Portrait of the Artist as a Young Assistant: Where are They now? Part 4

[This is part 4 of a multi-part article.]

Post apprenticeship experiences

If the master influences the young assistant, it is often via an aesthetic process, shared subject matter or an appetite for literature, science and art history, what Meyer called “alchemy.” Meyer’s first big break came in a one-man show of paintings and watercolors at New York’s ULAE. He sold a large painting to critic Barbara Rose. Things took off for the artist and he left Johns’ studio to found his own. [See note below]. He lives and works with his wife and child in Brooklyn, but still shows Johns his work – richly painted myths of American culture, of green lawns and blue, cloudless days. In these paintings we find mathematical formulas, a periodic chart of the elements, food chains, clocks and rulers carefully painted across the surface: an unerring narrative of suburban life. “Ocean” depicts a woman vacuuming in a square floating in a vast blue plane; below her are three instruction sheets on how to turn on and off the machine she’s using. The painter invokes the homemaker again in “Flux,” a multi-paneled watercolor that points out the conquest of nature: A man cuts his lawn in one panel while in another, a father and son plant a tree; the central piece offers four views of a man duck hunting. “Blue Sky” is a painting atop a painting very much in the manner of Johns’ own constructions, with a field of clocks each reading a different hour; a dead man lies on a desert floor; two buzzards smack their beaks in anticipation of an enticing meal: survival and transition.

“I used to think showing in galleries was not part of the work,” said Meyer. “It took a long time for me to have fun, and an even longer time to become a businessman.”

“Art is hard work,” Andy Warhol said more than once. If it is grunt work, there are some interesting assignments. Allan McCollum hired 25 assistants to create some 2,000 drawings for “Drawings” at the John Weber Gallery. Hundreds of minimum wage earners helped Christo pull off his “Running Fence” and “Surrounded Islands.” Hundreds of other artists have hired younger artists to be their hands: witness the artist Mark Kostabi, who claimed to have hired someone to sign his name and others to dream up names for the paintings.

Lemieux, with two assistants of her own is quick to dispel any notion of glamour: “Ultimately assistants are replaceable,” she said. Still, with one or two of them she’s had a more open discourse about her work as it’s being produced than she ever did with Salle about his. In the studio, Lemieux maintained she never questioned Salle’s choices, in spite of the strong depictions of women in less than sublime poses. “Women attacked a particular part of David’s work, but that wasn’t my place,” she said. “It was my place to get the gesso if he needed it.” The intimacy of the artist-assistant relationship, she insisted, needs to be carefully tended: “I think there is a line there, but it’s not very clear. You do know, however, when you step over it.”

That line was fuzzier than others for Meyer because of how integrated he became in Johns’ life and work. “I consider Jasper one of my best friends,” he said in 1989, acknowledging that only five years earlier he had been certain he’d be fired for incompetence.

In spite of his own difficulty with the boundaries in the artist/assistant tug of war, H-O views the assistant as a contemporary must-have, a fundamental to making art. “Technically, in Warhol’s Factory,” said H-O, “assistants brought valuable skills to the process – printing and photography. And that changed everything, didn’t it?”

Pruitt•Early have no assistants themselves but believe they’ll be great employers. “I think we’ll need an assistant down the road sometime,” said Early, musing about the possibility. “Well, maybe we need one now.”

Epilogue: where are they now?

As of 2006, James Meyer still works part-time for Jasper Johns, has a studio in Soho in NYC, and lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Meyer exhibits regularly with Sandra Gering Gallery and Dorfman Projects in NYC, where he will exhibit new paintings in January 2007.

Annette Lemieux is currently preparing an installation at Triple Candie in NYC for 2007, working on her mid career exhibition, “The Strange Life of Objects,” at the Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, IL (January 2009), and is Professor of the Practice, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Lemieux, who lives and works in Brookline, MA, is represented by Baldwin Gallery in Aspen, CO and Barbara Krawhow Gallery in Boston.

Paul H-0 launched the widely watched art journal on NYC cable, Gallery Beat in 1993, and has become a journalist for art magazines artnet, Art in America and Very (London). H-O is now a filmmaker; his current project is “Guest of Cindy Sherman,” a documentary about his life as Cindy Sherman’s boyfriend. H-O has not worked as a studio artist since 1994.

jack early
Jack Early

Pruitt*Early’s controversial 1992 “Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project,” at Leo Castelli, garnered accusations of racism with its non-PC blaxploitation images of African-Americans. The two were handily tossed from the art world and broke up at that point, but in 1998, Rob Pruitt reemerged and offered “Cocaine Buffet” at an artist’s studio. The real cocaine was greedily gobbled up. In 1999, Pruitt created “101 Art ideas You Can Do Yourself,” an artist manual. Pruitt currently lives and works in NYC and exhibits with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Jack Early had mostly disappeared from the art world map, but was found in an SRO in Times Square, NYC.

jack early's apartment
Jack Early’s apartment, 10 x 16′

He told the web site Apartment Therapy, that he dropped out of the art world and started making music. “I lost everything after that show (at Castelli’s)…” Early said he was moving back to making art, and using the stand up shower in his room for a studio to make papier mâché sculptures. Jack and his music can be found here and at the E31 Gallery in Athens, Greece.

[For more, see Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 of this multi-part story].

Matthew Rose is an artist and writer living in Paris, France. His next exhibition will feature his “Scribble Drawings” at the 20/21 with Art Vitam at the Royal College of Art, London 22-25 February, 2007.