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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
Art

The Alchemist:
A Profile of Jack Brogan

“He is thoroughly sure of his expertise and his value. He is very much his own man.”

Jack Brogan.
Jack Brogan.

As Margaret Honda, who was in the process of writing a master’s dissertation about his practice, parsed things back in the summer of 1990, as part of a three-way conversation in Visions magazine, “One thing a lot of artists know is that if you try to get something done in a regular industrial shop, they often restrict the work to what they normally handle in order to make a profit. The people who have the equipment to do what artists want don’t have the time or the interest, and the people who do have the time and interest often don’t have the resources.” Regarding which he himself concurred, sheepishly, aw-shucksingly, as is his wont, observing how “We don’t worry too much about the business part.” At which point, the artist Lynda Benglis intervened: “Well, it’s not only that. He doesn’t just deal with the materials, he deals with the aesthetics and the feeling of the piece, and that’s much more important than just having a fabricator.”

“Everybody was using him back then,” the artist Doug Wheeler recently told me, when I called to ask him about the fellow’s role in the gestation of the Light and Space movement, the Finish Fetish-flecked “Cool School” of Southern California art, as it got variously characterized back then in the mid-’60s and ’70s “It would have been hard to imagine the scene without him, or for that matter what it is going to be like up ahead when he’s gone.”

I was collecting impressions because the news had started circulating that, now approaching age 90, the guy was getting set to retire—as Wheeler suggested, an almost inconceivable prospect.

“He’s the godfather of a whole field,” Christopher Knight, the premier art critic at the Los Angeles Times, opined for an online commemoration of the freighted moment over on the Art Report Today website. “Today … fabricators are a dime a dozen, but he is one in a million.”

Jack's boots
Jack's boots

Ed Moses, one of the seminal artists associated with the Ferus Gallery core of the movement from its earliest days, used to refer to him as “The Wizard,” keying off his stunningly various competencies, and Christopher Pate, a more recent artist and exhibition manager, seemed to concur, as part of that same Art Report Today symposium, denominating him Gandalf, in part owing to his taste for alchemical secrecy. Albeit a Cowboy Gandalf, his signature penchant being “for high end cowboy boots made of exotic leathers such as alligator and snake …any pair of which can cost as much as a decent used car,” which “for a man not ostentatious in any other prominent way” struck Pate as “an admirable gesture.”

“Somebody once described him as a sophisticated hillbilly,” Helen Pashgian, another of his earliest artist clients, told me. “As far as I am concerned, he is one of the most generous people ever to walk the planet.”

“A consummate Southern gentleman,” concurred the artist John Eden in that Art Report Today digest, going on to recall the time “in 1976 when he was in Amsterdam working on a James Turrell install. After the opening at the Stedelijk Museum, a selected group of insiders ended up at a canal-side outdoor café, during dinner he couldn’t help noticing how a notoriously misbehaving German gallerist was being abusive toward the assistant curator’s wife. After having been asked several times to knock-it-off, the dealer stepped it up a notch by pouring his glass full of wine into the woman’s purse. For consummate gentleman, that was a bridge too far, so he picked the gallerist up by his finely tailored britches and cast him into the canal, just ‘to cool him down some.’”

Elsewhere, in a Bill Clarkson documentary chronicling the manifold technical processes of the same gent, Eden had summed things up, “If we were in Japan, he would be a national treasure.” In the Art Report Today festschrift, though, Eden’s characterization had been a tad more sulphurous. After celebrating the way that working with him could afford artists “a perfect union of their original intent, intertwined with his encyclopedic input of materials,” Eden went on to say, “Hanging out at [his] shop back in the day was like being at Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. In short, it was the nitty-gritty real epicenter of the West Coast artworld, where everybody came to make a lightning strike.”

The veteran artist Peter Alexander, another of the fellow’s earliest beneficiaries, went the opposite direction. When I asked him a while back how he would characterize the guy if he were, say, trying to frame his role for the benefit of someone at a dinner party who’d never heard of him, he paused for a moment and then responded, “He was The Angel. He set the standard.” Was it that he only chose to work with artists of that certain standard, I asked Alexander, “or was it rather that all of you felt you had to stretch yourselves even to be worthy of his ministrations?” At which point Alexander doubled back, “Well, I mean, I said he was The Angel. He wasn’t God!

“A living folk hero” is how Honda put it at another point. The Ferus veteran Larry Bell, for his part, zeroed in on the guy’s hands: “They’re unique: those long fingers. How the way he holds even the most delicate things is the opposite of dainty: just matter of fact. He comes off as shy, but believe me, he is not afraid to tackle anything. Behind that hesitant veneer, he has prodigious self-confidence.” Guy Dill, meanwhile, keyed off on his ears, citing his obvious mastery as a technician and an engineer, but more especially his exquisite capaciousness as “a listener.”

He’s been running his “own one-man think tank” is how Eric Johnson, one of the leading second generation Light and Space sculptors, put it, “He went about it as a real chemistry solution. You know, this is the components, this is the solvents, this is what the binders are, and he worked that way towards it, which nobody really did, you know in the past. Artists don’t really care about all that stuff, we just care if it works or not . But he would know why it worked.”

