Years ago at art museums, in order to keep the security guards at bay, I would instruct my small daughter to keep her hands clasped behind her back. Then, if a guard approached, I could say, “Look, look, hands behind back.” Now, as an adult, I too walk around museums with my hands behind my back so that when the guards approach me, as they always do, I can say, “Look, look…” Time has robbed me, as it does, of keen vision and, in addition to writing about art, I also make it. So, when I look at other people’s art, I not only consider the “what” and the “why,” but also the “how,” and I am often guilty of leaning in beyond the no-go zone to see how they did that; how they got this or that effect. It is for this reason that an exhibition like the new show at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz is such a thrill, as it is so much about the “how.” Curated by Daniel Belasco, the exhibition chronicles the career of metallurgist Richard (Dick) Polich, one of the world’s foremost art fabricators. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 6, from 5 – 7 pm. The exhibition runs through December 14.
Video courtesy of Polich Tallix Inc.
Until recently, art fabricators – or the extent of their role in the production of art – were something of an insider secret. People like Dick Polich, the owner of the art foundry Polich Tallix Inc., remained behind the scenes and were happy to do so. However, with the openness of post-modern artists such as Jeff Koons, the genies have been let out of the bottles. Indeed, it is part of Koons’ practice to put it up front and center that he is the ideas guy and that others do the actual making – he even insists that the artisans who craft his sculptures sign them in prominent places. This admission has been a source of consternation in some quarters, and Koons has been pilloried as a charlatan. Yet the fabrication of art by artisans and craftsmen is as old as art itself. Artists of the past occupied much the same territory as decorators; the successful ones ran large studios and employed many assistants and apprentices to work on their paintings, frescoes and sculptures. Most famously we find in a painting by Andrea Verrocchio an angel that is indisputably by the master’s apprentice, the young Leonardo da Vinci. Modern critics believe that a lot of the background was also painted by the young da Vinci. In fact, the oddest thing about the painting is that Verrocchio allowed his apprentice’s fingerprint to be so evident in the work. This is something that a craftsman like Dick Polich would never allow.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the sculptor Auguste Rodin viewed the making of sculpture as a collaborative process. He employed highly trained plaster casters, carvers and founders to turn his original models into finished work, including having master clay modelers scale up the models to full-size. Today this is how much of the monumental public and private sculpture in our environment comes about.
Dick Polich is, as described in curator Daniel Belasco’s essay in the exhibition catalog, “one of those rare skeleton keys that unlock the doors of modern and contemporary art.” Since opening his first art foundry in the late 1960s, Polich has worked closely with the most significant artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He is known as an innovator and someone willing to push the boundaries so that the ideas his artist clients bring to him can be fully realized. Although, without doubt, certain effects would not have been achieved were it not for genius-level craftsmen like Polich, he insists on the division between art and craft – as he put it, “The artists bring their ideas; the craftsmen bring their skills, and I put them together.” A young female worker in his foundry described what he does as “Science mixed with wizardry.” The magazine Art in America described him as a “real-life Vulcan.”
Since the late 1960s Polich was founder or co-founder of three businesses in the Hudson Valley: Tallix Foundry, Peekskill and Beacon (1968 –2006); Polich Art Works, Newburgh (1995 – 2006); and Polich Tallix Inc. Fine Art Foundry, Newburgh (2006 – present). Between them they have produced renowned artworks by artists such as Jasper Johns, Joel Shapiro, Louise Nevelson, Nancy Graves, Roy Lichtenstein, Isamu Noguchi, and Rona Pondick. Jeff Koons’ stainless steel Rabbit (1986) – a break-through art piece for Koons and an icon of contemporary art – was made at Tallix, and Louise Bourgeois’ imposing 30-foot tall spider Maman (1999) at Polich Art Works. The latter was made for the opening of London’s Tate Modern in May 2000 as part of Bourgeois’ commission for the Turbine Hall, the great central space of the museum. This exhibition at the Dorsky includes a small piece by Koons entitled: Cape Codder Troll. Rabbit, from Koon’s Statuary series, can be seen at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan which is currently hosting a retrospective of the artist’s work. Other Polich Tallix-fabricated works in that retrospective include, from the Equilibrium series: a bronze raft Lifeboat (1985), and from the Luxury and Degradation series: the stainless steel Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Train (1986). Polich’s companies have also produced major public monuments, like the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1995), and the Leonardo da Vinci horse in Milan (1999). His current business, Polich Tallix, is one of the largest and best-regarded art foundries in the world, a leader in the integration of technological and metallurgical know-how with the highest quality craftsmanship. The company employs 80 craftsmen, almost half of whom have been working at Polich Tallix for 20 years or more; some are the sons and daughters of the company’s original employees. It is also one of the very few foundries to have a metallurgist on the staff.
Canadian Artist Dean Drever received a commission in 2010 to produce a 10’ tall Kodiak bear in mirror polished stainless steel. The project was completed and installed by Polich Tallix in September of 2011. The enormous, 2-ton sculpture consisted of over 60 separate sand and lost wax castings. The video below documents the process of assembling the sculpture from the ground up.
This is the first museum exhibition to survey Polich’s career. The exhibition’s primary goal is to reveal how Polich has impacted the development of contemporary art by opening up the industrial process of metal casting and fabrication to accommodate the creative choices of artists. It includes some of the most important works that were produced there – works that were, in their time, ground-breaking, including the center piece which is Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic “Lamp on Table.” The exhibition consists of three sections. The first interweaves a history of Polich’s foundry leadership from 1969 to today with 11 carefully selected works of art that reveal the transformations in style, technique, and medium fostered by Polich. The second section presents an in-depth video documentary about the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry by artist Stephen Spaccarelli. The video, which mustn’t be missed, includes comments and insights from many of the major artists Polich has worked with and continues to work with, comments from his ex-wife Toni Putnam, and also from the artisans and craftspeople in the foundry – many of whom are artists in their own right. The third section delves into the techniques and materials of contemporary foundry work. A witty installation by sculptor Tom Otterness demonstrates all the steps, like a 3D comic strip, involved in making a bronze sculpture with Polich. The piece is called Mad Mom and starts as a doodle by the artist who has annoyed his mother (it will be particularly fun for kids).
