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B.C. in 3-D: Rise of the MakerBot Printer

Artists and museums experiment with the possibilities of three-dimensional printing

Micah Ganske was transfixed the moment he first saw one of his objects printed in three dimensions and claims it’s now just as important to his practice as painting. “Each sculpture gets progressively larger and more complex,” says the New York–based artist and self-described “futurist.” Mining Habitat, for example, Ganske’s 2012 model of an industrial space station, “required 700 hours of print time and about a thousand parts.”

Micah Ganske repairing a MakerBot 3-D printer.


In California, Cosmo Wenman re-created two life-size sculptures from ancient Greece: the head of a horse of Selene from the east pediment of the Parthenon (438–432 b.c.) and a marble portrait of Alexander the Great (2nd–1st century b.c.). To do so, he photographed the marble originals at the British Museum, turned the photos into digital models using a program called AutoDesk 123D Catch, and printed them in blocks. He then glued the blocks together and coated everything in a bronze patina. The resulting sculptures ended up looking remarkably like those at the museum.

Cosmo Wenman, Head of a Horse of Selene, from the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles collection, life-size 3-D print finished in bronze.


Ganske and Wenman both used devices manufactured by MakerBot, whose desktop 3-D printers utilize sharable files and molten plastics to produce anything from coffee mugs to figurines. The four-year-old company recently launched two more-sophisticated models, the Replicator 2 ($2,199) and 2X ($2,799), and artists have been quick to embrace the technology.

Micah Ganske, Industrial Ring Habitat, detail, 3-D print made with ABS and PLA polymers.


Printing in three dimensions allows sculptors to scale their practice, explains Chicago artist and gallerist Tom Burtonwood, since the printer can make one-off objects or editions of 1,000. Burtonwood recently employed a MakerBot to create a double portrait of performance artists Industry of the Ordinary (Adam Brooks and Matthew Wilson) in the form of a necklace. The piece was displayed earlier this year in a retrospective on Industry of the Ordinary at the Chicago Cultural Center.

But artists aren’t the only ones on board. Last year, MakerBot and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a “hackathon,” inviting 25 artists and programmers to scan, model, and reproduce their picks among the Met’s artworks. The plastic replicas mimicked museum pieces ranging from a 2,400-year-old Greek lion statue to a 19th- or 20th-century ceramic head from Papua New Guinea.

Cosmo Wenman used a 3-D printer to replicate the British Museum’s marble portrait of Alexander the Great, 2nd–1st century B.C.


All of this raises new and old questions about the relationship between the artist and the museum, and about art as intellectual property. “There’s a value to things that have been touched by artists,” says MakerBot cofounder Bre Pettis. “If I’m an art collector, even if I can download an exact copy of the object and make it myself, I’m still going to want the piece of art that’s signed by the artist.” More than 13,000 MakerBots are now in circulation, and, Pettis says, “each one can be a portal for art to enter into the world.”

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