s studio. But in the last few years, technology has rapidly changed the editorial photography landscape: The cost of entry is lower (you don’t need $40,000 worth of resources to get started, the amount of money Mike invested in equipment when he first began working in NYC). Magazine budgets are a fraction of what they were in the 2000s. And thanks to YouTube tutorials and iPhones, practically anyone can become a photographer in no time—further impacting an already competitive industry.

“In 2001, there were plentiful editorial photo assisting jobs, and I was paid $200 to $250 per day. Now there are very few editorial shoots and I either get asked to use no assistant or to pay the assistant $150. The big difference is that now there are digital techs who own a bunch of gear and can charge good rates, $500 to $1,500 per day. If you have a very regular relationship with people, there are other ways to make more money, like retouching or gear rental,” McGregor said. Since 2005, he’s run his own successful independent practice and personal studio and has repeatedly encountered the need to remain agile in the dynamic photography landscape.

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“In today’s day and age, you’re pretty hard-pressed to find a skill set that only one person can do. The one thing you bring to the table as an artist now is your ability to interact with humans and to pull something out of another human. That personal interaction is the one unique skill set that isn’t readily transferable,” McGregor said.

Lopez, who prides himself on his collaborative abilities, also feels that interpersonal candor was a huge part of working as an assistant. “My relationship with Nadia is a little different than the relationships I have with other photographers. Nadia’s more of a director—prior to the shoot, she’ll ask me to send her references in terms of lighting or camera choice. I generally like to think of myself as an optimistic and friendly person—when I hire an assistant, I’m looking for someone who also has those qualities. You want someone who you can get along with because you have to hang out with them for so long.”

“The majority of people, they don’t know enough to know whether [this art is] good or not. But if the media says it’s good, people will like it. I would definitely love to see more diversity, that people don’t focus on one big artist. People that like Murakami don’t even know why—it’s like brands: Why does everyone want to wear certain brands?” Chan said.

At the end of the day, many assistants are grateful for their gigs—but they’re also grateful for the line between their work and the artists they work for. Chan, for instance, creates personal, interrogative work around her femininity and her feeling of displacement in migration—a sharp contrast to Murakami’s distinctly Japanese, gender-agnostic creations. After college, Lopez felt inspired to share visual stories about his family’s Mexican roots, steering far from the commercial, product-marketing photography he often assists for. De La Cruz frequently works on pieces that mix high and low-brow art, a product of his tough upbringing—and a far cry from Koons’ high-end-market works.

“Jeff’s work is Jeff’s work. It’s not necessarily something I need to be credited on. I’m being paid to help create his vision, and that’s where I leave it. I don’t feel any grudge for not being credited there,” De La Cruz said. “That’s Jeff’s vision, and it would feel weird to be credited for his vision in any way. I have my own visions, and I want them to be solely mine. And credited to me." (1)

1. At the time of these interviews, many of the sources I spoke with were directly impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak due to their crafts’ need for close social interaction. Ting, a portrait photographer living in New York, was unable to continue her practice. Lopez’s photo assisting gigs in LA had temporarily halted, and he described missing the collaborative environment of being on set with others. McGregor hasn’t done a shoot since lockdown began. For others, getting away helped offer a respite from quarantine. De La Cruz has spent more time painting, and with his partner, in upstate New York. And Chan even debated leaving New York to return to Macau to be with her family. In the meantime, it seems like visual art is being put on hold, and many artists who rely on assisting for income will be facing financial difficulty.

Follow Eda Yu on Twitter.