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The Man Who Casts The Metal For The Master Sculptors


Dick Polich is a kind of alchemist who transforms ideas into metal. For nearly 50 years, he's cast sculptures for famous artists, including Isamu Noguchi, Frank Stella and Jeff Koons. Karen Michel visited Dick Polich recently at his foundry in New York's Hudson Valley, and she found a place that's big enough to house the ambitions of the octogenarian founder.

DICK POLICH: It's such a primitive creative experience. I find it really moving and powerful.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: And 82, Dick Polich is trim, energetic and still passionate about working with artists and with metal.

POLICH: The act of taking something that's really hard and putting enough energy into it so it melts - and when you're talking about bronze and steel and iron, you're talking about temperatures in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Steels - you can't look at the furnace without eye shades. It's like playing with the sun.

MICHEL: There's wax and plastering chemicals involved and tremendous amounts of skill. Polich is known for the quality of the work at his foundry, especially the finishes, the patinas. Many of the workers have been with Polich for decades.

POLICH: It is just wonderful that we're doing useful, significant work for people who appreciate it. You know, we're not making 10,000 of the best cars in the world. We're making 300 or 400 sculptures a year for the best artists in the world.

TOM OTTERNESS: This is a stainless steel sculpture. It's part of the Pygmalion myth.

MICHEL: Sculptor Tom Otterness is a frequent client of the foundry. He's got several works in progress there, including a six-foot-tall woman chiseling her mate out of metal. Otterness doesn't cast all of his familiar, cartoony, round-headed figures there, but he says working with Dick Polich is special.

OTTERNESS: Dick is fascinating. He has a charisma, you know, that draws you in because he's intellectually engaged. He's really deep into the metal, involved in the ideas, advancing the forefront of sculpture, you know? So he wants to be out on that edge.

MICHEL: Polich has developed new alloys and processes. Now he's pioneering the use of 3-D modeling for metal casting. He's always had an urge to go beyond. Just out of MIT in 1964, with a master's degree in metallurgy, Polich was working in a foundry that made weapons and airplane parts.

POLICH: I got this order one day, and it was for 50,000 gas mask valves. And I said I'm going to do something else with my engineering. And I quit and started the art foundry.

MICHEL: The history of his collaborations with artists is the focus of an exhibition at Dorsky Museum of Art, less than an hour's drive north of the foundry and New York's Hudson Valley.

DANIEL BELASCO: It starts - well, the first thing you see when you walk in is the Roy Lichtenstein "Lamp On Table."

MICHEL: Daniel Belasco curated this show.

BELASCO: Here was the opportunity to just really flip on its head the whole discussion of post-war, you know, sculpture in America by looking through the lens of the fabricator. And fortunately, because Dick has been around for so many years - and has created so many landmark works of sculpture, has worked with so many artists for many decades - there was an extraordinary group of artists to look at and to consider.

MICHEL: Polich has worked with at least 500 artists, 11 of them have works in the exhibition. Among them, some of the most well-known artists of the 20th and 21st centuries - Isamu Noguchi, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Joe Shapiro, Jeff Koons and Tom Otterness. The foundry is in an airplane hangar-like structure. Still Otterness says that rather than feel Lilliputian, it's a place where artists feel like giants.

OTTERNESS: That's also part of his talent and you have to do this. You have to treat each of us as the only child.

MICHEL: The exhibition of the work of Dick Polich, and the family of artists he's worked with, is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, New York, through mid-December. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Michel