5 Artists Who Have a Helping Hand (or Two)

By Shira Wolfe

The question of authorship in artworks today is complex. Some art market heavy-hitters are known to employ countless assistants to help them complete ambitious works of art. This often elicits criticism, as it appears that the artist taking credit for the piece did not actually produce much of it, apart from the concept. However, this is not a new tradition. In the past, it was not uncommon for great artists to enlist assistants and apprentices to help them complete their artworks. It was often quite common for artists to have many assistants working in their studios. While they trained their assistants as artists-to-be, they also had them work on parts of their own paintings.

Rembrandt, for example, took on a large number of commissions in the 1630s, and research shows that it is highly likely that he had his apprentices work on some of these commissions with him. Rubens also ran a bustling workshop, where he had his assistants fill in sections of his paintings according to their specialisation. While working on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo went through many assistants who helped him mix his paint, prepare plaster, and climb up and down the ladders to hand him supplies. Every once in a while, he would let an assistant paint something small – though he was very selective. Not to mention Andy Warhol, who is perhaps the king of the artist apprentice workshop. In his Factory, his assistants produced his art on a mass-scale. Often, Warhol would merely place his signature on the final piece.

The following contemporary artists follow in the tradition of these artist visionaries and their assistant-filled workshops, traversing the controversial boundaries of authorship in art. Some are open about the roles of their assistants, whereas others prefer to keep people guessing.

 1. Olafur Eliasson

For Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, best known for his Weather Project, the giant sun suspended in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the secret to creative success is collaboration. His website provides the following information: “The team at Studio Olafur Eliasson consists of about ninety people, from craftsmen and specialized technicians, to architects, archivists and art historians, web and graphic designers, film-makers, cooks, and administrators. They work with Eliasson to develop, produce, and install artworks, projects, and exhibitions, as well as on experimentation, archiving, research, publishing, and communications.” Eliasson believes in letting people co-produce culture, and thinks it is more exciting when other people are involved in the process. He credits every member of his extensive team on his website, making his collaborative working process completely transparent.

2. Jeff Koons

Controversial artist Jeff Koons operates one of the biggest studio practices in the art world. He once said that if he had to produce all of his art by himself, he wouldn’t event be able to produce one piece a year. With the help of his many assistants, his artistic output averages around 10 paintings and 10 sculptures per year. One frequently finds job listings for studio assistants for Koons’s studio on the New York Foundation for the Arts website. One former studio assistant described his work as “paint by numbers”, and several assistants have voiced their frustration over the working conditions in the studio. Koons claims to supervise the work in person, and has said it’s as though he made every mark on the artworks himself.

 3. Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst believes in concept over craft. The real creative act for him lies in the idea, not the execution. He therefore has no qualms whatsoever having his hoard of assistants create his works of art, while he signs them and takes the credit. Of his approximately 1400 “spot paintings”, Hirst painted around 25 of them himself. Other world-famous Damien Hirst artworks that were not actually executed by him include For the Love of God (the diamond-encrusted skull) and The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the formaldehyde shark). The skull was made by royal jewelers Bentley & Skinner, while the glass tank for the shark was produced by theatre prop and model company MDM Props of London, which has produced several other of Hirst’s works. Hirst is unapologetic when he speaks about the production of his art. Fitting with his provocative artist persona, he states he simply doesn’t care and can’t be bothered to do all the work himself.

4. Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami, also known as “The Warhol of Japan”, is one of the pioneers of promoting art as a brand. He is famous for blending fine art with popular culture, and selling it in all different forms – from large canvases to gum wrappers. In line with his artistic philosophy, Murakami does not shy away from collaborations with big brands and celebrities (the likes of Pharrell Williams and Louis Vuitton). In his Tokyo studio, a team of assistants works 24/7 on the production of Murakami’s art. He himself practically lives in the studio, walking around giving instructions, and sleeping in a cardboard box in the corner. The place is like a factory, with training manuals, computerised timecards, and very long hours.

5. Kehinde Wiley

Photo: Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Kehinde Wiley, arguably the most successful black artist since Basquiat, decided to cut his production costs by outsourcing to China. He opened his Beijing studio in 2006, which soon developed into his main production hub where he employs between 4 and 10 workers. Wiley is less forthcoming than the previous artists on this list when it comes to talking about his assistants working on his art. In his words, he doesn’t want people to know where his hand starts and ends. It’s part of the secret recipe of his art.