Notes From 21 South Street: Art in Hand: A Conversation with Lawrence Voytek and Peter Ballantine

Artists have always had assistants—Greek sculpture was carved in workshops, and Rembrandt painted with aides whose anonymity continues to cause curatorial headaches. But the figure of the “fabricator” is a relative newcomer in the history of art production. The fabricator was born only a half a century ago, when a push toward the use of modern materials and bigger, more complex projects meant that the art waiting to be created was unrealizable without a trained hand.

Fabricators cut, solder and engineer ideas into formation; they build and construct technologically complex visions on behalf of their author. Fabricators are not just helpers. While they follow orders, fabricators know something that their bosses don’t: how to make the art work.

Beginning in the 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg synthesized found object and painting, technology and sculpture to generate art that whose form no longer offered easy understanding. Donald Judd stripped his creations to their most substantive essence so that his compositions equaled their content. In doing so, each obscured the lines between art and material, object and creation. Artistic innovation required a technical equivalent. For Lawrence Voytek1 and Peter Ballantine2, fabricators for Rauschenberg and Judd respectively, each day meant finding practical and mechanical solutions to ideas in gestation.

Voytek mastered material so that Rauschenberg didn’t have to. Welding, bending or just experimenting with anything industrial—from aluminum (he used over two tons in his 27 years working for Rauschenberg) to Renobond, 3 mm thick skin coating for skyscrapers—Voytek shaped the substance of Rauschenberg’s hybrid inventions. Ballantine, a carpenter, cut and glued Judd’s freestanding, discrete, plywood structures into their Minimalist simplicity. Unsupervised in his workshop, he built Judd objects as he might have built a table, so that the art would echo the kind of well-made appropriateness suitable to a finished product. He estimates that in his shop, entirely set up for Judd fabrication, he constructed 250 plywood cubes over the course of his career. In conversations with both their fabricators, one can hear the excitement of building art “like it had never been done before” resound twenty years later.

 Fabrication meant different things to Rauschenberg and Judd. For one, it was a means for increased experimentation, for the other, a way of distancing the artist’s hand from his creation. Rauschenberg’s delegation was practical—he simply could not produce the work himself—whereas for Judd, the delegating a task meant transferring control. As a result, the two artists developed distinct relationships with their colleagues. Rauschenberg kept his fabricators close by. Judd had no contact besides the initial object order and its final pick-up. But today, both Ballantine and Voytek retain a fierce trust in the artists they worked for. It is always “my artist” and always “the work.” 

The Harvard Advocate: How did you get started as a fabricator?

Lawrence Voytek: In college at RISD, I worked a lot in the industrial design department. When I graduated, my wife-to-be and I moved to Florida, where I took classes at Edison Community College. [Robert Rauschenberg’s] fabricator before me had recently left, so I sent my portfolio to him [Rauschenberg]. Bob had me come out to interview. It was pretty intense. Bob was always a hero of mine. I had seen a lot of films on him. When I was going to school, some were into Jasper [Johns], some into Roy [Lichtenstein], but I was always into Bob.

I went and I knocked. He said, “I’m Bob Rauschenberg.” I said, “I’m Lawrence Voytek.” That day, [other assistants] showed me where the welder work and they asked me if I could weld an aluminum frame. No one ever told me that I had the job but they told to come back tomorrow cause they had more frames for me to work on. 

Peter Ballantine: I came to New York in 1968 to be in the Whitney Independent Studies Program, which was just starting. Judd was one of the teachers there. I ran out of the money I brought with me and in those days, the fashion was for artists who needed to make money was to be a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician.

I started working for Judd on his building on Spring Street as a carpenter. I learned carpentry on the job—out of books. I always said yes whenever he asked me to do something. In 1971, he brought me a paper with a sketch and asked me if I could make it.

HA: Can you describe the studio? What kind of work did you do?

PB: There was no typical day at the studio—there was no one studio. There was Judd’s building over at Spring Street. That was a studio and the idea-making happened there. But that studio was not a place where art got made; the Judd studio was not where things got cut and glued. The art was made in shops. There was my shop, one in Switzerland, one in Long Island City and others. The shops were small, with only 1 or 2 people. Or in case of Bernstein Brothers—an industrial metal shop in Queens where fabrication started, there were 5,6,7,8 people working but only one guy doing the Judd.

My shop was in my house. There was a lot of work to do. Judd was prolific and sometimes before a show there would be a big rush of things to finish. It was basically a small factory. When you are an artist fabricator, you sometimes end up pulling a lot of all-nighters. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. If you had a shop in your house, you could glue up at 10 and do another one at midnight. Weekdays, weekends, evenings and all that stuff—I didn’t make distinctions among those.

Sweating about the materials was a big part of the job. It’s a special problem in Judd’s case because you’ve got angles that have to come together with other angles. If you introduce curves into that, you’re in trouble. I was always looking for really good material. 

LV: Captiva [an island off the coast of Florida where Rauschenberg held his studio] was very magical back in the early 80s. Bob’s studio was a simple piling building that faced the Gulf of Mexico. You could probably throw a stone from the studio it into the water. Bob would be working upstairs, in a 35x45 ft studio with glass doors that facing the Gulf. It was painted white and he worked on a large table in the center of the room. The welder worked below the studio and there were a lot of mosquitoes and it was hot and balmy. The bugs and the wildlife—it was like being in a tropical jungle.