Sometimes he characterized himself as “a technical artist,” by which he meant that for him it was never just a job, as it usually would be for any ordinary industrial fabricator; he demanded total involvement in each fresh project (and he rewarded such engagement). “Some people can’t accept the fact that I’m actually involved in their work,” he told Honda at one point. “But then we don’t work together very long.”

For Robert Irwin, the artist who’s known him the longest, who likes to think he “discovered” him and then began turning all the other artists onto his discovery (the two are almost the same age, and for all its complications, theirs is still probably the closest of his artistic relationships)—anyway, for Bob, it’s really quite simple. As he told me the other day, “He was simply integral to the whole scene. He became The Man, and to this day he is The Man.”

*


As a boy growing up in Depression era Tennessee, living with his older sister and brother on his grandparents’ farmstead 25 miles northwest of Knoxville, little Jack Brogan started coming by his trove of practical knowledge from the very outset.

Actually his sister Beatrice wasn’t his sister: she was his mother. When she’d been a teenager, fresh out of high school, a few years earlier, she’d fallen hard for a drinking buddy of her brother Elmer’s, an engineer named Horace Seidner who was passing through the area, laying down the Chicago-Atlanta Highway, and he quickly proceeded to spirit her back to his own hometown of Springfield, Ohio, where Jack was born in 1930. But Seidner soon grew bored with the both of them, going out carousing and coming home mad, and a year later Jack’s grandfather William Brogan came up to Springfield to spirit mother and son back to the farm, adopting the boy soon after and fending off various attempts by Seidner over the ensuing years to kidnap him back. It wasn’t until Jack was five or so that he began to sort out just who was who.

Grandpa William Brogan was a prodigiously industrious fellow. By day he worked as foreman for the railroad, two of whose lines coursed along either side of the farm’s perimeter. As a result of its position, slotted like that between the two lines, the farm wasn’t hooked into the surrounding electrical grid till well into the Tennessee Valley Authority ’30s; but in the meantime, William had contrived an elaborate system of Coleman gas stoves, lanterns, and pipe connections, all of which fascinated young Jack. The old man had a blacksmith shop, into whose service as bellows-minder Jack was conscripted from virtual toddlerhood. He had a garage with a drop floor, and two separate water systems, and his grandson regularly traipsed about behind him as he worked on both. In plusher times Grandpa had bought up five surrounding farms which he rented out, so there were all those repairs as well, with Jack regularly in tow. Jack’s grandma, Susan Jane, a sort of herbal healer and midwife, kept a fruit tree orchard and a smokehouse, the latter two of which likewise absorbed the boy’s attention.

Jack was an exceptionally inquisitive and restless rascal from the start, and regularly found himself getting subjected to swift applications of the switch by his exasperated grandfather. During one of the sessions we had several months back at the kitchen table of the Santa Monica home Jack shares with his wife, the abstract artist Edith Baumann, he recalled how at age four he’d taken apart a clock—he was always taking things apart and trying to put them back together, only this time he couldn’t figure out the last steps, and for fear of the switch, he just took off, running away and not resurfacing till well after dark. (He’d often well up in tears, his voice halting, as he dredged up such memories.) A few years later, when little Jack had contrived a small lab for himself in the basement, he was trying to concoct ink for a quill pen he’d fashioned, and one of his cousins ratted on him to Grandpa, said he’d stolen some of the grandfather’s ink, and his Grandpa came storming down accusing him of the theft, and Jack protested that, no, this was his own formulation, and Grandpa roared “Don’t you lie to me!” and tore into him with the switch, cutting his back up good—“but where was your mother,” I interrupted, “couldn’t she protect you?” “Aw,” Jack said, “she’d re-married and she was long gone. My grandma was less severe,” he added, as an afterthought, “and sometimes she intervened, but she died by the time I was eight.”

Helen Pashgian recalled for me how once, early on in their working relationship, when Jack was being exceedingly exacting in his demands with regard to her own polishing efforts, she’d asked him how he himself had come by such intense discipline, and he told her a story about how “when he was very young, he noticed how his Grandpa kept a jug of some sort of hooch up on a high shelf from which he took a swig each evening, and naturally the little boy asked to try some and was told, “No, that’s not for you.” But over the next several days the kid began trying to figure out how to get at the jug, piling chair upon box upon chair and getting closer and closer, and his Grandpa must have been noticing this, because when he, Jack, finally reached the jug and brought it down and took a swig for himself, it turned out his Grandpa had replaced the hooch with gasoline or linseed oil or some such, and the little boy swallowed a whole mouthful, to memorably burning and gagging effect. And he told me,” Pashgian continued, “how he’d taken two big lessons from the experience. One, never again to contradict his Grandpa. And two, most importantly—and he pointed to my own inadequate polishing efforts in this regard—how some things are just absolute.”

Grandpa was an anti-FDR Republican, Brogan recalled, though he donated the land for the local school, which Jack attended, doing well enough in math and science and, to some degree, history, but proving completely hopeless at English and reading. The only A he ever got was in chemistry, which he loved. By age nine he had taken on an after-school job working for a Dutch architect who’d launched a nearby practice, helping with cabinet making and finishing (he used to love sanding—both rendering the sandpaper itself out of silica and horsehide glue and then sanding and resanding the various objects, losing himself in daydreams); and presently, after age 12 (by which time he’d begun sprouting the tall and lanky body by which he’s so well known to this day), he was also driving the architect around, especially after the latter’s visits to the local honky-tonk speak-easy. His grandfather died when he was 14, after which he lived for a few years with his uncle, who’d take him fishing and employed him in his concrete-block-and-pipe making factory. Starting at 16, he began selling Bibles, at which he proved exceptionally proficient, earning upwards of 30 to 50 dollars a day up and down the backroads leading back to Knoxville (“It was a bit of con,” he confesses, “since I was a nonbeliever, but I was trying to save up for college.”)