Dick Polich was born in 1932 to a Croatian family that immigrated to the Chicago area in the nineteen teens. After high school he went to Yale on an athletic scholarship where he also excelled in academics. After graduation and a spell as a fighter-pilot in the Navy, he went to graduate school at Harvard to pursue a long-time interest in architecture. However, he found the requirement to defend his designs from a conceptual point-of-view arduous. Perhaps it was then that he decided that he was more suited to helping other people realize their designs than being the designer, and certainly problem-solving is his passion. After a year at Harvard he left to work at the research foundry at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He worked on staff for about a year and began to take graduate courses, researching precision casting of aluminum and magnesium, a problematic metal that easily burns. He went on to earn a master’s degree in metallurgy from the Institute in 1964.
After MIT, he worked in the metallurgy industry but soon realized this was not a direction that interested or inspired him. This period coincided with the zeitgeist of the late 60s and with meeting his wife, artist Toni Putnam who was his Tallix co-founder; Putnam continues to have a career as a sculptor and her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. At that time, most sculptors sent their work to Europe to be cast because the expensive and labor-intensive traditional techniques discouraged the opening of new art foundries in America. However, Polich had been exposed to new and cost-effective techniques at MIT including the development of new methods of inexpensive, high quality art casting. Innovations at MIT included updating the ancient lost wax process of making molds by inventing the “foam vaporization” method. A sculpture carved in polystyrene would be encased in a sand mold, technicians poured molten metal into the mold, which evaporated the foam and left in its place a unique solid casting. So, in 1968 he partnered with fellow MIT co-worker Sandy Saunders and, with help from Putnam, opened an art foundry in a garage owned by Saunders’s family. The foundry, called Soltek (short for solidified technology), was located in Nelsonville, a village one hour north of New York City. The first piece they made to test their equipment and materials was a very small bronze rabbit. This rabbit, which may have been cast from a chocolate Easter bunny, is included in the exhibition. It is interesting that both Polich and his client-to-be, Jeff Koons, choose rabbits as their starting points for new directions. Belasco, in his catalog essay for the exhibition, notes the auspicious symbolism of this fruitful little animal. Eventually he and Saunders parted ways and Polich founded the first of his own businesses, which was called Tallix: playing on the word “metallics” and, with the “x”, harking to new technology and the creative intersection of art and industry.
Polich Tallix is constantly working with new artists and solving new problems. One of its recent projects has been with the art collective Bruce High Quality Foundation to fabricate in bronze one of the Foundation’s signature objects, a huge inflatable rat (Scab Rat) of the type commonly used in the United States by protesting or striking trade unions to call public attention to companies employing nonunion labor. Ongoing is a collaboration with artist Melissa McGill who is working on a plan for an installation entitled Constellation on Pollepel Island (AKA Bannerman Island) on the Hudson River. It will consist of a series of 17 slender tapered aluminum poles installed on the island at heights ranging from 40 to 80 feet, creating a visual vertical rhythm around the ruin of Bannerman Castle, drawing the eye upward while bringing attention to the missing remains of the castle. Small solar powered LED lights will be installed on the top of each pole, giving the appearance of individual lights floating in the night sky in constellations that will vary from night to night. Also, work from the foundry can be seen in some of the emotive sculptures of Lowell Miller at the Fletcher Gallery on Mill Hill Road in Woodstock. This exhibition, which opened on August 28, continues through September and is very much worth a visit.
I was fortunate to be at the museum making notes for this article when Dick Polich arrived to survey the exhibition. He was soon entertaining the young student museum-attendants with tales of derring-do from the foundry and the famous artists with whom he has worked, and they were enthralled. I was reminded of another octogenarian in our midst, the sculptor Gillian Jagger with whom I spent an afternoon researching another article for Roll, and the sense that eternal youth belongs to the enthusiastic and the curious. According to one staff member interviewed for the video, at 82 years old, Dick Polich is still the first to arrive at the foundry and the last to leave.
This exhibition is a landmark show and should be of interest to everyone. However, for those in the field of art, art history and especially sculpture, this is a must-see. The fully illustrated, 106-page catalog documents the exhibition and surveys Polich’s work with artists since the 1960s. Belasco contributes a scholarly art historical survey of 50 years of work produced by Polich and his foundries. Polich contributes a statement on craftsmanship and metal casting. Participating artists, including Janine Antoni, Jeff Koons, Tom Otterness, Rona Pondick, Martin Puryear, and Joel Shapiro, contribute personal statements about collaborating with Polich. And longtime employees Vanessa Hoheb and Thom Joyce provide behind-the-scenes descriptions of Polich’s energy and influence.
Featured image: “Pour” – photograph courtesy of the Polich Tallix Inc. archives and blog.
The exhibition is at Morgan Anderson Gallery, Howard Greenberg Family Gallery, and Corridor, of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz from August 27 – December 14, 2014. The opening reception is on Saturday, September 6, 2014, 5 – 7 pm
For visitor information including opening hours and directions, go HERE
On October 5th gallery there will be talk by Polich on the properties of metals, and a conversation between Polich and artists with whom he has worked closely on November 2nd. A panel discussion by artisans at the foundry will discuss the experiences and challenges of being the maker of an artist’s work.
To learn more about Polich Tallix Inc. see the company blog HERE
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company—as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: http://clairelambe.net/