The Master Tinkerer: Q+A with Jack Brogan


Despite having spent more than five decades in Los Angeles, Tennessee-born Jack Brogan still clings to his Southern roots, from his soft-spoken drawl to his head-to-toe denim outfits and cowboy boots. Brogan’s unassuming manner belies the influential role he’s played as a fabricator, collaborator, conservator and right-hand man for an entire generation of California Light & Space artists—Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and DeWain Valentine among them.

Brogan was in town recently to install Robert Irwin’s latest show, “Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s,” on view through June 23 at Pace’s 57th Street gallery. Brogan and Irwin have worked together consistently since the early ’60s, most recently on an ongoing series of painted honeycomb aluminum panels for which Brogan created a special paint color that, he says, is “so black it makes other blacks look brown.” The second installment of Irwin’s show, opening this fall, will feature a pair of nearly transparent acrylic columns that the 82-year-old Brogan also fabricated.

Brogan took a break from overseeing the installation to chat with with A.i.A. about how he switched over from cabinetmaking to art fabrication, his early collaborations with Irwin (and NASA) and what projects are waiting for him back at his 8,000-square-foot L.A. studio-workshop.

LEIGH ANNE MILLER How did your background prepare you for a career in art fabrication?

JACK BROGAN When I was young, I trained in cabinetmaking and furniture finishing with an architect. He would design a house, and we’d spend years building it.

MILLER This was when you were still in Tennessee?

BROGAN Yes. I used to work in the evenings and on weekends. I was interested in learning about furniture finishing and painting, but I did mostly sanding. Later I got more interested in mechanical engineering,

MILLER Did you study engineering?

BROGAN I started engineering school but I could never deal with the literature courses and all the other classes that didn’t pertain to what I was thinking about at the time, so I never completed it. I just really liked mechanical things, and was always working on a lot of different projects. I developed a machine that made concrete pipes, kind of as a hobby.

MILLER What kind of work were you doing initially in Los Angeles?

BROGAN I came to L.A. in 1958, and opened a shop in Hollywood. I started repairing antiques and building furniture, that kind of thing. Then the shop burned down. After that I worked briefly for a production company, in their cabinet department. That got boring after a few months, so when they closed for a few weeks during the summer I looked around and got a job as a furniture finisher. Around this time is when I started working with Irwin.

MILLER How did you two meet?

BROGAN I first met him at LACMA, where had had a show. But then I’d see him around because a lot of the artists used to hang out at this little Mexican bar that had very good food.

MILLER What was Irwin working on at the time?

BROGAN He was doing a new dot painting, which required this special kind of stretcher bar–a curved one made of wood, but built more like an airplane wing, to save weight. I worked on the stretchers in a cabinet shop where I was doing the furniture finishing with another guy, Freddy. Soon after I opened up my own place again and was doing more commercial work, building custom furniture for hotel lobbies and offices. One of my clients was Knoll furniture; I used to do their models and prototypes. Anyhow, my business was very profitable. Around this time, Irwin came to me because he wanted to do an acyclic sculpture. I had worked with acrylic in Tennessee, so I had some experience with the material.

[Robert Irwin joins the conversation.]

MILLER How does your collaborative process usually work? Do you come to Jack with an idea, and together you figure out if it’s feasible?

IRWIN It’s different every time. For example, in the late ’60s-early ’70s, Jack and I were involved with NASA, organizing a symposium on long-term space travel. The L.A. County Museum came up with this “Art and Technology” initiative. It was my observation that this was a red herring. I told them that I didn’t want to participate, but that I was interested in having a dialogue with physicists and scientists. So they arranged for [well-known physicist] Richard Feynman to introduce me to a lot of the scientists involved in LACMA’s project.

Later on I asked Jack to help out with the symposium I was organizing at my studio, on long-term space travel. Instead of having the scientists go to a hotel conference room or something I had them driven by bus to Venice, where my studio was, and let off in an alley.

MILLER Did they know what they were getting into?

IRWIN No. Jack had built a blind entrance to the studio, so when they got inside it was like they were in a capsule. It was a very reverberant space, so we needed something in there that would dampen the noise. We built an island out of long cardboard blocks that stacked up like risers. The first day, they almost went a little crazy. But I wanted them to have the experience of being in a capsule.

The symposium lasted four days and we changed the room completely every day. The first day it was closed in, the second day there were these translucent walls and open skylights, so it was kind of like a mosque.

MILLER Can you talk about some more recent projects you’ve worked on together?

IRWIN The acrylic columns that will be in the fall show are classic Jack. I had this idea to make an object that was nearly transparent, so that it would almost disappear. I wanted the column to be 33 feet tall and 30 inches wide, but I couldn’t get plastic any thicker than 4 inches—anything thicker exploded, or ate itself up in the curing process.