On the very day he graduated high school, he high-tailed it to Detroit, quickly snagging jobs building engines at Chrysler by day and car bodies at General Motors by night, and enrolling in the latter’s four-year Tool and Dye Making Course, of which he only completed six months when a series of post-war strikes swept through the auto industry, and he returned to Tennessee, where he enrolled in a local college, studying engineering, but only lasting another six months (“I just couldn’t deal with the literature requirements,” he explains). That would prove the extent of his formal post-secondary education: everything else he’d continue picking up as if by osmosis—his being an exceptionally porous sensibility (“Everything Jack knows,” Robert Irwin once told me, approvingly, “he knows by experience and not from books.”). He got odd-jobs trucking produce from farms to road stands and even ran a general store of his own for a few months, by which point the local draft board caught up with him.

It was 1950 and he was sent down to Alabama to train for a pontoon bridge building company and up to Wisconsin to train others at same, and then out to Korea, where he served as a scout and sharpshooter in the 24th infantry for 27 harrowing months, an experience about which he tends to grow even more laconic than usual, not hazarding much more than that he’d “faced terrifying life-threatening experiences every day and seen things I’d rather not go into.” Had he ever been injured himself? “No,” he replies, pausing: “I paid attention.” End of that part of the conversation.

After his release from the army in 1953, he returned to Tennessee, where he took to buying, repairing and reselling used cars; running moonshine through mountain passes; and working for his uncle, hauling concrete blocks to Oak Ridge, on the southeast side of Knoxville, where the Atomic Energy Commission was quickly expanding operations. He presently obtained clearance to be able to work in the controlled part of the lab there, initially on the night shift familiarizing himself with precision instruments, checking uranium for purity and waste as it was leaving, and presently getting introduced to all sorts of other cutting-edge innovations in acrylics and plastics.

Concurrently, he bought himself a concrete plant for which he innovated a system whereby he could pour blocks in the morning, steam cure them over noon, and load them for delivery by five, while also casting custom architectural parts and inventing a separate system for extruding concrete pipes.

At which point, in late 1957, what three years’ worth of North Korean and Chinese soldiers couldn’t accomplish, a drunk driver speeding at 80 miles an hour managed to do in a split second: laying him low with an excruciating spinal injury. Following experimental neck surgery (“the first surgeon to do it”) and an extended period of convalescence, Brogan’s doctors recommended he head out west, to Arizona, where the warmer and drier climate might facilitate his further recovery. He spent a couple weeks in Phoenix, grew bored, and headed on to Los Angeles.

*


Los Angeles, on the other hand, especially in the booming late ’50s, was a whole other kettle of wax. And resin, and polyurethane, and acrylics—and aerospace and tract-housing and high-end design. And Brogan threw himself into the roiling mix with avid enthusiasm.

He started out with a little cabinet and furniture-finishing shop of his own on Melrose, with a sideline in adult games (X-rated games!? “Oh no,” he clarifies, “inlaid tabletop board games and the like for grown-ups, which were very popular in those days before laptops and cable TV”)—until one night that studio burned to the ground. And then he worked for Packard Bell for a while, before launching a further succession of studios, working his way west toward ocean-fronting Venice where he’d be based by the mid-’60s. He’d arrived in town with a wife (a high school sweetheart from back in Tennessee), and they soon had two daughters, so he was regularly working two full time gigs at the same time. He designed lobbies, fabricated models, and provided logos and other increasingly elaborate sorts of signage for tract developers like Dunn Realty and Eli Broad (“I was always offering something extra—gold leaf, or a particularly exquisite finish—to give myself an edge. I was concocting special recipes for the various urethanes, and by the time others caught up, I’d simply have moved on.”) He innovated manufacturing processes for Knoll Furniture and solved production problems on Eames designs for Herman Miller. He did emergency overnight jobs for Hollywood clients (the directors loved him). He always had at least one vintage model automobile in the back that he was working on (and does to this day). He was in his element, and beginning to make a solid living.

Before that first studio burnt down, he’d sometimes take his lunches over at the Lucky U, a local pool hall known for its Mexican plates, where a bunch of young artists—Robert Irwin, Billy Al Benston, Craig Kauffman and others from the Ferus gang—seemed regularly to gather and banter. So was that where he first met them? “Actually, no,” Brogan explains, “I’d just watch them from a distance, they were pretty noisy and outrageous, and I’d be thinking, ‘Don’t those guys ever work?’” Why didn’t he join in on the festivities? “Oh, I was pretty shy, and anyway, I didn’t want to waste my time, I had work to do, I had mouths to feed.”

But as it happens, Irwin himself walked into Brogan’s cabinetry shop one day a few months later; he’d tried everywhere but he was still looking for someone who could help him in crafting a gently compound-curved, convex-bowed armature over which he was intending to spread canvas for a series of dot paintings he was about to undertake. “And as I say,” Irwin for his own part recalls, “it became immediately apparent that this guy was The Man.”

