Among the many revelations brought on by the Getty’s PST exhibition series this past year was the introduction of art fabricator/collaborator /conservator extraordinaire, Jack Brogan. And although it was PST that first leaked Brogan’s name out of the bag, it was Katherine Cone who subsequently scrawled it out for a trilogy of summer exhibitions at her eponymous gallery, titled and simultaneously taunting, “U Don’t Know Jack.” A quick glance at the roster of these exhibitions (including the likes of Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, Ed Moses, Helen Pashgian and DeWain Valentine for starters), and it becomes apparent that this man behind the scenes has been an integral component of creating much of the artwork that defined Southern California since the mid-1960s.
Upon meeting with Brogan on a recent visit to his studio, he instantly began a tour through his expansive studio filled with an endless variety of projects: honeycomb aluminum panels sprayed blacker-than-black for the next installment of Robert Irwin’s two-part exhibition “Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s” at the Pace Gallery in New York; a small bright blue Koons’ “puppy” in the process of restoration; and his current explorations of the “Jelly Bean” with Cosimo Cavallaro. Throughout, Brogan’s seemingly casual knowledge of materials, pigments and processes was delightful. Moving from room to room, the tall Tennessean was the consummate guide—opening a can of the deepest indigo pigment which “has lasted 40 years and will probably last 40 more,” explaining the mechanics of a vacuum canister designed to pull the bubbles from epoxy, and how a common household toaster oven is the key ingredient to remove the miniscule amounts of built-up moisture from dry pigments. And it was quite obvious that these exchanges were mere appetizers of Brogan’s vast experience.
Like many artists whose names have become synonymous with California art, Brogan moved to Los Angeles as an adult. Born in Ohio, Brogan grew up in Tennessee, where he took his first job working with a Dutch immigrant architect at the age of 12, “working mostly as a sander,” turning blueprints into reality. He trained as a master cabinetmaker and enrolled in mechanical engineering classes at the University of Tennessee. After the Korean War, he began his interaction with “unusual” materials as part of his experience in the control lab for the Atomic Energy Commission; among them was acrylic, which would be a key component in his later collaborations. Although, perhaps of equal importance, Brogan credits California as where he first discovered resin. In 1958, Brogan left Tennessee and made the move to Los Angeles in search of a dryer climate following a car accident and resultant neck surgery—a move of necessity that became one of serendipity. The first years of settling in proved a bit tumultuous when his furniture building and repair shop burned to the ground. He established his Venice Design Studio in 1965, where he ran a profitable business doing commercial work, never dreaming of a career working with artists.
But it was during this period that Brogan first met the artists who would shape his career, much as he would shape their work. The story begins when Brogan met Robert Irwin at Pancho’s, a Mexican restaurant, “a corner of a pool room really, where a lot of artists hung out.” Brogan had worked on creating the stretchers of Irwin’s dot paintings, and then as Brogan recalls, “a friend told him I had experience with acrylic.” Working to realize the artist’s intent, Brogan engineered the method to adhere the units of Irwin’s now-iconic prisms together to appear seamless, ranging from the 8-foot work on view at Katherine Cone in “Part 1” to the 33-foot acrylic column, which will re-emerge after years in storage at the new federal courthouse in San Diego later this year. To this day, Brogan considers these among his favorite works.
Not long after working with Irwin, Brogan met other artists now associated with the nascent Light & Space movement. Among the first was Peter Alexander, who has known Brogan for almost 50 years. Notes Alexander, “Brogan has always been the resource for information, he is patient and generous with his time.” He takes a slight pause before adding, “He is one of the few who can do what he does.”
Similarly, leading L&S artist Larry Bell, describes, with evident appreciation, Brogan’s importance to the developing art scene in Los Angeles. “Jack contributed enormously to the viability and the use of materials… he was able to translate technical data to data useful for artists,” Bell recalls fondly. “And also, the guy had a great sense of humor—the goofier the idea, the more he seemed to like it.”
Looking over the various projects with which Brogan has lent his hand over the past 40-plus years, his contributions were not only to the slick and high-polished. He also worked with architect Frank Gehry in creating his earliest cardboard furniture as well as Lynda Benglis’ gritty and misshapen metal knots. Nowadays, he is just as enthusiastic to describe the promise of new techniques, such as Carbon Fiber Rapid Prototyping, aka 3-D printing technologies.
The question lingers in the air when considering Brogan’s contributions: “artist or fabricator?” LA-based artist Lisa Bartleson recently worked with Brogan in the creation of a pair of hypnotic, translucent pyramids, titled as self-portraits. She explains, “He has all the connotations of a fabricator—but he is also an artist, he is very thoughtful to how the work will be seen, how it will hang and how the light will interact… he embodies aspects of an artist and an engineer.” With a similar tone, Cavallaro’s voice radiates with warmth as he speaks of his ongoing project with Brogan, working with pigments ranging from electric yellow to cool midnight blue. “I can’t wait to walk into to the studio and say ‘Jack!’” His enthusiasm is contagious as he continues, “When [Brogan] looks at something he likes, he says ‘yeah… yeah…’ And so you walk around the studio with him, waiting to hear that ‘yeah.’”
Perhaps longtime friend and associate Alexander summed it up best when asked of Brogan’s collaborations over the years, stating, “he provided the means for the fantasies.” Simply put, if Jack Brogan had stayed in Tennessee, the story of modern and contemporary art in California—including much of that celebrated this past year, with PST— would not be the same. And would be nowhere near as well-wrought.
Originally published in art ltd. magazine (Sep/Oct 2012).