Joe Fig was a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York when he first started visiting artists’ studios. “I thought maybe if I could reproduce the studios of some of the Abstract Expressionists and duplicate some of their processes, then maybe I would become an abstract painter,” he says. One of the first artists he dropped in on was Michael Goldberg, a second-generation AbEx painter whose studio once belonged to Mark Rothko. “The place was so full of stories. I left wishing I had recorded that somehow.”
That encounter eventually led Fig to write his 2009 book, Inside the Painter’s Studio (Princeton Architectural Press), and to build a career of re-creating the workspaces of contemporary painters and sculptors. Nine of those studios, painstakingly reproduced by Fig as miniature sculptures or as realist paintings, are on view in “NEW/NOW: Joe Fig,” at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut through July 20. They include the ateliers of Ursula von Rydingsvard, Petah Coyne, Ellen Altfest, Tara Donovan, and Judy Pfaff. All are women artists working in New York.
Fig’s modus operandi is to spend about an hour and a half interviewing each of his subjects before taking photos, watching the artist in action, and measuring everything in the studio. “The artists I’m most attracted to are the ones who are very labor-intensive,” he says. Each model takes four to eight weeks to construct, and most are no more than 23 inches in any one dimension. Fig estimates that about 95 percent of the accoutrements in his dioramas—ladders, benches, cords, rolling carts, artworks, and so on—are made by him; the rest are manipulated items originally intended for dollhouses.
While visiting von Rydingsvard, Fig noted that her sculptures are created by stacking wedges and lengths of cedar into monumental, largely abstract configurations. “I ended up getting mini four-by-fours and painting them to look like cedar, stacking them up, using a little grinder, and then cutting into them,” he says. To mimic a sculpture-in-progress hanging from Coyne’s studio ceiling, Fig bought around 1,000 miniature flowers, which he painted and affixed to a tiny chandelier armature.
After spending time with Pfaff at her compound in upstate New York, Fig realized the most intriguing part of her domain was a different kind of room: the kitchen. “It’s a beautiful space and very much like her work,” he says. So he did a painting that includes the diamond-paned window, patterned rug, table and chairs, pots and pans, and a lone black dog sniffing the floor. “The kitchen,” he says, “really seemed to match her personality.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Artists’ Studios: The Dollhouse Version.”