Jack Brogan, quiet force behind Light and Space artists, dies at 92
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Jack Brogan, quiet force behind Light and Space artists, dies at 92
Frank Gehry, Jack Brogan and Robert Irwin, Easy Edges Cardboard Furniture. Speaker Cabinets, prototype, 1969, Corrugated cardboard and fiberboard. Each 27 x 12 x 16 in.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- They were the men and women behind Southern California’s Light and Space movement. Some of them were called the Finish Fetish artists because of their manipulation of surfaces. Starting in the 1960s, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander, Helen Pashgian and other artists began experimenting with new materials and technologies — including acrylic, urethanes and resin — that were often polished to a high sheen or rendered so that they disappeared altogether.

Jack Brogan, a laconic, denim-clad craftsman raised in Tennessee, was their all-important collaborator and fabricator, even if his contributions often went unrecognized.

When Alexander began to make his luminous resin cubes, he turned to Brogan for help. For John McCracken’s high-gloss fiberglass and resin plinths and planks, Brogan pushed the artist’s already laborious process further — sanding, painting and burnishing the work until it shone like glass. And for Irwin, with whom he had his longest and most intimate collaboration, he engineered all manner of material acrobatics.

Brogan died in his sleep on Sept. 14 at his home in Santa Monica, California, his wife, abstract painter Edith Baumann, said. He was 92.

The name Light and Space came from a 1971 show at the University of California, Los Angeles, called “Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists,” featuring work by Bell, Alexander, Irwin and Craig Kauffman, who was known for his translucent plastic wall reliefs.

The movement, Southern California’s answer to minimalism, was inspired by car and surf culture; by the region’s bountiful light and the Pacific Ocean; and even by the region’s local industry, movies — by, as Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, pointed out, a projector’s light in a dark theater.

The artists, Govan said in an interview, “were interested in the fine line between immateriality and materiality, in light and also its opposite, the dark, and it was a moment when all sorts of new materials were available that had been developed by the aerospace and defense industries.”

Brogan “was a galvanizing force,” Govan said, adding: “It was a turning point in art history, and he had a hand in shaping it. Artists knew what they wanted, but they didn’t always know how to make it happen. Jack did.”

Lynda Benglis wanted her large pleated and knotted pieces, made from canvas or steel mesh, to have more heft, as if they had been cast in metal, so Brogan developed a process to cover them with a metallic mist. He built vacuum chambers to pull the bubbles out of the liquid acrylic used by Alexander and Pashgian. He made Irwin a 30-foot acrylic prism, a slender column so strong that it withstood an earthquake.

He also taught Pashgian a technique for polishing her work. After she had labored over a piece in his studio for hours, she told writer Lawrence Weschler, who profiled Brogan last year for The Brooklyn Rail, Brogan would wander over and urge her on, telling her, “That’s not the best you can do.”

“It was Jack,” she told Weschler, “who taught me to see.”

Brogan’s upbringing was eclectic. He was born Jackie Franklin Seidner on May 12, 1930, in Springfield, Ohio. His young mother, Beatrice, had married an engineer and roustabout named Horace Seidner who turned out not to be the family type. A year or so after Jack was born, Jack’s maternal grandfather, William Brogan, brought his daughter and grandson home to his farm in Anderson County, Tennessee.

Beatrice soon remarried and moved on, and Jack was raised by his grandparents, who adopted him. When he was 9, he had an after-school job with a Dutch architect, assisting in cabinetmaking. Jack’s grandfather died when he was 14 (his grandmother, Susan Jane Brogan, died when he was 8), and Jack went to live with an uncle, working in his concrete block and pipe factory and selling Bibles door to door. After high school, he worked for a time for two auto companies in Detroit and spent a few months back home in a local college studying engineering.

He was drafted into the Army in 1950 and served in the Korean War. Upon his discharge in 1953, he returned to Tennessee and a hodgepodge of jobs: running moonshine, repairing used cars and working in one of the nuclear reactor labs opened by the government in Oak Ridge. He also bought a concrete plant.