Bob was a collaborative artist and there were always a group of people working with him. I did all the welding and putting the pieces and the parts together. In the early years, we lived a very gregarious sort of party lifestyle, but it always focused around what Bob was doing. We would get everything ready for him during the day. He would wake up and go to the beach and hang out. Since he was part Cherokee, he would get a dark tan. Then he would have a nice lunch. We would get to the studio before the sun went down and everything would be prepared and then he would work.

My working hours were really crazy. Sometimes we would work through the night. At one point I worked 73 days in a row without taking a day off, just because we had so much to do. 

HA: How would you start working on a piece?

PB: Sometimes I got a phone call. Sometimes it would just be a discussion in person with me taking notes. Sometimes he gave me a drawing. But those were not engineering drawings. In fact, you would be surprised how un-drawing-like they were.  They were sometimes just ideograms—tools to get the work made. But I didn’t always need drawings because I knew his work pretty well.

Judd never stopped by. It wasn’t because the shop wasn’t close. My shop was a block and a half away from his studio. It was so close that you could walk over and discuss the new pieces that you were thinking about in the rain without an umbrella. But you weren’t running to ask, “Should I use a darker grain of plywood?” That kind of stuff—the type of plywood, where to cut the sheet, to a large extent the details of the joints—those were fabricator decisions. They were not Judd decisions. You just had to make those decisions. There’s a lot of amount of unspoken trust in fabrication.

When we had discussions, they were practical, not aesthetic. I knew what he wanted and he knew that I knew what he wanted. He didn’t have to over-explain it. Though in pure theoretical fabrication, we wouldn’t be discussing that at all. 

LV: Bob always had a lot of vivid dreams. I would come to work and he would tell me what he had dreamt. He would dream of a glass car tire and he wanted to make a glass car tire. That started a long journey of getting in touch with glass blowers and mold maker and finding the perfect tire that he wanted to mold.

I was also in charge of development and research, so I would read samples of what industry was playing around. Bob would see something and would say, “I want to play with this” and we would order it and he would start playing with it.

Bob was a real hand-on person. He was also like a little child—he wanted to see everything. He would come up with ideas and he wanted to see different materials and different ways he could do them. So I would make samples. He would say, “I want this” and I would show him this, this, this and this and he would say, “I like this one the best.” It was like getting a show-and-tell together. It was pretty wild—like bringing a child a new toy to play with. And we would buy these expensive exotic materials and he would just play with them.

PB: Judd made a point of not playing around in his studio.

The studios were removed from him and he from them. That was essential to do what he was trying to do. Judd was looking to work within other traditions and he was looking for well-made pieces. He got control in his work by ceding control and putting the work into these old traditions of good workmanship, like carpentry and sheet-metal work. This was fabrication in a straight, classic factory kind of way, like the Ford plant in Michigan, in which you don’t know who is fabricating and there’s no fabricator’s hand. This way of working that Judd did, the idea of fabrication is now pretty well accepted. You could name 100 people who do it today, but in 1964, it was pretty unusual. 

The other day I was watching a Sol Lewitt wall drawing project going on nearby. Lewitt is famous for delegating the work to others. But while everyone was working, there were instructions taped on the wall. Those guys were working on a real set of instructions! And in “The Factory,” Andy Warhol might not be there for three weeks but then he was there. If you are going to delegate and supervise at the same time, that’s not delegation. With Judd, it was real delegation.  

HA: What do you feel when you see something you built in a museum? Would the work look different if it had been made by a different fabricator?

PB: I have a shop where I am the only person, alone with these pieces for their whole gestation and birth, so I have quite an intense relationship with them. Once they are gone, they were never my pieces, but when I am constructing, they are my something, “pieces” is not right word. I come back into a relationship like that when there’s damage and I have to restore the piece.  I can almost always tell my own work. Even though I strived to do top quality anonymous work, I can tell the way I did glue blocks.

I have a feeling toward the pieces I made that I would see in a show in Zurich almost equivalent to driving by an apartment in Chelsea that I used to live in when I first came to New York. It’s not, “That’s my piece.” I don’t have a proprietary interest and even, when I am looking at a show, I don’t go rushing across the room to tell someone not to touch a piece. They become as if I hadn’t made them.

LV: When I look through the Bob’s work, I can tell you this is an Eric Holt, this is a Brice Marden. When I started working for Bob, I changed the shop and I brought in everything. Anybody else would have done something different. Even [art historian] Calvin Tomkins said in a review that he preferred Bob’s work before that high-tech fabricator, me.

But if you look through Bob’s work, I hope you feel it’s all Bob and not the apprentice helping. In some ways having the non-ego when you fabricate for somebody else and trying to make what somebody else wants while your attitude was invisible—that was always important in working with Bob. Sometimes people want their mark to be known. But I think that the vision of the artist should be valued. And that’s a strange thing. You don’t want to say “Look at me” you want to say, “Look at him.”

This interview was conducted in three parts—one-on-one phone calls with Mr. Voytek and Mr. Ballantine respectively, as well as a phone conversation with both at once. The text was then condensed and edited.

1 Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Lawrence Voytek realized that he wanted to be an artist from an early age. He graduated Rhode Island School of Design in 1982 with a degree in sculpture and started working for Rauschenberg that same year. Since Rauschenberg’s death in 2008, Voytek has been completing approved works, including some for the Obama sculpture garden. When he is done, he plans on returning to his own art, both painting and sculpture.

2 Peter Ballantine grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He went to college in Colorado, where he was an art major. He fabricated for Judd from 1971 to February 1994, Judd’s death. He then spent ten years as an art supervisor for the Judd Foundation. Since 2004, he has worked as a freelance restorer and curator. Ballantine is currently organizing a symposium on Judd and fabrication to occur this April.