Dick Polich, artists' ally in the creation of sculptures, dies at 90
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Dick Polich, artists' ally in the creation of sculptures, dies at 90
A spider-like sculpture named "Maman", created by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, on display in Zurich.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- If you have ever spent time around one of artist Louise Bourgeois’ 30-foot spiders, or glimpsed one of Tom Otterness’ roundish bronze dwarves that populate the subway station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, it might have occurred to you to wonder: Where do they come from?

Obviously, they sprang from the minds of the artists. But just as obviously, the notably petite Bourgeois did not herself forge her looming metallic arachnids. For that, she — along with many of the world’s most renowned sculptors of the last 50 years — turned to a specialized foundry in the Hudson Valley and its visionary owner, Dick Polich.

After opening his shop in 1970, Polich helped hundreds of artists realize their ideas in bronze, steel or any number of exotic alloys, several of which he patented. Nancy Graves, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella all relied on Polich and his team of some 100 artisans to forge baubles as small as a hand’s width and behemoths so large that even his cavernous facility could barely accommodate them.

“He was intensely involved in the creative process with the artists,” said Daniel Belasco, the executive director of the Al Held Foundation and the organizer of a 2014 exhibition of Polich’s work at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “He was constantly innovating and giving artists new options and new ways to create.”

He figured out how to earthquake-proof one of Bourgeois’ spindle-legged spiders so it could win approval for a site in Tokyo. For Graves, he developed techniques for directly casting items like fruit and plastic rope, objects that tend not to stand up well to molten metal.

“It was like being with a collaborator,” Otterness said in a phone interview. “He was so excited about the work and really understood it.”

Since 2016, Polich’s foundry has also produced the dozens of Oscar statuettes given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences every year. The workers use 3D modeling to re-create in minute detail the original 1929 model in bronze, which another company then plates in gold.

With a master’s degree in metallurgy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Polich brought scientific rigor to his work. But he also spoke of it in near-mythical terms.

“The act of taking something that’s really hard and putting enough energy into it so it melts,” he told NPR in 2014, “you can’t look at the furnace without eye shades. It’s like playing with the sun.”

Polich, who until recently lived in Cornwall, New York, died Nov. 13 at a hospice in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 90. His death was not widely reported at the time.

His wife, Cathy Kuttner, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.

Richard Frank Polich was born Sept. 25, 1932, in Lyons, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Like many of the town’s residents, his parents, George and Dana (Paskvan) Polich, were immigrants from Croatia. His father was a laborer, his mother a homemaker.

His first three marriages ended in divorce. Along with his wife, whom he married in 2014, Polich is survived by three daughters, Susan Polich, Jane Philbrick and Cate Leger Waneselja; four sons, George and Felix Polich and Phil and Will Leger; and several grandchildren.

Polich excelled in sports and academics in high school, and in 1950 he won a scholarship to Yale University. He played football and wrestled and graduated with an economics degree in 1954. Like many other Yale undergraduates in the postwar decades, he made time to take one of Vincent Scully’s famed architectural history courses.

Polich worked briefly for the American Brake Shoe Co., where he came under the wing of a young metallurgist named Merton C. Flemings. He joined the Navy in 1956 and spent three years flying FJ-3 fighter jets off aircraft carriers.

Scully’s lessons stuck with him, and after leaving the Navy he enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Design to study architecture. But he soured on the profession and left after a year. By then, his old mentor, Flemings, had moved to MIT to run a research foundry, and Polich went to him for a job.

They worked mostly on developing cutting-edge alloys for the military. But they also received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to explore the intersection of art and technology — specifically, how American foundries could achieve a sufficiently high quality of work to keep sculptors from traveling to Europe to have their creations forged.

Polich took course work at MIT in his spare time and received his master’s in 1964. Returning to the private sector, he quickly rose to an executive post with Bendix, a military contractor. But as successful as he was, he didn’t last long in the corporate world.

“One day I got to my office and found an order for 50,000 gas-mask valves,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “And I said, ‘I’m going to do something else with my engineering degree.’ So I quit and started my own foundry.”

He called it Tallix, after the second and third syllables of “metallics,” and opened it in 1970 in Cold Spring, New York, a Putnam County village on the eastern side of the Hudson River.

Artists in New York City and along the East Coast were soon trekking up to see him. While minimalist sculptors in the 1960s, like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, preferred the clean, smooth results of industrial metalwork, their successors in the 1970s wanted to explore and celebrate the process behind their art and looked for creatively minded metallurgists as partners.

To meet demand, Polich hired scores of artisans and had to relocate several times to larger spaces, including one along the Hudson in Peekskill. He finally settled farther north in Beacon, where his presence helped catalyze the city’s art scene.

The art-market boom of the 1980s was good for him, but the bust that followed forced him to sell his operation, and not long after that to leave it entirely. In 1995, Polich partnered with Frank Stella to open a 105,000-square-foot foundry, Polich Art Works, in Rock Tavern, on the western side of the Hudson. His first major project was Stella’s “Amabel,” a 30-ton abstract sculpture for a corporate client in Seoul, South Korea.

For a decade Polich was in the odd position of competing against his former foundry, but the two merged in 2006 to form Polich Tallix. Although he was well into retirement age, he continued to work long hours, and did so until he sold the foundry to UAP, an art fabricator, in 2019.

“We are artisans,” he told the Times in 2015. “We have to have an intimate connection with the feelings and needs of the artists who work here and what their projects require. We make no aesthetic decisions, and our goal is to leave no fingerprints behind.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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