The Sculptor vs. The Robots
As automation spreads into the fine arts, American sculptor Fred X. Brownstein proudly holds the barricades with the tools, techniques, and even the same marble source used centuries ago by Michelangelo. Which side will prevail?
By THOMAS COOPER
Fred X. Brownstein prefers to carve stone while wearing a hat made of newspaper. It is a privilege he earned some 45 years ago in the Apuan Alps of northern Tuscany, and to this day he fashions these toques—narrow, high-brimmed affairs that remind one of a 1950s short-order cook—by hand, and only out of Italian newsprint. He carries a supply of the papers back from his trips to this stone-rich country, where he spent 16 years becoming a marble sculptor. The hat, he says, “reminds me where I came from as an artist.”
Each phase of marble carving has its own specialist, and demands unique tools: a set of rasps with tiny teeth to create the texture of skin; another for detailing fingernails and toenails. There’s even an artisan called an ornatista, who finishes foliage and flowers.
Brownstein wears paper hats for several practical reasons as well. “They are neat, and they are cheap,” he says. And because newsprint is cool in summer and warm in winter, “you can make a new one every day instead of wearing a ball cap that is caked with dust and sweat from the day before.” The paper cap also acts as a helmet, absorbing the impact of flying chips. And it keeps off marble dust, which is a desiccant. “It will dry out anything,” he says. “Your clothes don’t tear, they fall apart. Your hair will fall out.”
Brownstein is, and has been for some 50 years, a figurative sculptor. He occasionally works in bronze, and in his early years fashioned abstract pieces using wood and metal (“whatever I could scrounge up”). But he is primarily a sculptor of marble, using age-old tools and methods that are on the brink of extinction. And the strange thing is, more and more of his fellow stone carvers seem to find little value in sustaining those traditions.
Brownstein’s material of choice is Italian marble, specifically the kind that’s extracted from the Apuan mountains surrounding Carrara, a small city on the country’s northwestern coast. (Picture Italy’s cartographical boot: Carrara is nestled in the front of its western corner, just before the boot splays out at the top, about halfway between Florence and Genoa.) Carrara has attracted artists for more than 2,000 years, starting when Romans quarried the marble for Trajan’s Temple and the Pantheon, in 114 A.D. In 1497, an ambitious 22-year-old named Michelangelo Buonarroti visited the area seeking stone that would be transformed into “La Pietà”—the first of many Michelangelo masterpieces carved from Carrara marble. Centuries later, Carrara became the material source for a number of modern sculptors, including Jean Arp, Henry Moore, and Damian Hurst. All were attracted by the subtle coloring and translucence of the stone that underlies this rugged region.
By his own choice, Brownstein is a workshop of one: draftsman, clay modeler, plaster cast maker, carver. “Knowing and controlling the entire process frees up my creativity,” he says. “I know how close I can get to the edge.”
Those qualities derive from the crisp, tight crystals in this particular stone, called Apuan marble (marmo in Italian)—a type of limestone formed hundreds of millions of years ago in a geological crucible of extreme heat and weight. The result of this metamorphosis is a coastal mountain range rising to 6,300 feet, made almost entirely of the stuff seen in countertops, toothpaste, paint, cosmetics, Grant’s Tomb in New York City, and London’s Marble Arch. Peel off the forests, wash away the soil, and you have towering, jagged uplifts of white marble that look like snow-covered Alps. (If you want a glimpse of Carrara quarrying in action, this 3-minute video by Britannica offers a nice overview. If you want to see a master quarry supervisor orchestrate the felling of giant marble blocks, watch this little film, “Il Capo“.)
In addition to producing countless statues, this sought-after marble helped generations of men and women build a complex chain of rarefied professions. Laboring in unassuming workshops throughout the surrounding valley, they have long turned stone blocks into everything from a sword-wielding Greek warrior to an elaborate mantlepiece. Mirroring the exceptional marble they work on, the carvers of Carrara are considered the finest stonework artisans (or artigiani) available. They start learning their craft as teenagers, employing traditions, tools, and techniques that have been handed down for centuries.