We finally found a place in Kalamazoo that could produce thicker acrylic. I brought it to Jack, because this thing was bubbly. It looked like maybe the process had failed. But he used hand routers to cut through it to find the right shape, and it was clear in the middle. He figured out a way to bond it together, to make it into this 33-foot-tall sculpture, and then hand-polished it so it was almost like a prism. He had to bring these guys in from Mexico who have been polishing furniture all their lives, because their hands are educated.

Jack essentially enters into the process and shows people how to do the things they want to do. Everyone is finally realizing that Jack exists; for a long while, they wanted full credit. I could tell you stories for days about people who are up to their ass in Jack.

[Robert Irwin leaves.]

MILLER We were talking about how you and Irwin met and started working together.

BROGAN At the time, I didn’t want to work with artists because my furniture business was very profitable. But that started to change in the late ’60s, because artists began to experiment with all these different industrial materials. They would come to me with an idea for something with resin, or plastic, or acrylic. I had experience working with these types of materials, but I didn’t get to use that knowledge with most of my other jobs. I was making money, but the work was boring. Soon enough, 90 percent of my work was with artists, and it’s still pretty much that way.

MILLER Aside from Irwin, who were you working with early on?

BROGAN Peter Alexander, Ed Moses, John Dale, Tony deLap, Craig Kaufmann, Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine, Helen Pashgian . . .

MILLER Pretty much all the Light and Space artists.

BROGAN Yeah, because it was mostly word of mouth. People started to say, “Why don’t you go to Brogan? He’ll figure out how to do that.” For example, when Peter Alexander was starting to work with resin, he asked Bob to introduce us. I’ve been working with him almost as long as I’ve worked with Bob.

MILLER Do you think of yourself as more of a collaborator, or a fabricator?

BROGAN Both, I guess. A new gallery in L.A., Katherine Cone, is organizing a show called “You Don’t Know Jack” about all the different artists I’ve worked with. But there were so many that she decided to do two shows, one later in the summer.

MILLER What are you working on now?

BROGAN Peter Alexander wants to change to a different material, a new kind of polyurethane, so we’ve started to work out the process. Helen Pashgian is also experimenting, mostly with epoxy. Both of these materials have similar problems so I’ve built these small vacuum chambers, like a cabinet that closes around the pieces.

MILLER What does the new chamber allow you to do differently?

BROGAN It pulls the bubbles out of the liquid acrylic so when you cast it there are no voids.

MILLER What are some techniques you’ve perfected over the years?

BROGAN I developed a metal-spraying process. Do you know Lynda Benglis’s metal knots? I did those; there are like a hundred all together, maybe more. She folds and ties up stainless steel screen, and we spray hot metal onto those forms. They look cast, but they’re not. I’ve been using this process for about 50 years. It’s like a spray gun, with a flame that goes up to 4,000 degrees.

There’s another artist I work with in Hawaii, Marlene Louchheim. She makes her forms out of burlap and ships them to me, and I spray them with bronze.

MILLER Who do you work with in your studio? Do you have an apprentice or a protégé?

BROGAN I’ve tried that. Everyone says I should be training someone! Artists are very interested, but a lot of people aren’t prepared for all the hand work that’s involved. I usually have four or five assistants at a time; I train them and they train the other guys so the skills get passed down.

MILLER Do most of them have art backgrounds, or are they similar to you, with experience in engineering and chemistry?

BROGAN They’re all Latin guys, from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala. One of them has a background in welding but now he’s my co-painter. The other guys are mostly sanding and polishing.

MILLER What are some new materials or technologies that you’re particularly excited about?

BROGAN I’ve been working with rapid prototyping lately. It’s like a 3-D printer: you design an object and the printer will mold it out of plastic. These two fashion designers I’ve worked with designed a swimsuit this way; they input their drawing and printed it out in a nylon material. They are hoping to manufacture clothing this way.

MILLER What’s waiting for you back in L.A.?

BROGAN I’m in the middle of two projects for Larry Bell. One is a glass cube that we’ve had a lot of trouble with. I cleaned it up and redid the chrome trim on it for a collector, who sold it to a museum. When the museum took it out of the crate and set it down on the concrete, they accidentally broke three of the six panels. So to replace the glass I have to re-condition Larry’s vacuum chamber. And I’m working on an ultrasonic glass cleaner for Larry’s studio in Taos.

I’m also restoring a few Brancusi sculptures. I went to go see them, and this woman must have had six just shoved into a closet. I love his work so much, it was hard to see it all tarnished and covered with hand prints.

“You Don’t Know Jack” is on view at Katherine Cone Gallery, Los Angeles, through June 2. “Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s” is on view at the Pace Gallery, New York, through June 23.

Photo Lou Mora.