“I suggested he do the armature the way they used to do the old biplanes,” Brogan recalls.

How had he known about how they used to do the old biplanes? “Oh, once, when I was about six, my Grandpa took me along with him to some sort of political meeting, and I got bored and began walking around and came upon this guy out back who was building himself a barnstorming plane, cutting out the thin wood struts for the wings, and I was just mesmerized, spent hours watching—they had to come find me.” And he remembered that technique from all the way back when he was six? “Yup,” he nodded. (Edith on the other side of the kitchen table just rolled her eyes and smiled at me, as if to indicate how, Yup, this was typical, this is what we’re dealing with here.)

Jack Brogan in his studio at Lincoln Boulevard, Venice, mid 1970s.
Jack Brogan in his studio at Lincoln Boulevard, Venice, mid 1970s.

Brogan’s talents were evident to all sorts of folks besides Irwin and he was regularly getting lucrative offers to join high end design and cabinetry firms, as he regularly would for decades to come, but, dreading “being owned by or beholden to others,” he always demurred. Instead, in 1965, he founded Design Concepts on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, which offered “fabrication on a custom basis for builders, architects and industrial designers.” Unlike most of his competitors, when Brogan took on a job, say, executing a luxury desk, he would finish and polish and buff the thing all the way around, including the base and the undercarriage, and the interiors of the drawer sleeves, places that no one would ever bother to look, because, as he would say, “How could one not?” Such all-around perfection was simply integral to the integrity of the work. (Shades, again, of his Grandpa.) During the firm’s early years, 30 percent of his business came from NASA and the Southland’s defense and aerospace contractors (these were the peak years of both the space race and the cold war) and involved the most advanced innovations in resin, laminates, plastics, and other such materials applications, and all the while Brogan was forging compounding innovations of his own and steadily equipping his studio with the capacity for executing them.

Around the same time, Irwin came back to Brogan as he was trying to figure out how to produce the ever-so-slightly bulging circular discs he was intending to float out from the wall in his next (and last) series of paintings. (The automotive body shops he’d been auditioning were having trouble exacting the precise swell of the thing.) “Before Jack,” Irwin told me, “I used to have to drive all over town looking for folks who could try, and usually fail, to achieve the effects I was after. But Jack could do it all, or at any rate would know who to call on for anything he didn’t already know. It was like one-stop shopping.” And more than that: it was becoming a non-stop symposium. Irwin was spending more and more of his time over at Brogan’s (Design Concepts was less than a mile from Irwin’s own Venice studio), riffing and blue-skying, and increasingly, for all intents and purposes, collaborating.

“The issue with those discs, especially the later acrylic ones,” Brogan recalls, “was how to give them enough tensile strength so that they didn’t sag: they were extremely delicate.” Irwin, for his part, had gotten to a point in his career where he was less and less interested in the object as such (couldn’t even be bothered to make it himself)—or rather, to be more precise, he was becoming more and more interested in the object as an occasion, a prompt, for the experience of perception, which was his increasingly consuming focus. “And the thing about that kind of work, when the artwork is merely the cue and not itself the subject matter,” Irwin continued, “is that the object has to be expertly, meticulously crafted, precisely so as to avoid calling attention to itself, and in that regard, there was just nobody but Jack who could do it.”

And word began to get around: Irwin saw to it. These were the very years when those who would become the Light and Space artists were pouring themselves into the pursuit of translucence, of amorphous atmospheric effects, the quicksilver capture of luminosity itself. They were likewise starting to experiment with resins, urethanes, and plastics, all of which were proving devilishly difficult (not to mention dangerous) to work with. “Go ask Jack,” Irwin would urge them, and they’d soon be urging one another.

Jack Brogan spraying heated metallic mist at a Lynda Benglis knotted cloth piece
Jack Brogan spraying heated metallic mist at a Lynda Benglis knotted cloth piece

Peter Alexander sought counsel on how to cast and cure polyester and resin, and as he recalls, “Jack was endlessly open and generous and engaged—he was just so curious.” Ron Cooper was wrestling with fiberglass, and presently lasers; Guy Dill with strapped sheets of glass, and his brother Laddie was looking for a lighter material with the physical quality of concrete to deploy in sculptural combination with slicing panes of glass, got that, and in the process got a whole new concrete-like material for painting with as well. Larry Bell got help metal-plating vast standing panes of glass for a show up in Santa Barbara (“Jack contributed enormously to the viability and the use of materials across our entire community,” Bell once remarked, going on, “He was able to translate highly technical data into language that could be useful for artists. And besides, the guy had a great sense of humor—the goofier the idea, the more he seemed to like it.”) Ed Moses needed help achieving a series of identically even monochrome finishes across a sequence of large square paintings. Tony DeLap did a lot of his own work, but relied on Jack for the installation of his major public installations, like that magic The Big Wave gateway arch over Wilshire as the boulevard enters Santa Monica. Chris Burden had Brogan engineer the erector set components of his model bridges. Lynda Benglis was trying to figure out how to render a series of knotted cloth pieces more permanent, perhaps by bronzing them, and instead got introduced to a new spray process whose nozzle spewed out a metallic mist at 4,000 degrees (in the end, once the pieces were buffed and polished, all that would be left was the part that Jack had worked on). Which is not even to mention the swirling cardboard furniture he (and to a lesser extent Irwin) invented and Frank Gehry presently hijacked for his own, to Brogan’s massive financial detriment (Brogan still has the original prototypes and all the diagrams for their manufacture—but that’s a whole other story and probably deserves an essay of its own.) Sometimes Brogan only consulted (at one point he was even awarded an NEA grant to do nothing but that); other times he would end up fabricating virtually the entire piece in question.

