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Astoria foundry stages exhibit in carriage house

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Long before MoMA QNS converted the old Swingline staple factory and the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center invaded an old elementary school, the Modern Art Foundry started casting bronze in the Steinway family's former carriage house.

That was toward the end of World War II, nearly a half century before Astoria and Long Island City would emerge as bustling artistic hubs.

Now the family-owned foundry that predated its artistic neighbors by decades is gearing up to show off its own craftsmanship this weekend, presenting the works of four sculptors that were cast by the foundry for a sixth semiannual exhibition called Alternative Space.

"We thought we could have a unique setting, a somewhat industrial settling - not your usual New York City gallery area," said Jeffrey Spring, the vice president of the Modern Art Foundry and grandson of its founder, John Spring.

Indeed, when some 200 art patrons descend upon the warehouse at 20-20 Steinway St. Friday night, they will enter a space much less gallery than workshop.

Only days earlier the warehouse was filled with pieces of a 30-foot-tall spider created by artist Louise Bourgeois. She hired the foundry to create seven castings of the work, which drew gapes two years ago as it sat perched in Rockefeller Center.

Bourgeois is only one of a line of celebrated artists who turn to the foundry to cast their creations.

"It's been steady work that's been a lot a part of art history," Spring said as he sat in an office lined with sculptures - from the bronze Coca-Cola bottles hanging in a neat line on the wall to the fisherman who caught a crescent-shaped moon at the end of his pole.

The foundry itself sits a few blocks to the north of the gallery site, occupying a maze of buildings on 41st Street at the base of the hill that leads up to the Steinway Mansion, the one-time home of the legendary piano makers whose family business is still based in Astoria.

The company moved there more than a decade after John Spring founded it near the Queensboro Bridge in 1932, after having developed his skill in casting through years of foundry work.

It was a career he only stumbled upon, having entered the field as an immigrant who secured the job from a relative.

"He got a job out of necessity, not out of some grand plan on his part," Spring said of his grandfather.

The Modern Art Foundry creates bronze castings from the models brought to them by artists, which can be made from any number of materials like plaster, wax or clay.

"A lot of artists work in a medium where they touch something and they're finished," Spring said. "But in casting, they're giving it to someone else. You develop some very unique relationships with sculptors, and they have to trust you to do the work for them."

The foundry bridges the worlds of art and business. Although its home is part of a vast network of industrial sites nestled in northern Astoria, in many ways it fits more closely with the artistic community concentrated further south in Long Island City.

"You want to have a creative artistic environment that in some cases doesn't mix with how a business is run," said Spring, citing examples when artists want to experiment with the casting - not realizing how such experimentation weighs on a budget.

Still, Spring said, he would not have it any other way.

"You're not just making the same things every day," he said. "It's not about the numbers."

This weekend's exhibition will feature the work of four artists - Beverly Davis, Kristin Eyfells, Gleb Derujinsky and Clemente Spampinato - among whom only Davis is still alive.

Davis' work features sculptures of gorillas she observed in the Philadelphia Zoo before they died in 1995 when an electrical fire broke out in the ceiling of their habitat.

The foundry cast Eyfells' work when her husband approached them shortly after her death last year.

"When she passed away, her husband, as a tribute to her, was going to have her pieces cast and shown," Spring said.

The display of Derujinsky's works is a "part of the reawakening to his work" three decades after his death, when his estate plunged into a state of disarray that left his works collecting dust on a shelf, Spring said.

Spampinato produced sculptures of sports subjects, the most famous of which is a statue of Bobby Jones at the Pinehurst Golf Course.

But behind the scenes, the foundry is producing even more work that will be shown on an international stage, like the 24-foot statue of a coal miner it is creating for the republic of Kazakhstan.

That towering piece is being produced in parts and will be assembled outside because it is too tall for the building.

Alternative Space at 20-20 Steinway St. opens from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, and continues Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit modernartfoundry.com.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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