In most shops in Carrara, works of marble are carved, as they always have been, by teams—a series of specialists who perform specific steps as they transform an artist’s vision into a marble reality. First, one artisan roughs out the shape with a thick chisel, leaving an inch or so of “fat” on the front planes of the piece and two inches on the back. The piece then passes to a smodellatore, who transfers the measurement points from the small model to the larger form in marble. Each phase here, and from then on, demands unique tools: a set of rasps with tiny teeth to create the texture of skin; then another set for detailing fingernails and toenails, or to fashion the intricate folds of drapery. There’s even a specialist, called an ornatista, who finishes foliage and flowers.
As a young man, Brownstein hitch-hiked around Europe (in a sport coat and tie), creating his own art-history tour.
Although the atelier system endures in Carrara, some, including Brownstein, fear it may soon lose its soul, if not its very existence. Most workers today rely on power tools—saws, jackhammers, drills, chisels, grinders—which greatly reduce the time needed to complete a piece of work. More recently, the artisans themselves have started being replaced by robots, which are guided by proprietary software that translates laser scans of a plaster model or a 3D-printed maquette. These machines carve marble in a fraction of the time it would take a team of Carrara craftsmen, and the operator behind this machine doesn’t require years of training.
Plenty of artists welcome the mechanized assistance. Richard Erdman, a marble sculptor who started out with a hammer and chisel, has been working with the SGF Scultura Studio in Carrara since the late 1970s. His 1984 piece, “Passage,” was carved from a 750-ton block by a team of men using massive drills, diamond saws, and jackhammers. The piece took them two years; it now resides in the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Garden at PepsiCo’s headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., alongside works by Calder, Giacometti, and Rodin.
“I can do three pieces in the time it used to take me to do one,” Erdman told me. This is particularly helpful to sculptors who deal with galleries, which depend on artists having a varied inventory to draw from. Erdman has no problem having the team at SGF Scultura do most of the carving. He prefers “the joy of creating, not making,” he says. “Once I have conceived a sculpture, as a drawing or a model, I’m not interested in spending 10 weeks re-creating what I have already made.”
Meanwhile, in Vermont, Brownstein happily toils away, producing, at most, three pieces a year—a process he makes pay off by keeping his operation simple.
In his studio in Shaftsbury, Brownstein single-handedly conceives and executes—blow by blow, chip by chip—public and private commissions for parks and hospitals, cemeteries, cities, and dozens of individuals. And, it seems, he’s been generously rewarded for his efforts. His work, which has been exhibited in galleries and shows around the United States, includes several portrait sculptures, figures of lovers sharing secrets, soccer and baseball players holding bats and balls, nurses in scrubs, biblical figures, and angels. Some are full figures, others just busts or reliefs. All have been produced with only the slightest assistance from power tools. By Brownstein’s own choice, he is a workshop of one: draftsman, clay modeler, plaster-cast maker, carver.
“I like a sculpture to be my own effort from beginning to end,” he says in his characteristic, matter-of-fact tone. “I would rather do it with all the faults and warts I make. They’re mine. Knowing and controlling the entire process frees up my creativity. I know how close I can get to the edge.”
Gwen Pier, executive director of the National Sculpture Society, says Brownstein is a very rare bird. Sculpture, she says, constitutes a small corner of the art world, and figurative sculpture—especially in stone, let alone by hand—lives in an even smaller corner. “Fred is carrying on deeply traditional methods from Italy [that] are not widely known,” she says. One reason for his near obsolescence, says Carol Driscoll, executive director at The Carving Studio in Rutland, Vermont, where Brownstein has both taught and exhibited, is that Americans “don’t have the attention span for complicated, intimate work such as Brownstein’s. It’s not part of the American psyche.”
To Brownstein, however, there are underlying values in his approach—principles of creativity, and even human development—that machines can’t duplicate, and that would be disastrous to cast aside. “A robot is fine for reproducing architectural features like acanthus leaves, and ball and dart moulding,” he says. “But, even there, if you study the way a robot carved the replacements, there is no comparison to the originals carved by an artisan.”
