Dick Polich, American Vulcan, Fabricator to the Art Stars

At the intersection of two quiet rural roads in Rock Tavern, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City, sits a building roughly the size of a city block. While it may be obscure to most collectors, curators and critics, it’s well known to world-class artists including Matthew Barney, Louise Bourgeois, George Condo, Nancy Graves, Jeff Koons, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zhang Xiaogang and many others. The building is home to the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry.

For more than 40 years the company’s founder, Dick Polich, has been casting sculptures for artists. Now a spry octogenarian, Polich recently met with A.i.A. to talk about his work as a metallurgist, his foundry and his place in the larger art world.

CHARLES M. SCHULTZ How many different projects is Polich Tallix engaged in at any given time?

DICK POLICH Between 100 and 200, and these range from architectural elements to national monuments to contemporary works of fine art.

SCHULTZ Tell me about the name Polich Tallix.

POLICH Tallix was the name I made up for my first foundry. The name is a play on the word “metallics.” I lost that foundry in the ’90s and started the Polich Art Works. When Tallix went out of business, I was able to buy back both the company and the name I had invented. Both names were combined to make Polich-Tallix in 2006.

SCHULTZ How did you get started doing metal casting for artists?

POLICH I studied at MIT. By the time I got there it was the mid-’60s, between the Vietnam and Korean wars. Government money was drying up for material research, which is what funds a lot of MIT projects. My friend and mentor, Mert Flemings, who was also the head of metallurgy department, realized that big art castings were all being made in Europe and he thought, “Why doesn’t MIT teach people how to do that?” Incredibly, he got the funding. I was working on a master’s thesis on missile systems, but my real interest was in making art castings. It was pretty funny—word eventually got around campus that people were making art in building four. Students would just show up and ask, “Hey, can you cast this in bronze for me?”

SCHULTZ You’ve made sculptures for hundreds of artists during your career. Have you ever found yourself to be an influence on an artist or his/her work?

POLICH The image that jumps into my head is of a soloist playing the violin. Behind her is the orchestra. Does that orchestra contribute to her performance? Of course it does, but can you say how much or in what way exactly? No. I think of the foundry as the orchestra behind the individual artist whose sense of herself being a solo performer is really important.

SCHULTZ What are your primary concerns when taking on a new project?

POLICH We have three distinct goals. We have to make it look like the thing the artist designed, and we have to make it structurally strong and safe. We don’t want it blowing over and killing somebody! And, of course, we have to make it look good, which takes us out of technology and into the realm of hand craft. But these are fundamentals, and the process keeps evolving as technology improves. We are already in an era when artists design sculptures using computer programs; they don’t have their hands in it in the same way, and not because of lack of creativity. Being a contemporary artist means using the tools of your time.

SCHULTZ Can you give me an example of this kind of process?

POLICH We did a piece for the Korean artist Do Ho Suh called Karma (2010), which went to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. The model was completely digital. The artist sent us files and we fabricated the piece from what he sent. So we actually saw the sculpture in three dimensions before the artist did!

SCHULTZ In addition to making fine art sculptures, you’ve also cast a number of significant national memorials. Can you tell me about the Korean War Memorial, for instance?

POLICH Those of us who lived through that era remember how poorly the Korean War vets were dealt with by the public. They were pretty much ignored. They had a real tough time getting back into society and one of the problems was they didn’t get a great deal of respect from the American people.

When the artist Frank Gaylord was finally commissioned to create a memorial sculpture to celebrate the Korean War, he came up to our foundry. Frank had this idea of spreading a number of figures out along a hillside, as if they were on a patrol. There were 19 men in that patrol, and I still l remember from when I first saw them how they gave off a sense of wariness and caution. All monuments like this one are conceived and analyzed and reviewed and reviewed again. It was a long haul from the time the sculpture was conceived to the time that it was made. When the sculpture was finally completed and cast in stainless steel, the committee came to the foundry to see the work. The scale of the work was so big it had to be erected outdoors. Lots of people were invited, including all the vets who participated in the fundraising. So we had a kind of private opening, very quiet and very solemn. One of the veterans asked when we were leaving to take the sculpture down to D.C., and we said, “Oh, we’re leaving at 5 a.m. tomorrow.” When I got to the foundry the next morning there were at least a dozen cars waiting in the parking lot. All of them drove behind us, all the way down to D.C. It was very touching.

SCHULTZ Are there projects you’re looking forward to in the coming years?

POLICH I’m looking at architecture, and how people like Frank Gehry are eliminating the right angle and making buildings that require lots of non-uniform parts. It’s real tough to do, but that’s what the whole casting business is about. It’s an easy way to make unique shapes out of something really strong.