An Art Factory Goes Out Of Business Up until a few weeks ago, the factory floor of Carlson and Company was the most famous art fabrication plant in America — if not the world. After nearly four decades, the maker of Jeff Koons' Balloon Dogs is closing its doors forever.
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An Art Factory Goes Out Of Business

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An Art Factory Goes Out Of Business

An Art Factory Goes Out Of Business

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GUY RAZ, host:

And as Petra mentioned, Polan sketched everything inside the Museum of Modern Art, so it's very likely he came across the work of Peter Carlson. In fact, Peter Carlson's work is on display at...

Mr. PETER CARLSON (Founder, Carlson & Co.): LACMA...

RAZ: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mr. CARLSON: Right. Guggenheim, we have pieces in the net. Whitney, Percheron, The Mall - on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection - really worked all over, probably every major museum.

RAZ: Haven't heard of Peter Carlson? Perhaps you're familiar with the artist whose work he created at his factory in the San Fernando Valley about an hour north of Downtown L.A. There was...

Mr. CARLSON: A gas station that was all out of facet it's stainless steel.

RAZ: And...

Mr. CARLSON: Series of bronzes I did with Isamu Noguchi.

RAZ: He made the most famous piece by Jeff Koons.

Mr. CARLSON: The Balloon Dog, obviously.

RAZ: And there was Carlson's personal favorite...

Mr. CARLSON: That was an Ellsworth Kelly piece, a totem.

RAZ: Some of the best-known biggest pieces of modern art have been created right here. Imagine an art studio inside a paint shop inside a machine factory inside an airplane hanger inside a world-class museum and you had Carlson & Company.

Mr. CARLSON: Well, where we're standing now, you would be seeing this is where machining would be done, metal parts that have holes drilled turned on a way(ph), that type of thing. So we move along fabrication area where...

RAZ: Up until a few weeks ago, this was one of the leading art fabrication plants in America. The giants of modern American art hired Carlson to build their designs. Artists like...

Mr. CARLSON: Robert Rauschenberg.

RAZ: Rauschenberg.

Mr. CARLSON: Claes Oldenburg.

RAZ: Charlie Ray?

Mr. CARLSON: Charlie Ray.

RAZ: McCracken.

Mr. CARLSON: McCracken.

RAZ: Some pretty amazing names, some pretty amazing pieces that were...

Mr. CARLSON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...fabricated right here.

Mr. CARLSON: Right here.

RAZ: Back in the early 1980s, Isamu Noguchi was looking for someone who could help him construct some of his massive pieces made from granite and bronze. He was referred to Peter Carlson.

Mr. CARLSON: And he sent me a mock-up of a piece of work that was out of quarter-inch phone cord. You know, it's like a board - you can in fact get it in a stationary store. And he cut up all these pieces that eventually fit together into a piece. He sent them to me apart without any instructions and said, put them together.

So, you know, this is a real kind of interesting test so I put them together and got really close to right.

RAZ: Noguchi hired Carlson, and up until the artist's death in 1988, the two worked closely together. In fact, if you visit the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, many of the artist's pieces made during the 1980s came out of Carlson's factory.

In the 1990s, Jeff Koons approached Carlson with a different challenge. He wanted to make a series of massive metal sculptures that when finished would look like dogs fashioned from balloons, the now famous Balloon Dogs. Koons wanted the finished piece to be highly polished.

Mr. CARLSON: You could sand it, grind it and the piece would get progressively smaller. But you will then ultimately realize a very beautiful shape. But it wouldn't be the original shape. So this was a very tough (unintelligible). Jeff wanted exactly the original shape and didn't want something that was sanded and modified smaller through a deductive kind of forming process.

RAZ: So the finished product had to be as it began.

Mr. CARLSON: Exactly.

RAZ: It took feats of engineering so complex that even after Carlson describe them; I didn't quite understand what he managed to do. But needless to say, each of those five balloon dogs is now worth about $20 million.

And then, there was perhaps the biggest challenge of Carlson's career, and it came from Ellsworth Kelly.

Mr. CARLSON: So the - Ellsworth had this piece he wanted to do and he came to me and said, you know, I want to do this very large piece for the Chicago Art Institute. It's there now. It's outside on their new wing hanging on a wall. He said: How - you know, how big can we make this?

And the - we could make it bigger than we actually made the piece, but we couldn't ship it.

RAZ: The piece is called White Curve, and it looks like a fan or a wing made from composite material. And in order to build it in Los Angeles and then transport it to Chicago, the piece couldn't measure more than 55 feet from tip to tip.

Mr. CARLSON: It had to go through a very special route through the country. It was followed with highway patrol. It had a route-throughs that didn't go through low bridges or narrow areas, very specific route, all permitted.

RAZ: And last year in April, the piece arrived and was installed in the museum's Pritzker Garden. Now, when we visited Peter Carlson at the factory recently, the work had largely stopped and the factory was relatively quiet.

Mr. CARLSON: You know, we're in the process of closing up shop. And most of the activities you see right now is trading and preparing artworks to move out of here.

RAZ: So we probably three weeks ago, four weeks ago could not have a conversation like this because it would have been too loud in here.

Mr. CARLSON: It would have been too loud. It would have been very active.

RAZ: But on a single day late last month, Carlson gathered all of his 95 employees and announced he was shutting down immediately. He couldn't talk about too many of the details.

Mr. CARLSON: You could say that the economy affected us and affected us pretty strongly. I would say, you know, obviously, the market isn't what it was.

RAZ: And that's it. After almost four decades in the business, Carlson & Company is going out of business. The unfinished bulbs of metals, the mock-up of a giant balloon rabbit and 20-foot plaster sculpture of Plato, they'll all return to their artists.

But Peter Carlson's role in the history of modern art has already been immortalized. Just visit your local museum to see it.

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