It is rare that an artist retires, so when sculptor Rob Fisher died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 67 in 2006, he left five large-scale commissioned projects uncompleted. In most contracts to produce a new work of art, there is a clause to cancel the agreement in the event of the death of the artist, but Fisher’s family looked to maintain and extend his legacy. Over the ensuing six years, his son Brett and daughter Talley took over the process of completing these commissions and even to begin new projects that they themselves designed, however still under the imprimatur of Rob Fisher Sculpture.
“Those [older] contracts were made with Rob Fisher Sculpture, LLC so we needed to keep operating under the company name,” Talley said, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon and worked closely with her father in the last years of his life. “As I began to create my own artworks, I found it very rewarding. I plan to continue on this path, independently. I have created almost 30 of my own designs. The task of changing the name of the business is daunting and will require an enormous amount of work, lawyers, etc. We simply haven’t gotten to it since I’ve been so busy.”
There are many ways in which an artist’s heirs may carry on that person’s legacy, of which producing new work under the now deceased artist’s name is one. Talley Fisher’s entry into the art world is not wholly unique. After sculptor Harry Bertoia died in 1978 at the age of 65, his son Val, who earned an undergraduate degree from Indiana Institute of Technology in mechanical engineering and worked for his father for the last six years of his life, “took over the business.” That business now largely consists of making replicas of his father’s smaller-scale sound sculptures, as well as producing his own sound sculptures. “In some cases, people who bought Harry’s work buy mine,” he said. “People are interested in my work, although at lower prices. In a dark room, you can’t tell a Val Bertoia from a Harry Bertoia,” although he acknowledged that the designs are different, based on “different curvatures” of the metals used. The remaining part of the business is offering tours of Harry Bertoia’s studio, making repairs to the older artist’s work and authenticating pieces done by the artist.
Similarly, Mira Nakashima, an architect by training, took over the furniture-making business of her father, George Nakashima, after he died in 1990, fulfilling his orders, creating replicas of his best-known pieces and even expanding the Nakashima studio’s offerings with new designs of her own.
Most artists’ heirs protect their parent’s or grandparent’s legacy in more prosaic ways, for instance, through establishing a foundation that makes the artists’ works and archival material available for exhibition and scholarship. Artists often own the largest collection of their own works and heirs need to determine what to do with this vast quantity of material. Lee Krasner, who managed her husband Jackson Pollock’s estate until her death in 1984, provided an even flow of works onto the market in order to keep prices high and avoid a deluge.
On the other hand, the widows of sculptors Sir Jacob Epstein and Julio Gonzalez inadvertently hurt the market for their late husbands’ works when they began recasting their pieces – failing to keep good records on how many reproductions were made in Epstein’s case, failing to label the recasts as posthumous with Gonzalez. The families of painters Raoul Dufy and Thomas Hart Benton helped depress the prices for their paintings by dumping a large number of them onto the market after their deaths.
The responsibility of artists’ heirs is to continue to promote the artwork, which maintains the visibility of the artist and market for potential sales. That requires them to keep good records of the pieces that have been completed and any projects that are in the works, maintain archival material (letters, receipts, commission agreements, photographs) for the benefit of dealers, curators and historians, as well as to clearly identify where a parent’s work ends and theirs begins. Certainly, what the heirs and dealers of a deceased artists do not want are actions that add confusion to the artist’s market and reputation.
By Daniel Grant