Ce ne est pas un loft: Modern Art & The Practical Loftsman

By December 8, 2014blog
Here workers have scribed the ship's lines (enlarged from a scale half-breadth plan) at full scale onto the wood floor (see the curving lines to the right of the image) and are starting the construction of wood jigs needed to create the curved steel plates for a ship's hull

As the new Whitney Museum of American Art works its way to completion, I’ve noted among its bragging points that it will have “largest column-free museum gallery in New York… that responds to the industrial character of the neighboring loft buildings.”

While I am generally a friend of NYC-bred hucksterism (“The Largest Gallery in New York!”), it struck me that the original meaning of “loft” has become so lost that a reckoning is in order.

A "loft building" gallery for the viewing of Art (rendering courtesy of the Whitney Museum)A “loft building” gallery for the viewing of Art
(rendering courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

What follows are a series of images – most taken from the magnificent The Practical Loftsman – showing the original meaning of the loft: a large column-free space dedicated to the detailing & fabrication of complex ship geometries at the hands of skilled tradespeople.

These industrial spaces were once common in NYC, providing thousands of jobs in the manufacturing of durable goods, and direct inspiration (not to mention cast-off materials) for the great wave of American modern artists that defined NYC in the decades after World War II, the work of Carl Andre and Richard Serra serving as two examples.

While the disappearance of these jobs from NYC over the past 40 years may have been compensated for in economic terms (the jury is still out on this question…), their loss – the vanishing of an extraordinary class of Makers – has arguably been a devastating blow to the creative energy of this city.

And where young people of little schooling could have once been employed in lofts learning a trade and making useful goods, they are now only employed in lofts to serve as guards, standing mute witness to objects of no practical purpose, and asked to act only in keeping said objects from ever being touched.

Where is the Art in that?

View of a typical ship building loft showing the vast scale of operationsView of a typical ship building loft showing the vast scale of operations. Once common in New York, these spaces, like the shipyards themselves, have been eliminated by off-shoring production and digital technology.

Here workers have scribed the ship's lines (enlarged from a scale half-breadth plan) at full scale onto the wood floor (see the curving lines to the right of the image) and are starting the construction of wood jigs needed to create the curved steel plates for a ship's hullHere workers have scribed the ship’s lines (enlarged from a scale half-breadth plan) at full scale onto the wood floor (see the curving lines to the right of the image) and are starting the construction of wood jigs needed to create the curved steel plates for a ship’s hull.

A close-up of two men starting to layout curved wooden splines on the basis of a drawing - a trade that rewarded experience and did not require much formal educationA close-up of two men starting to layout curved wooden splines on the basis of a drawing – a trade that rewarded experience and did not require much formal education.

The setup of a compound curve: note the changing angles of the vertical wood battens to describe the bow plate. Hardwood floors were critical in loft spaces to scribe lines and easily anchor jigs such as theseThe setup of a compound curve: note the changing angles of the vertical wood battens to describe the bow plate. Hardwood floors were critical in loft spaces to scribe lines and easily anchor jigs such as these – working flexibility was paramount, and the floors aged quickly. Floors like this are now merely a motif, among many motifs appropriated from our dying manufacturing sector, for which the original technical necessity has been forgotten.

workaday molds of complex shape and technical purposeThese workaday molds of complex shape and technical purpose would look at home in most museums of modern art, but like many other products of skilled trades that once had a strong presence in New York’s economy and social life, they have disappeared from our shores, leaving the fetishized, purposeless objects we see in our galleries to exist without context.

Carl Andre's "Redan", 1964Carl Andre’s “Redan”, 1964.