A hand darkened with soot struggles to grab falling lead ingots in Richard Serra’s three-minute film “Catching Lead” (1969). Sometimes the hand is victorious in capturing the commodity, but often the hand snaps shut, only grasping air. Many authors have suggested the film is about the limits of the artist’s intentions. Understanding art production today, or of the last three years, requires getting a handle on art as a commodity among the complex market of other commodities — from steel to lumber, microchips to acrylics.
The action an artist takes with a material is the first step to achieving an idea, thus what it’s made from is as important as the inspiration and result. However, when China shut down manufacturing and shipping ports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists felt it before American cities followed suit. Subsequent labor shortages, stranded shipping containers, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have further impacted commodity trade with higher prices and unpredictable access to goods. Artists have substituted, reduced, and even harvested materials from existing artworks to maintain their practice among supply uncertainty.
In 2020, American sawmills closed due to the pandemic and shipping slowed, causing lumber prices to increase 288% by May of 2021. “People were redesigning with hollow steel when lumber prices got so bad,” Ryan Elmendorf and Evan Beloni of the engineering and fabrication studio Elmendorf Geurts told Hyperalleric. Ongoing labor shortages have meant lumber prices only recently came off the highs.
The domino effect of lumber meant steel prices jumped literally overnight. “Suppliers were quoting prices that would normally be good for 30 days but were suddenly only firm until end-of-day,” Beloni shared. “I was quoted $2 a pound, and when I went to buy, it had jumped to $7.” The price movement meant fabricators either had to renegotiate project budgets, or on fixed bids, swallow the loss.
Artist Linda Fleming took delivery of stainless steel panels in 2021 in preparation of a large sculpture for an exhibition the following year when she realized she was shy on the necessary material. In the two weeks that passed since her initial steel delivery and inquiry to purchase more, the price tripled, nearly killing the piece. “It made me rethink the exhibition, but I just bit the bullet.”
China and Russia are two of the three largest aluminum producers in the world. Production isn’t the issue, it’s how to get it out of either country. A 2022 JPMorgan report noted air freight from Asia to Europe cannot travel through Russian airspace, and rail freight from China to Europe through Russia is met with uncertain passage and high insurance costs. With evolving global risks, aluminum is unlikely to stabilize for years, according to traders and shippers at last year’s North American aluminum conference. Artist Pard Morrison buys aluminum sheets to make his 150-pound columns. Typically the sheets are 60 x 121 inches in dimension and 1/16 inch thick, of which he says, “A year ago that would cost $300 and now it is $850.” When asked if he is considering substituting for another material, “That is my nightmare scenario,” Morrison responded. “My sculptures are made to live outdoors, so steel isn’t an option because it will rust.”
Artist Wayne Brungard works with wood and bronze, and he agrees substituting another metal for bronze would degrade his work. Three years ago, Brungard was paying $4 a pound for rolled bronze, but now suppliers are projecting $12 to $16 a pound with a three-month delay. If Brungard wants to avoid price movement between now and when supplies are available, he must make a 50% deposit. Since his average sculpture weighs 365 pounds, he is now making small work from scraps.
Many artists are pushed to pivot and swap materials. Artist Jennnifer Ling Datchuk saw disruptions to material availability as early as January 2020 as China started to shut down. Kilns, kiln parts, and pottery wheels all became luxury items. Datchuck also works with mirrored acrylic, which is typically an inexpensive material, but the price was driven up when sneeze guards were introduced in stores and schools. “This forced me to find alternatives. I discovered tiny gold glass mirrors like those on disco balls,” she told Hyperallergic by email. Datchuk also produces mixed media works with long curtains of synthetic hair. “I have a relationship with a hair factory in Shenzhen, China. There was a point when it was hard to receive goods from them. I had to take apart works I normally wouldn’t have.” Datchuk repurposed hair from wigs in “Natural Hair Don’t Lie” (2016) to make “Gone But Not Forgotten” (2022) and “Forgotten But Not Gone” (2022), and she extracted red hair from the large installation “Thick” (2019) for use in “American Flag” (2020).
Historically, how and what materials artists swap communicates information on shortages and costs. During the Dust Bowl, Clyfford Still produced 19 paintings on window shades, and when raw canvas was unavailable during World War II, he created four paintings on denim. Material substitutions also expose the material intelligence of artists and craftsmen that is taken for granted by casual consumers of cultural goods. Asking an artist to swap oak for white pine or an exotic alloy for aluminum is not a simple transition. There is no bad material, but literacy with one medium does not easily migrate to another.
“I would take the financial risk, but with the increasing cost of other materials, like plywood, I have to be more conservative with my budget,” says artist Amber Cobb about experimenting today. Cobb encountered a shortage of polyurethane due to the 2021 Texas freeze when she was testing molds to cast concrete forms for a commission of several small sculptures. Trusting new materials and methods is matched by questioning old ones. Artists and fabricators that work with electronics have seen an uptick in counterfeit single-board computers called Raspberry Pi and microcontrollers called Blue Pill. The result is higher fail rates, mismatched specifications, and reduced adaptability.
Not every artist contacted for this article met obstacles in recent years, and certainly not artists with deeper pockets. Does Simone Leigh lose sleep over the rising cost of bronze, and does Yayoi Kusama break a sweat over the price of mirrored acrylic? In 2008, Jeff Koons exhibited his monumental steel sculptures on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York right before the economy crashed. Steel prices today are hovering at prices similar to 2008, yet no published reception of that show addressed the incredible cost of materials for fabrication.
Artistic skill and concept transform a medium, but material has incredible agency. The wonderous question “how did they do that?” in art circles and among enthusiasts may soon refer to more than the finished work.