At Large  January 26, 2022  Ivy Pratt

Artist Workshops: Their History, Benefits, & Drawbacks

The Met. Anonymous Gift, 2005.

Thomas Wijck (Dutch, Beverwijck, near Haarlem 1616–1677 Haarlem), Workshop Interior, 1629–77. 5 11/16 x 7 5/8 in. (14.5 x 19.3 cm).

What constitutes an artist? Perhaps your first thought is as straightforward as this author's was: An artist is someone who creates masterful works of art. And yet, many masterful artworks, past and present, were created with the help of a team of assistants—otherwise called the artist’s workshop or studio. This is especially true for large-scale projects such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the many iterations of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog.

Some masterworks were not even touched by the credited artist. This is the case more often than not for Koons today, as well as for countless others—predecessors and contemporaries alike—including Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, and Kehinde Wiley.

Despite the well-known practices of these larger-than-life names, it is not uncommon for individuals—both entrenched in the art world and entirely outside of it—to find this artistic outsourcing hard to reconcile with. Many seem to feel it is just too similar to mass-production, a process that does seem antithetical to the concepts of the artistic genius and the value placed on the hand of the artist. And yet, several of the aforementioned contemporary artists embraced this stigmatized association, making it a part of their art’s larger meaning—something we will explore in more depth towards the end of this story.

Like most man-made categories, the classification of an artist is not as concrete as one may think. Specific art makers were not seen as the “artists" we know today until the Renaissance. Before this, artmakers were thought of as artisans. Like bakers and blacksmiths, they were expected to work in tandem with others—to be clear, this is something artists did not stop doing. Nevertheless, public perception shifted and the identity of individual artists began to matter in a consequential way.

Interestingly, our modern concept of the artist actually came about around the same time as the advent of artist workshops as we know them. The workshops of the Renaissance often served as a training ground for young apprentices who would start with menial tasks in service of the head artist. This work was done with the aim of eventual promotion to an assistant role, in which one would be trusted with more important jobs such as finishing masterworks. Through these tasks, young artists hoped to one day establish themselves enough to create valuable pieces under their own names.

The Met. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.

School of Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Martyrdom of Saint Peter, late 1650s. Reed pen and brush and brown ink and brown wash. 7 15/16 x 10 13/16 in. (20.1 x 27.4 cm).

In the seventeenth century, the number of painters’ workshops rose exponentially as the popularity of monumental canvases grew and a battalion of assistants became necessary to help many Old Masters of this period—such as Rubens and Rembrandt—keep up with commissions. Although workshops were typically known for a particular style dictated by the head artist, the study and discussion required to complete works as a team inevitably fostered experimentation and innovation.

This workshop model went relatively unchanged up until the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution made painting supplies affordable and transportable. Suddenly, casual hobbyists and artists unattached to workshops or in between patrons could all purchase art supplies and make art. Thus began the practice of en plein air (in open air) painting and l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake).

wikimedia commons.

The Decker Building, the second location of Andy Warhol's "Factory."

In the twentieth century, as a reaction against industrialization and the enduring exclusivity of the art world (among other things), a new wave of artists emerged and introduced "readymades." The term, as defined by MoMA, describes “prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their intended use and elevated to the status of art by the artist choosing and designating them as such.”

Artists like Marchel Duchamp, who coined the term, did not operate within the artist workshop world in any significant way. Still, the emergence of such an art object in this period should help the reader understand how workshops—and public perception of them—changed in the following decades.

As was alluded to before, the mid and late twentieth century artists Warhol and Koons both radically embraced the idea of artistic outsourcing, albeit in very different ways. Today, Warhol’s Factory is remembered as a sight of collaboration, where the careers of others were fostered alongside the icon. Meanwhile, Koons is seen as more of an industrial employer whose contracted workers experience burnout more often than inspiration.

Although these individuals are well-known for their use of the workshop model, it is important to acknowledge how common—despite differences in application—the practice is today and has been through art history.

Still image of from JEFF KOONS of an artist at work in Koons' studio.

About the Author

Ivy Pratt

Ivy Pratt is a regular contributor to Art & Object.

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