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An Artist’s Wizard

This Jack Brogan, a lanky 77-year-old jack of all trades, is something of a folk-hero in the Los Angeles art community—to many an artist, he is a wizard who can transform a whim of creativity into physical reality or come to the rescue when a project has hit an unexpected snag. It’s thus safe to say that some artists’ careers have been built on their vision and Brogan’s practical know-how.

A man of few words, the Tennessee transplant (a touch of Southern drawl has remained) maintains a cavernous workshop along a nondescript strip of West Boulevard in Los Angeles. Strictly utilitarian in nature, the space is a research lab, a hospital for damaged works of art, and an inventor’s lair presided over by someone whose lexicon lacks the words “can’t” and “impos- sible.”There, Brogan even makes his own tools and has modified nearly every piece of machinery in the shop to his own specifications.

“Artists started to come to me in the early 70s,” he says, surrounded by a plethora of raw materials and unfinished projects.“They would get an idea and ask me to do a feasibility study and then also manufacture the piece.” His first collaborations involved the Ferus Gallery crowd; Robert Irwin, Peter Alexander, Helen Pashgian and Larry Bell, to name a few icons, all sought his counsel.

Despite his creative nature and the number of world-famous projects he has worked on, Brogan is adamant that he is not an artist.“I like art. I took some figure drawing classes in college and really enjoyed them, since we got to sketch a lot of voluptuous naked ladies,” he grins. “But I gave it up for lack of time.”

Jack Brogan in his Los Angeles workshop.

Recently, Brogan worked with Irwin on a set of honeycomb aluminum panels finished in primary-colored polyurethane for Irwin’s current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. There, the panels have been assembled to form a larger version of an installation originally displayed at PaceWildenstein in New York, titled Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue3. The pieces suggest a return to Irwin’s light and space days.

Brogan was trained as a cabinet maker but is self-taught in everything that has come after. His skills— which he describes as his own brand of “practical engineering”— have evolved over nearly five decades. It all began in 1959 when he ran a repair shop for antique furniture and adult games (meaning parlor toys not necessarily meant for children) out of a Venice garage.

He studied engineering at the University of Tennessee but did not earn a degree.Yet, his resumé, were he to keep one, would show stints as a tool and dye maker, a chemical control analyst, participation in NASA projects (he built a model of a space station, among other things) and aerospace assignments under the aegis of Lockheed and Boeing.

A large percentage of Brogan’s business lies in repair. Today, he counts a set of red, yellow and blue painted goblets by John Eden and a set of reassembled brass plates by Roy Lichtenstein among current projects, along with a graceful blue—albeit slightly nicked—nude torso by Yves Klein and a cracked Larry Bell cube that was dropped off a forklift and now needs a new panel.

The technician says that he no longer works on public art pieces and thinks of slowing down. “I won’t retire,” he clarifies, however.

His problem remains though that there are very few others capable of acting as an artists’ gray eminence of such caliber, and a new apprentice has not materialized.Yet, one might wonder what exactly slowing down means to someone who has invented and patented (but not sold) a copper gizmo that is supposed to save gas and who is also in the process of crafting a new strainer for his coffeemaker because the one supplied by the manufacturer is less than satisfactory.

Brogan is, after all, a unique figure in the art world whose role as a true blue, make-it-happen individual is best clarified by Doug Chrismas, founder of Ace Gallery Los Angeles.“Artists come to him with an idea and a desire,” says Chrismas.“Jack helps the artist figure out how to make the desire real.”

Photos by Steven Barston