By the late 1950s he was in Los Angeles. He had injured his spine in a car accident, he told Weschler, and was encouraged by his doctors to recuperate in a milder climate. He opened a furniture-making shop there and also worked for the Packard Bell Co.; for real estate developers, building models; and as a consultant to furniture makers Knoll and Herman Miller. When his furniture shop burned down, he opened a studio in Venice Beach, offering fabrication services to architects and industrial designers, as well as to NASA and aerospace contractors.

Irwin walked into his studio one day in the mid-1960s looking for help in building a curved, convex armature for his canvas dot paintings. Brogan, he recalled to Weschler, suggested a technique used for the wings of biplanes.

Next, Irwin wanted help producing the acrylic disks for which he would become known: evanescent convex shapes, mounted so that they seemed to hover and lit from four sides to create a cloverleaf pattern. Brogan aced those, too, and a lifelong collaboration and friendship were forged.

Irwin, Weschler wrote, “was becoming more and more interested in the object as an occasion, a prompt, for the experience of perception.” And, Irwin told Weschler, “the thing about that kind of work, when the artwork is merely the cue and not itself the subject matter, is that the object has to be expertly, meticulously crafted, precisely so as to avoid calling attention to itself, and in that regard there was just nobody but Jack who could do it.”

Irwin began sending everyone on the scene to Brogan. And as a work aged, Brogan would be called in to revive it.

It wasn’t just the California cadre he fixed. When an Alexander Calder mobile was warped in a fire, Brogan restored it. When a massive marble sculpture by Henry Moore needed cleaning up, Brogan was the go-to surgeon (he used dental tools).

Despite his essential role in art making, his contributions were often unacknowledged; it wasn’t unusual that even when Brogan had installed an artist’s show, there would be no invitation to the opening.

“He didn’t talk about it,” Baumann said, but he felt the slight. “He was very much the Southern gentleman. He was very much ‘Forget about it, move forward.’ He was all about the work.”

One source of tension — and financial upheaval — was the cardboard furniture that architect Frank Gehry had begun making in the early 1970s. As Gehry said in a phone interview, he was fooling around with the material for displays in department stores. He loved that the edges looked like corduroy. He made a desk and a filing cabinet, and Irwin encouraged him to make a chair, sketching out an idea and giving it to Brogan to make.

“It was wonderful, and we formed a funny partnership and Jack made everything,” Gehry said. “Nothing was too complicated, he never said no, and we would play like kids in a playground.”

But things changed after a businessman sought to produce their Easy Edges furniture, as it was called, and Irwin and Brogan were cut out of the action. Gehry went on to design a model room of cardboard furniture for Bloomingdale’s in 1972 — it was one of the must-see interiors orchestrated by Barbara D’Arcy, the store’s merchandising guru — and won national attention.

“It all blew up, and Irwin never forgave me,” Gehry said. Brogan wasn’t happy, either: He had developed the machinery to produce the cardboard and took a huge financial hit. He sold his house and his studio, Baumann said, so he could pay off the creditors.

That iteration of the furniture was also a financial wash for Gehry, who ended up filling orders at cost and turning his focus to architecture. The pieces, however, became design classics, and in 2005 Gehry sold the production rights to Vitra. The Vitra Wiggle Chair, the most recognizable piece of the collection, now sells for about $1,500.

“It was a terrible outcome,” Gehry said, “and I still feel awful about it.”

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1995, Brogan is survived by his daughters, Kendra and Ronnia Brogan; his stepson, Ezra Hudson; and a granddaughter. His marriage to Evelyn Leinart ended in divorce.

In 2012, the Katherine Cone Gallery in Los Angeles organized a show featuring work created with the help of Brogan. There was a glowing resin wedge by Alexander, a luminous and trippy polyester resin wall hanging by Pashgian, a polished acrylic prism by Irwin and three Easy Edge cardboard pieces, among other works.

The exhibition’s title? “You Don’t Know Jack.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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