Helen Pashgian, a Pasadena-born art historian, had matriculated at Pomona and Boston College and was on the verge of launching into a Ph.D at Harvard (with a focus on the light-besotted painters of the Dutch Golden Age) when she veered into art-making instead, in the process returning to Southern California and presently becoming one of a group of artists in residence at CalTech exploring the expressive potential of the sorts of resins the aerospace industry was fast pouring forth. A couple days before the opening of an exhibition given over to the group’s work, she was becoming increasingly frantic as she endeavored to complete the finish on an extraordinarily ambitious freestanding 60-inch transparent clear polyester resin disc that she’d cast herself, and, as she recently explained to me, “My fellow artist-in-residence Peter Alexander suggested that maybe I’d better go talk to Jack, who I’d never heard of at the time. But I did, drove all the way crosstown to his studio on Lincoln—there he was, this tall lanky guy in blue jeans and a denim shirt with a premature mop of grey curls and this lilting Southern accent, completely open and approachable, and he listened thoughtfully and then suggested that maybe he’d better come back with me to CalTech to pick up the piece and bring it back to his studio, which he did, it took five guys to hoist the thing onto the back of his truck, and I followed him back—and the thing was, he got it, he just understood the exigencies and the emergencies of an artist’s life, and he stayed up all that night, sand-polishing the thing with water hoses and hand pads, and then hauled it back to CalTech the next afternoon just in time for the opening. And never even charged me. But the results were beautiful, so clean and smooth and gleaming”—so beautiful, in fact, that the piece was stolen clean out of the show a few days later and never seen again!—“but I decided … I mean, I liked to think of myself as self-sufficient, was already doing all my own casting, but it was obvious that this guy had an eye like no other and hence a lot to teach, so I started driving cross town a couple days a week just to work on my smaller pieces there in his presence, and to listen in as the other artists would come by to talk with him, and especially the conversations between him and Bob Irwin, who seemed to be there all the time.

“In particular I wanted to learn how better to polish my surfaces. He told me that the surfaces I made were shit. Whereas I thought, notwithstanding that one moment of panic, that they were already pretty good. So he said he would teach me how to do it, and then he would go off and do other things for a while and occasionally come back and check in on how I was doing. I was working with those same hand pads and water tubes and after a couple of hours, he’d amble over, and you know how he has those big hands, he would take the palm of his hand and he’d go like this and smooth off all the water and then get down, way down, and he’d peer at the thing from the side, and he’d say, in his wonderful Southern accent, he’d say, ‘Not good enough.’ I’d almost groan in exasperation: ‘Jack, that's the best I can do.’ And he’d say, soft and gentle, ‘No … it’s not the best you can do.’ And then he’d float that famous phrase of his, he’d say, ‘Make it niiiiice.’ He's the only person I ever knew who could stretch the word ‘nice’ into three syllables: ‘Make it ni-iii-ice.’ And I’d throw myself back into the work, and eventually, maybe, he would say, ‘Okay,’ which was the highest praise he would ever give and by that time was hugely satisfying praise indeed.”

Pashgian paused, smiling, before concluding, “In my earlier life, I’d been lucky enough to study with some of the greatest academic art historians and theorists of that era, but I can honestly say that, in a really important sense, it was Jack who taught me to see.”

Installing Irwin's thirty-three foot Prism at Northridge Mall, 1971. Jack seated, bends over, his back to the viewer.
Installing Irwin's thirty-three foot Prism at Northridge Mall, 1971. Jack seated, bends over, his back to the viewer.

Around the same time (the late ’60s and early ’70s), Robert Irwin was approaching “point zero” in his own successive dematerializations of the art object, trying, for example, to come up with a piece that might flash, gleam-like, out of the corner of a passerby’s eye but would disappear almost completely if gazed upon directly (again, that insistence on perception itself, perceiving oneself perceiving, as being the true subject of art), and at a certain point he hit upon the notion of creating a series of slender, precision machined, vertically mounted acrylic prisms. The machining was not that hard a challenge for Brogan, but the trouble was that the high-quality transparent acrylic slabs out of which they were hoping to carve the prisms only came in lengths of four feet, whereas Irwin was aiming for eight-, and presently sixteen-foot-high columns—and how on earth were they going to join the various slabs seamlessly, such that there wouldn’t even be the slightest hint of a horizontal suture? “That one kept me up all night, trying to formulate the bond,” Brogan recalls—the novel process he eventually came up with involved neither glue nor heat but rather “solvent welding,” slathering solvent on both tips and then subjecting their joining to pressures in excess of 35,000 pounds per square inch (and that wasn’t even counting the weeks and weeks of buffing and polishing that then had to ensue). In the end, Irwin presented Brogan with the challenge of achieving one such jumbo column that was over 30 feet tall. By the time that one got installed in the Northridge Shopping Mall in 1971, the piece (“as clear as a contact lens”) was the second largest optical device in all of Southern California (right after one of the mirrors at the Mount Palomar observatory), and a couple of decades later, when the 1994 Northridge earthquake utterly flattened most of the surrounding shopping center, the prism emerged still standing, sovereign and unscathed. (Today it graces the Federal Courts building in San Diego—a metaphor for justice perhaps: now you see it, now you don’t.)