Knowing full well that machines are poised to sideline the world’s human sculptors, Brownstein says “I would be sorry if that was the case, because in carving a piece by hand, sculptors are developing themselves as artists. You grow because you practice and dedicate yourself.” That discipline, he says, “is what satisfies me as an artist.” His methods might also satisfy a sculptor as a human, says Driscoll, who thinks that handwork “offers solace, or a form of meditation.”
Brownstein, who is closer to 80 than to 70, still has thick hair and a bushy handlebar mustache, both the color of lightly flecked marble. When he is roughing out a piece of marble with one of his smaller hammers (at 1-1/2 pounds, it’s still more sledge than hammer), he stands erect, intent, his head bent slightly forward to study the stone. Slender, and of medium build, he has the look of an athlete—sinewy, with muscled arms that reflect his vocation.
In his left hand, on a day I watched him at work, he holds a “pitching tool,” a chisel designed for removing the first layers of stone. With his right arm close to his side, his hammering motion is precise, rhythmic, his elbow rising up only slightly. With pneumatic strokes and never a glance at the hammer—its handle smooth and shiny from years of use—or at the pitching tool, he methodically works his way across a span of marble. It’s like watching a master fly fisherman casting in tight quarters.
As Brownstein works, chips of white marble jump off the surface of the block. Marble, he says, is “not dead; it is quite alive, and it has a lot of energy bound up in it.” That’s why the pieces “pop out of the stone,” he says. “It doesn’t just fall off. You have to hit it hard; if your hammer is not coming back up by your ear, you’re not doing enough work.” To Brownstein, this physical element—the hands-on wrestling with and, at times, caressing a piece of stone—is essential to the craft. (This film, which used time-lapse videography and was released in June 2023, captures Brownstein’s process in less than 7 minutes.)
When Brownstein was 10 or 11 years old, his father, who was a sales representative for toy companies such as Hasbro and Milton Bradley, took his son on a business trip from the family home in Memphis, Tennessee, to New York City. The salesman’s day was a long succession of meetings around the city, so he deposited his son at the city’s renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art (with a brief heads-up to the guards). “I would just wander around for hours,” Brownstein says. “I was in awe. I didn’t see behind the work—that there were people doing it. I was stopped at the art. But I always wanted to go back.”
His father died in 1967 when Brownstein was 21. “And that was when I knew I wanted to be a sculptor,” he says. “I don’t know why, that was just when I knew.”
By this time, Brownstein had been flirting with art—taking drawing classes in seventh grade, with a teacher who used the pedagogical notebook of Paul Klee, a prominent early 20th-century artist, for his students’ exercises. Years later, as a pre-med student at Tulane University, Brownstein kept hanging out in the art department. Months before he was to graduate, art bested biology, and Brownstein departed for California, where he spent two years at the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduation, in 1970, he went to Europe “to educate myself.” Hitchhiking around the continent (in a sport coat and tie), Brownstein created his own art-history tour. He started in Belgium, with the Flemish artists, then worked his way through France and Spain.
Just before he had to return to the U.S., he went to Italy, where he got his first look at the Apuan mountainsides. When he met his future wife, the painter Stella Ehrich, in 1974, he had a poster of the Carrara region hanging on his wall. “That’s where I plan to go as soon as I have the money,” he told her.
Antonio Canova worked on his 1793 sculpture “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” for 5 years. Robotor 1L reproduced it in 270 hours. In robot time, that’s less than 12 days.
By 1975 he was back in Italy with Ehrich. In Querceta, a town to the south of Carrara, Brownstein soon met a master carver named Julio Cardini, who had worked on pieces for artists such as Henry Moore, Marino Marini, and Joan Miro. Cardini helped Brownstein land an apprenticeship at Enzo Pasquini’s laboratorio, a workshop that specialized in reproductions of Classical marble sculpture. During his time in Pasquini’s studio, Brownstein started seeing a difference, at least in marble carving, between the work of a craftsman, as he defines it, and the work of an artist.
“The guys I carved with would do hundreds and thousands of pieces in their careers,” Brownstein told me. “They’d copied every masterpiece, and they could do it upside down and backwards. But very few of them had the creativity or desire to create something of their own, or move the tradition forward.”
