Documentaries

Without these assistants, many famous artists would never complete their masterpieces

A man goes on a journey to uncover the legacy of his late grandfather’s art and history as a fabricator for a famous artist

A man goes on a journey to uncover the legacy of his late grandfather’s history as a fabricator

Many of us would be surprised if we were to visit the studios of contemporary artists like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami or Damien Hirst and see how their art is made — or rather, who it's made by. There, we might find dozens (although numbers have reached the hundreds) of paid workers cutting, welding and painting raw materials. 

Art fabricators help execute complex artworks

Art fabrication is the process of outsourcing labour to produce large or complex artworks. Fabricators, also commonly known as art assistants, have wide-ranging skills in art production and are employed by artists to help execute their concepts. Michelangelo and Rembrandt are some of the earliest known adopters of the practice. 

The late master painter Vladimir Dvorkin was a fabricator whose story is told in the documentary film Portrayal. He was a successful artist in Russia who served almost six years in prison for a crime he did not commit and then emigrated to Israel to escape antisemitism. 

Penniless and in a new country where no one knew his name or decorated past, Dvorkin got a job with renowned Israeli painter Oz Almog. Over two decades, he put Almog's ideas on canvas and did it quickly. For one of Almog's most famous projects, Him Too…??, a series of portraits of well-known Jews, he paid Dvorkin $50 US per portrait. He produced more than 2,000 of them. 

Portraits that were part of the Him Too…?? exhibition (Oz Almog/Vladimir Dvorkin)

Dvorkin's technical proficiency and speed as a painter were essential to the success of Him Too…??. His value to Almog is perfectly captured by a statement Koons made to the Wall Street Journal in 2011: "If I had to be doing this myself, I wouldn't even be able to finish one painting a year."  

The use of assistants is commonplace in the contemporary art world

According to the director of an art fabrication company who prefers to remain anonymous, contemporary artists have financial acumen and time management skills.  Most importantly though, they have concepts and the funds to realize them. "The successful ones are good with money: getting it and using it," he said. "They're almost accountant types as well as artists." Simply put, working with fabricators frees up time to do more projects. 

The U.K.'s Hirst is known as one of the most prolific users of fabricators. According to an article published by the Evening Standard in 2007, one of Hirst's assistants said "she resented being paid £600 to do a painting that would sell for £600,000, and that in an act of rebellion, she imbued the Spot paintings she did with a secret signature that not even Hirst picked up."  

Damien Hirst, in front of a Spot painting (Andrew Testa/The New York Times/Redux)

Dvorkin, like so many other fabricators, died an anonymous artist, as the majority of his prolific work hung in museums under another man's name. These unknown talents have produced works exhibited and admired globally, but their stories have seldom been told until now.  

A man's journey to uncover his grandfather's art legacy

In Portrayal, Dvorkin's grandson Roman Lapshin goes on a journey across three continents to confront Almog and claim what he feels is his grandfather's legacy as an artist. "These brush strokes, no other man ever can do brush strokes like that," Lapshin said, implying that the practice of making in an art context is inherently valuable. Almog, he feels, had an exploitative relationship with his grandfather, claiming Dvorkin's paintings as his own.

A family's dark secret emerges when this man discovers of thousands of his grandfather’s missing paintings - Portrayal

6 months ago
1:48
A young man’s relationship with his family is compromised when he investigates a dark secret from their past, involving the discovery of thousands of his dead grandfather’s missing paintings. 1:48

While struggling with pride, grief and anger, Lapshin realizes his grandfather's work arrangement, regardless of how shadowy it seemed, was legitimate. Almog has his faults, but employing Vladimir Dvorkin as a fabricator is not as nefarious as it may seem on the surface. Art fabrication is more than an accepted practice; it's commonplace. In Portrayal, Lapshin comes to terms with the fact that his immigrant grandfather had to make decisions to provide for his family and their future.

Separating artworks from the conditions in which they're made makes "false assumptions about the nature of art, enhancing the bourgeois myth that art is created in isolation from the outside world," writes Danielle Child, a senior lecturer in art history in the U.K. With that in mind, it's important to consider the conditions under which art is produced and that Dvorkin's talent and labour, as seen in Portrayal, are beautiful in their own right.

Watch Portrayal on the Documentary Channel.

 

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