*


According to Margaret Honda, who scrupulously tabulated the particulars in her dissertation, by 1967, 10 percent of Design Concept’s billable hours (albeit at a much less substantial rate) were being logged to artists, with the lavish profits from his work with higher end-clients going to cover the difference, and in particular allowing Brogan to devote a substantial portion of his time to pure research, to stocking his workshop with the most-up-to-date equipment (“I wanted to get my shop to the point where I had everything I needed to do anything I might want,” he told Clarkson for his documentary), and to training a long term cadre of presently expert artisan-assistants (the plurality of whom, as time went on, would hail from Mexico or Guatemala, though he himself spoke not a word of Spanish). He never promoted himself, he explained to me, “because if you advertised, you were honor-bound to take on anybody who came through the door, which I didn’t want to have to do. It was all word of mouth. And I kept time-cards on all the jobs I did, because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t charging too much.” Not that that was ever much of an issue with the artists in those days, few of whom had any money to speak of anyway. “I could have made a lot more money, I suppose,” he acknowledges, “but I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.” At any rate, according to Honda, by 1975, the year Brogan transferred his operation down to San Pedro (for what would prove to be the next couple of decades), the proportion of his labors given over to art projects had ballooned closer to 85 percent.

For one thing, there were fresh new artists constantly calling on his studio: Robert Thierren, Alexis Smith, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Lisa Bartleson, and countless others. One veteran in particular, John McCracken, who’d already made a considerable name for himself fashioning sumptuously color-saturated plinths (featuring layer upon layer of high gloss paint and sanding and polishing, all of which the artist himself had rendered by hand), commissioned Brogan to execute a fresh series of such plinths, from provided diagrams clean through to completion, this time with a skin of exquisitely mirroring stainless steel. In order to avoid the slightest surface distortions (which would have led to unfortunate funhouse mirror effects), Brogan had to invent an entirely new polishing protocol. At one point, after he and his assistants had subjected one column to 15 rounds of sanding and burnishing, McCracken dropped by and was completely floored by the result, but Brogan harrumphed as to how he was pretty sure he could make it better still, and proceeded to lavish a further 20 rounds of polishing. (Each of the ensuing plinths ended up requiring upwards of 80 man-hours of finishing to complete). Granted, other efforts weren’t quite so time-consuming. When John Eden dropped by to ask how he might achieve more of a frosted effect on the perfectly transparent glass cast he had recently made of Larry Bell’s hat, Brogan told him, “Easy. Sandblast it with baking powder.” And when Peter Alexander asked how he might achieve a brighter shine on his own teeth, without missing a beat, Brogan responded “Just mix grapefruit seed extract into the reservoir of your hydraulic toothbrush.” (Alexander laughs at the memory of that one: “It completely figures that Jack would know that.”)

And with each passing year, more and more of his practice involved the conservation and restoration of earlier pieces by many of the artists he’d been working with from the beginning. This was especially the case with work they had completed in the days when they first took to experimenting with the various urethanes and acrylics, and before they’d quite mastered the stabilization of the novel media’s color or texture. But in addition, the works were often inherently fragile, and they were regularly getting scratched and nicked, to often devastating effect, so collectors, gallerists, and curators began to call on Brogan, who alone, thanks to his preternatural command of materials, but also to the fact that the practices in question had often come into being under the thrall of those endless schmoozing sessions in his very workshop, seemed able to work wonders with repair. He figures that over the years he has restored a hundred McCrackens, somehow managing to match the layers of often mislabelled paint. (“The sales catalog might list it as a polyester when in fact it was a lacquer or an acrylic and in any case, the color had faded or else was no longer being produced, so I’d have to track all that down and compensate accordingly.”) Larry Bell’s glass cubes were regularly fogging over, or their subtle skins discoloring, especially if they were subjected to the pressure changes of being flown from one collection to another, and in order to affect those fixes, Brogan had to figure out how to pry apart panes that had been sealed years earlier with arcane epoxies or even simple airplane glue. (“Dental floss,” Brogan averred, self-evidently, when I asked about that particular maneuver.) Other pieces would just get knocked off their pedestals and shatter, and then it was a question of finding exact matches for the glass and retro engineering the coating methodologies, as if from scratch. (During one visit to the studio, I spotted, leaning against a wall, one of less than a dozen extant Irwin acrylic discs, jaggedly mangled clean in two. “Ahhh,” Brogan reassured me when he noticed the look of anguished dismay crossing my face, “don’t worry, we’ll save her.”) DeWain Valentines, Craig Kaufmanns, that great lifesize Charles Ray red Tonka fire engine, which had returned from Germany where it had been given by a collector to his kids, who’d thoroughly shredded the thing (in this instance, Brogan’s twin loves for refurbishing cars and restoring art quite literally overlapped). But not just the California artists: an Ellsworth Kelly from the Norton Simon Museum, an Alexander Calder stabile warped in a house fire, a Henry Moore marble (across whose repair he deployed a quiver of dentist’s probes, and no, I don’t know what the deal is with Brogan and teeth), and even a Brâncuși, perhaps his single favorite grand master. But those other masters aside, I can’t tell you the number of California artists and curators and gallerists who, when I brought up the name Brogan, literally cringed at the prospect of his imminent retirement. Whoever was going to be able to care for much of the work of the past half century once he was no longer going to be available? Who would have The Knowledge?