Richard Erdman had a similar experience. Early in his time in Carrara, he concluded that he would never carve as well as the men in the studio. “It was their life, and it likely had been their father’s. They were proud of working in Carrara with all of its tradition and prestige. The world came to them to have pieces carved. But give them a block of marble and ask them to make a sculpture, and most would have no interest.”
Brownstein’s informal apprenticeship at the Pasquini workshop lasted 4 years. He gradually learned the craft of carving stone—that pieces are sculpted top to bottom and front to back, which leaves room to correct mistakes. He also learned subtle tricks of the trade. “How do you carve a black-haired person in white marble? You create layers. Different layers reflect light differently to bring the piece to life.”
There are also carving sleights of hand that allow a large figure to stand without breaking. “Marble weighs 170 pounds a cubic foot,” he told me, with the patient cadence of a teacher (Brownstein regularly leads workshops around the country). This means that, in marble, the ankles on a figure, even a small one, won’t be strong enough to support the torso.
Michelangelo solved this problem, with his massive sculpture of “David,” by putting a tree trunk behind his right leg; in Bernini’s “Daphne and Apollo,” the artist supported the two figures by entwining them with laurel. Brownstein’s version of this device, in his piece “The Secret,” was to make the hips and thighs of the two figures touch, thereby creating a strong core. And, he adds, “there are lots of triangles involved, which add strength.”
In 1980, Brownstein managed to rent a workspace of his own 10 miles south of Carrara in the village of Querceta—“a dirt floor, no heat, but good light.” Five years later, he won a competition put on by the nearby town of Stazzema to carve “Monumento ai Caduti” (Monument to the Fallen), a 104-by-66-inch piece showing a young man standing beside a flag-draped monument, lamenting the losses of World Wars I and II.
Other commissions followed back in the U.S.—for a library in Mississippi, a hospital in New York, a Jewish Community Center in Tennessee. He won’t talk about his fees for these or other works. Each piece is unique, he says, and the time required to make one varies greatly. Also, his clients don’t want him discussing prices.
Today the ateliers of Carrara and the surrounding valley throb and whine with high-speed band saws with diamond-beaded blades, pneumatic chisels, and electric grinders. Not so for Brownstein. Except for an air-driven chisel and a diamond-tipped circular saw, which he employs for some initial cutting, the tools he uses might have been handed down from one of the hundreds of artigiani who worked in the Bernini studio in the 1600s.
Some are made of steel, others of iron, which is the softer metal of the two. “To carve marble effectively,” he says, “you need some shock-absorbing effect between the hammer, the tool, and the stone.” An iron hammer is so soft, in fact, that over the years, having struck a chisel thousands of times, the head develops a deep conical divot; the same goes for an iron chisel, which tends to mushroom after countless percussive blows. For especially delicate carving, Brownstein shifts to a wooden mallet, tapping gently on a chisel the size of a pencil.
The main tool used to create sculptures of almost unimaginable delicacy and fragility, is, and has long been, the chisel in its many forms. While making a piece, Brownstein will call on some 35 different chisels, beginning with the pitching tool (scapezzino) and the Subia used in the first round of reductions. From these, the declension of chisels moves down to the Unghietto, which means “little fingernail”; the grandino, whose toothy head resembles a tiny cat’s paw; then to the Scalpello, a flat chisel for fine work; followed by various rasps and files and, ultimately, to finishing stones and sandpapers. Sculpting a figure’s eye alone can involve seven or more different tools.
Before he ever takes up a hammer and chisel for a commission, Brownstein will have gone through a series of meetings with the client (“I only take so much criticism,” he says), and numerous steps and months of planning. During this process, he often creates up to five drawings, but says, “I prefer to keep it to three.” (Brownstein spent 4 years studying drawing in the acclaimed Florence studio of La Signorina Nerina Simi.) He will then create a clay model and, from that, a plaster cast. The cast will be his guide to carving.
