Assembly Crew for Sculptors : Peter Carlson, whose firm executes often demanding plans for large or unique pieces, plays contractor in the artistic process.

April 16, 1993|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

It's hard to imagine that in a nondescript brick building amid the machine shops and factories of Sun Valley, the cutting-edge work from some of the world's top artists is produced. Even the man who makes it happen, Peter Carlson, is a little awed.

"I'm amazed by what we can do sometimes. A project might seem impossible at first, but when we break it down, we realize it can become real."

His firm, Peter Carlson Enterprises, fabricates the ideas an artist or designer might have for a large or unique piece. If an artist's plans call for a special paint finish or an unusual sheet metal treatment, it's up to Carlson and his staff to find it, apply it, assemble the piece and usually ship and install it at the final destination.

"I compare my relationship with the artist as similar to that between an architect and a contractor," said Carlson, 44. "The artist has a vision of what they want the finished sculpture to look like, and I do what it takes to complete that vision."

Along with a staff of 28 engineers, computer experts and machinists, Carlson turns out about 100 projects a year, both sculptural and architectural, by such renowned artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as design and architectural firms such as Sussman/Prejza & Co. and Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners.

Carlson has just completed a 200-foot perforated aluminum dirigible for a New York City shopping mall, and is working on the building signage for the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The work for the museum ranges from entrance and exit signs to plates honoring donors, and is made of aluminum plate with a pewter-lead finish.

He made "Chain Reaction," Times cartoonist Paul Conrad's version of a nuclear mushroom cloud, which has become a landmark outside the Santa Monica Civic Center. To get the look of a large metal chain, Carlson used brass plumbing J-traps commonly found under sinks, and connected them to form links. Claes Oldenburg's 14-foot knife that slices through the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood is also a product of Carlson's plant.

"Because he's worked with so many artists, he understands what's needed," said Ellsworth Kelly, who has used Carlson's services on several large-scale projects around the world. "That's a unique gift, to translate an idea an artist has into something tangible."

"He'll try to do the job exactly as the artist sees it," said Los Angeles artist Lita Albuquerque. "When something looks difficult, he'll say 'Anything can be done,' which is something an artist likes to hear."

Carlson dismisses the suggestion that he might have replaced the artist as the ultimate creator of the work. "There are times when an artist has a commission to create a piece of art, and their studio may just be too small for the project. Or maybe the design they come up with requires some complex engineering, or it needs a unique surface treatment to make it look the way the artist wants. I serve as a tool for them. I'm not here to color their work."

Usually, Carlson is approached by an artist or design firm with a blueprint or drawing of what a piece should look like. "We look at the budget, which is important, and I'll sit down with the artist to show them problems they may not have realized."

Artwork designed for a public area may have to be modified to meet safety regulations. "We've worked with artists who've been commissioned to create art at the Metro Line stations. They'll often want to do some kind of tile on the floor, but it's hard finding a tile that you can put an image on and which also isn't slippery when wet."

While some artists and designers can be difficult to work with, Carlson finds most are agreeable collaborators. "It helps when they show up with plans, rather than if they just say, 'I have this idea. . . .' Of course there are some artists I've worked with so often, they can just fax me a drawing and I'll know what they're trying to do."

Carlson had that kind of rapport with Isamu Noguchi. The late sculptor once sent him a box of wooden parts without instructions showing how they fit together. "It was like a Zen exercise. I had to assemble this model to see if it matched the way he wanted it to look. He came out to see how I did, and my version was very close to his."

Many times, he has had to call upon his expertise to find a way to complete a job, like during a recent project for pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who designed a series of bronze music boxes roughly the size of a hatbox. For the waltz, composed by Philip Glass, to play, special ball bearings were needed. After a heated search, Carlson found them through a local aerospace manufacturer that uses the ball bearings in its jet fighter production.

Carlson's "whatever it takes" approach has earned him a reputation as a fabricator who can get the job done--even under the most difficult conditions.

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