In addition to that sort of studio work, Brogan’s practice began to branch out in other directions as well. For one thing, several of the artists he was working with were starting to engage in farflung, often site-specific, installations, and Brogan began traveling the country and even the world (as with that Turrell in Amsterdam, and Doug Wheeler’s contribution to the 37th Venice Biennale in 1976), supervising the execution of their ever more ambitious designs. In Irwin’s case, for example, figuring out how to span the entire fourth floor of the Whitney in New York with a 114 foot long, 2 inch thick black-painted steel bar suspended at eye level and supported, along its entire length, by nothing more than a swath of white scrim suspended taut from the ceiling; but then as well a vertical grid of square scrim light-catching panels hanging down through the vast central atrium of the NEA headquarters in Washington, DC (formerly the central post office, eventually to be the Trump hotel); or vaulting banks of fluorescent bulbs cantilevering out over the yawning open interior of the University Art Museum in Berkeley; culminating eventually in some of the key components of Irwin’s master plan for the Central Gardens at the Getty in LA (notably including the exquisitely designed bronze lamp posts and the pinched rebar flares of the bougainvillea arbors), and on and on.

*


And yet for the longest time, nobody outside the immediate art world even seemed aware of Brogan’s existence, let alone the extent of his contributions. Brogan once commented to me on how zealously many of the artists insisted on his safeguarding the processes he was innovating with them from all of their colleagues—there was a great sense of proprietary knowledge (not unlike the competitive situation of the trailblazing oil painters of the 15th century, is how someone else characterized the situation), and Brogan’s reliably reticent discretion was one of the things the artists most came to prize in him.

But more striking, for the longest time, was how hesitant artists were to acknowledge Brogan’s contribution in the creation of their own work (to this day, with regards to many of the artists I interviewed for this profile, I can’t count the number of times someone would remark on how absolutely essential Brogan’s contribution had been to everybody else, just not so much for them personally). Artists would regularly explain to interviewers how they themselves had done this or that when in fact it had been Brogan and nobody but Brogan who had actually done it. Sometimes artists would wend themselves into pretzels of arcane artspeak in order to avoid acknowledging the obvious. Thus, for example (and I don’t mean to single him out as particularly egregious, so many of the artists were spewing forth similar sorts of artspeak smokescreens), the late Ed Moses once characterized his square monochrome paintings as the “conceptual ideal of an abstract painting, existing in a two-dimensional plane. They are not painterly paintings, not painted by hand. They are the physical evidence of an abstract painting as a physical phenomenon.” Which, okay, was fine as far as it went, Moses indeed hadn’t laid a hand on them, but they had been painted, painstakingly so and in an entirely innovative manner designed to achieve that specific uncanny aura, by Jack Brogan. (“Yeah,” Brogan admitted, with a certain joshing pride when I brought up the particular instance of those Moses monochromes with him, “and I never told a soul that it was me that had done them, not for over 25 years.”)

Jack Brogan (typically hidden) putting finishing touches on a Roy Lichtenstein install at the Ray Stark ranch, 1994.
Jack Brogan (typically hidden) putting finishing touches on a Roy Lichtenstein install at the Ray Stark ranch, 1994.

Quite often, for example, he would work on pieces right up through their gallery installation but then not get invited to the opening, or if invited, not get acknowledged or even included on the guest list for the after-dinner. And, Brogan’s aw-schucks deference notwithstanding, it had hurt. “It’s not that he didn’t respect the artists,” Edith commented to me confidentially at one point during our Santa Monica conversations, when Jack had gotten up to tend to some business matters out back. “He wouldn’t have worked with them to begin with if he hadn’t, and he liked them. It would just disappoint him when they would take credit and even win awards for innovations that were his, and they wouldn’t even invite him to the openings, as if they wanted to hide his very existence, how they just could not share even one percent of anything to do with it. And the cumulative effect of decades of this sort of thing gradually took its toll.”

I asked her how he dealt with it. “Well,” she replied, “he’s the quintessential southern gentleman, as we all know, and he was never going to be a rabble rouser. He doesn’t have the kind of personality where he has to pretend that he’s more than he is to prove that he’s a great man. He is thoroughly sure of his expertise and his value. He is very much his own man.”

And has had to be since he was seven or eight, I suggested.

“Exactly, and in any case, he’d always be on to the next thing. He doesn’t brood. He was always less interested in getting credit for the last thing, so interested was he in forging on ahead into the next one, in confronting its challenges and inventing those solutions… ”

I was reminded of Diderot’s discussion of that extraordinary moment in the gestation of the occasional masterpiece when the artist stops asking, “What can I do?” and starts asking, “What can Art do?”

“Exactly, except that he, Jack, rather than the artist in question, was so often the one who was actually doing it. But yes, his true involvement was with the material itself, with the marvels of what it could be made to do, how it could be made to do it, and how much further that process could be pushed, he was always more interested in that than in anything as inconsequential as credit or reputation.”