This is when the real labor begins. A typical example occurred in 2005, when Brownstein was approached by a couple to create a sculpture of an angel to ornament their grave plot. From his first sketches of angels, then work with a model, to the completed sculpture, more than 18 months elapsed. When Brownstein finally set to work, on a 6,600-pound block of Carrara marble, he reduced its weight by half. The result is a four-foot-high female angel for the ages, but with a contemporary flair: a pendant necklace; a gown, with a plunging neckline, casually drawn up over one knee; and a gaze that appears to be looking to eternity.
Brownstein’s house and studio sit at the end of a gravel drive, which is reached by a dirt road that would draw leaf-peeping tourists if they could find it. Potholes in the drive have been filled with white marble dust—a testimony, of sorts, to the long history of marble quarrying in this corner of New England. [See the sidebar story, “America’s Oldest Marble Quarry.”]
Brownstein’s studio, which he built in 2018 (Ehrich’s is elsewhere on the property), is an open space with a cathedral ceiling and windows along the tops of three sides for good light (they can also be blacked out when necessary). Below the windows, shelves line the walls holding orderly collections of chisels, hammers, and wooden calipers. Other shelves hold plaster casts of small figures, standing in mute assembly, along with a scattering of stray plaster body parts.
The hickory floor of the studio is chalky in color from the constant application of marble dust. A variety of pallet lifts, hoists, block-and-tackle assemblies, and pry bars stand by to move Brownstein’s multi-ton blocks of stone. A 24-foot-high tubular steel gantry spans the room; spotlights on tripods stand at the ready for fine detail work.
The space next to the studio is Brownstein’s vault. It holds about two dozen hefty blocks of marble, all from the Apuan Alps, plus a large collection of plaster casts from previous works, all of which make the space look like a prop room in a theater. The pieces of marble are irregular in shape and, to the untrained eye, exhibit no particular promise. But Brownstein saw something in each one that inspired him to buy them and have them crated and shipped to the U.S. Pausing to look at them he says, with a chuckle, “They will last me the rest of my life.”
A workshop 4,000 miles east of Shaftsbury could make short work of Brownstein’s inventory. The shop’s lead sculptor is Robotor 1L, a 13-foot-tall robotic carver developed in Carrara. Using diamond-dusted cutting heads spinning at 12,000 rpm and guided by 3D computer software, 1L has no trouble milling marble intricately and precisely.
And quickly. In a recent article in The New York Times, describing a robot’s reproduction of Antonio Canova’s 1793 sculpture “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss,” Robotor founder Giacomo Massari said, “Canova took five years to make this. We took 270 hours,” which apparently was, or could be, squeezed into a mere two weeks. The machine “doesn’t go on holiday,” Massari says. “It doesn’t get sick. It doesn’t sleep.”
Yet Massari is still convinced that “the robot does not replace the artist.” Like generations of technology innovators, Massari sees the machine as just another “tool in the sculptor’s toolbox, just like a hammer and chisel.” In his view, the core idea for the work, the choice of material, and the finish are all up to the artist. “The robot is simply an executor.”
More and more artists seem to agree—the pop artist Jeff Koons is one of Massari’s clients, as is the performance artist Vanessa Beechcroft—even if some of them are hesitant to say publicly that their Italian artigiano is named 1L.
Richard Erdman has also used robots on some recent pieces, and has been perfectly happy with the results. “They can do incredible work,” he says, “following curves closely and with accuracy.” (That said, Erdman discovered that the starting block for a new project—a 16-1/2-foot-tall piece, titled “Belladonna Reno”—was too large for a robot to negotiate, so he had to return to the artigiani, who will spend 8 to 10 months carving it by hand.) Erdman estimates that in the last two decades, robots have replaced 50 percent of the Carrara carvers. And he suspects that the number of workshops has dropped by similar percentage—in part because young people are less inclined to pursue a career as a stone carver when robotics are taking over more and more of the work.
Brownstein acknowledges the robot’s allure but is immune, for reasons that might give this age-old battle to the humans—possibly for good.
First, Brownstein says, a robot’s work is too uniform, leaving what he calls a “corduroy-like” surface. He shows me a closeup photo of a Michelangelo carving, with lines going in different directions, overlapping, butting into one another, to create different textures, which either hold or reflect light. “A robot can’t do that,” he says.