Brogan had drifted back into the room and shuffled over to his seat: he was clearly uncomfortable with the tack the conversation had taken in his absence, but he let Edith continue a bit further (this was evidently an ongoing topic in their marriage), before interceding, “I was always using the artists’ projects as a way of testing and furthering my own technique.”

*

“Making the real real is art’s job,” Eudora Welty once declared. Brogan’s job, for his part, was actually realizing an entire generation of artists’ ideas as to what needed to be made evident.

One day I was asking Peter Alexander whether he had any thoughts as to why Brogan hadn’t aspired to be an artist himself. “It wasn’t even in his vocabulary,” Alexander suggested. “Coming from where he came from, it would not even have occurred to him.” I pointed out how Ed Kienholz and Ed Ruscha, for example, had emerged from backdrops no less improbable. “Well, yeah,” Alexander paused, mulling. “Maybe Jack just didn’t have the ego. Unlike the rest of us, who were the most ego-driven lot you could imagine.” That certainly seemed right, especially when you compared him, say, to Kienholz, who emerged from out of that almost identical upbringing (though in Eastern Washington state, in his case): a full blown ego-maniac. (“Just a quarter turn of the screw,” Irving Blum, the gallerist and Ferus veteran, once summarized Kienholz for me, “just a quarter turn, I’m telling you, and we could have had Adolf Hitler all over again!”) “But maybe that sort of ego is something that all artists have to have to some degree,” Alexander hazarded, “just to be able to keep going. Whereas Jack is virtually egoless, in fact he is the very embodiment of an almost Zen-like egolessness.” (A comment which in turn reminded me of something Blum once told me about how the young Bob Irwin was the most ambitious artist he had ever encountered; when I pointed out to him how that seemed a strange thing to say, given that the Irwin of those years was so deeply involved with Zen, Blum shot back, “But Bob Irwin was dealing with Zen in the most aggressive way Zen has ever been dealt with!”) “Still,” Alexander concluded, “even though he wasn’t one of us, Brogan found us egomaniacs fabulous. And, actually, to tell the truth, as a fabricator, Brogan was an artist.”

Robert Irwin and Jack Brogan in Jack's studio with an Irwin Prism, circa 1970.
Robert Irwin and Jack Brogan in Jack's studio with an Irwin Prism, circa 1970.

Irwin would likely concur with that appraisal. At one point he told Margaret Honda, “The way Jack works is like an artist; he processes information the same way. His is a tactile, hands-on knowledge.” Tactile being a key word in the Irwin lexicon. He used to describe for me how back in the days when he was earning his livelihood playing the horses, there would obviously be a place for logic, for all the sorts of quantitative information one could extract from the Racing Form, but then something more was always required. Before placing his wager, he described how he would run his hand over the whole coming race in his imagination in an attempt to get the feel of the thing, and only then would he lay down his bet. Which, he acknowledged, was the same with his art. And for Irwin to credit Brogan with that way of engaging the world, coming from him, was high praise indeed. (Talk about the Dialog of Imminence!—another of Irwin’s favorite constructions.)

When I subsequently asked Brogan himself why he hadn’t tried to be an artist, however, his answer was more straight-forward. “I didn’t want to pin myself down,” he said. “I looked at those guys and they were always doing the same thing, over and over, with slight variations, for years on end, whereas I always wanted to be moving on to entirely different sorts of challenges.”

*


For the longest time, Jack Brogan’s reputation, to the extent that it existed at all, seemed to shimmer between rumor and legend, shading ever so gradually towards the latter in more recent years. And indeed, with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time citywide celebration of the taproots of Los Angeles art, back in 2011, Brogan’s contribution finally began to edge into the wider art public’s awareness.

Indeed, it is has been becoming increasingly clear since then that in the years ahead, the very history of art in Southern California may need to be redrafted—with so much of the so-called Finish Fetish of ’60s and ’70s LA art (a facile sobriquet that, granted, they all resented, though everyone recognized the exactingly precise aesthetic to which the term referred) being seen to come down, not so much to the car or surf or aerospace culture to which it usually gets ascribed, or even to The Light, but rather to the commanding influence (either directly by way of actual manufacture or indirectly by way of towering example) of just one man, so much so that now, with that fast approaching retirement of his, past age 90, a veritable era may be seen to be coming to a close: the Era, indeed, of Jack Brogan.

*

Except that—news flash: hold on!—I spoke with Jack just as I was originally putting this piece to bed, and it turns out that he’s decided not to retire after all. He’s simply moved his workshop to a site closer to the Santa Monica home he shares with Edith, and he’s already back at work.

To which a quick survey among local arteratti has elicited three sorts of response: 1) Pfew! 2) Thank God. And 3) from Peter Alexander (who in the meantime has himself passed away, this being the very last thing he said to me on our very last telephone conversation): “Figures.”

* * *


A significantly condensed version of this profile is appearing this fall in the catalog for a touring show of work from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Light, Space, Surface: Art from Southern California (DelMonico Books•D.A.P and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2021).

Contributor

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, a long-ago veteran of the New Yorker (1981-2001) is the author of over twenty books ranging from his first, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, his celebrated life of Light and Space master Robert Irwin, through one of his most recent, And How Are You, Doctor Sacks? a biographical memoir of his thirty five year friendship with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. For more, see www.lawrenceweschler.com

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