Even if a robot could manage these subtleties (and if it can’t now, it probably won’t be long before it can), there are physical challenges in stone sculpting that require improvisation as the work progresses, in ways that a machine might never master. Look, for example, at Brownstein’s studio, which he organizes around a variety of lighting options. He goes to this trouble because he likes to consider his pieces in different types of light—morning and afternoon, indoor and outdoor—to see how a sculpture’s myriad surfaces absorb or reflect the light. How is a robot going to do that? If it can’t, and these refinements are left to the human sculptor, that too might not be enough. What happens if the robot has removed material that the human suddenly sees, under different light, was needed in order to make adjustments?
Beyond such practical concerns, Brownstein worries about the spiritual. That begins, for him, in the value of the craft’s physical effort—as he puts it, “the fact that you’re on the edge of your ability all the time.” He points to one of his recent works, “Jacob’s Dream,” an unfinished 43-by-27-inch relief showing the robed, biblical patriarch and the ladder of his dream being looked down on by two angels. One of Jacob’s hands is outstretched, and I suddenly feel terrified of getting too close and snapping off his perfectly articulated, and clearly fragile, fingers.
The piece had been months in the making, Brownstein said, and was now weeks from completion. “A beautiful piece of stone, and if I make one mistake, I lose it all. It’s like high-speed race-car driving: a millisecond of inattention, and everything goes up in flames.”
From the moment he starts, Brownstein feels that everything must go right. “A lot of the work is dusty, loud, repetitive, noisy. But it’s not boring,” he says. “And then there is the magic that happens when you move beyond craft to art; it moves to another level that’s spiritual.”
In that one comment, Brownstein embraces three big, amorphous ideas: craft, art, and spirituality. But in his mind, they are clearly delineated, and cumulative. Skillfully carving marble, as difficult as that is, is not in itself art, as Carrara’s artigiani, trained to copy famous works, amply demonstrate. To become art, he says, a sculpture has to have spirit, “the undefinable quality that gives life to the work.”
To Brownstein, there’s an important distinction here, a fundamental truth about how we humans interact with our environment, and with others. “We are born to recognize, but we have to learn to see,” he says. “You can recognize someone you know at a distance. Seeing means you could draw their portrait”—and do so in a fashion that “expresses their unique expression and character as well as their likeness.” If, as an artist, you also add empathy for your subject, “in your unique style,” the result for Brownstein can be spiritual—what he calls visual and physical “poetry.”
It is of course doubtful that robots will ever become poetic or deeply spiritual (although the dramatic advances recently in Artificial Intelligence certainly makes one wonder). And it’s even more doubtful that a robot can make us feel spiritual when we gaze upon its automated artwork. Whatever robots can ultimately do, a human still has to design and direct the machines that possess those abilities. The skills needed to create those machines—more the head than in the hands—might well be what distinguish Carrara artisans in the future.
No matter how stone sculpting’s challenges are met by tomorrow’s robots, there is one last frontier in art that might forever elude them: the role of human emotions.
To Brownstein, a marble sculptor is a kind of performer; and if the tradition of performing with stone disappears, that’s like losing our professional pianists or saxophonists. “Yes, you can get banjo music out of a computer,” he says. “But what about watching that musician, watching his hands and the way they move, and the fact that he interprets and feels the music?”
For Brownstein, the very act of making a piece—the continuum from idea to drawing to clay and plaster models to the weeks- or months-long process of carving the finished piece—is what he loves. Would he work with a studio in Carrara, if funded? Yes, but only if he could work alongside the artigiani he had hired. He wants to be part of the band, even if they’re playing his composition.
“I’m making decisions all the time,” he says. “Your mind is always just a little bit in front of the chisel. The idea and the execution evolve together as the artist is performing.” When Brownstein has a model pose for him, “I want to know them. I look in their eyes, sense their feelings.”
And then, sometimes, those feelings can progress to the profound. “As I am working, the light of the setting sun shines through onto flesh, and I’m like, ‘This is beautiful,’ and I am trying to channel it, guide it through my hands.” He pauses, then offers an idea.
“Talk to your robot. Ask what it says about its work.”