So, what am I working on NOW? Happy you asked. Earlier this year, I started collaborating with the Gagosian on original texts about our artists, shows and upcoming exhibitions. This week, we released one of my favorite interviews yet: Rachel Feinstein. The Miami-born artist has played muse to many (including her husband, painter John Currin; and the designer, Marc Jacobs, for whom she has both designed fashion show sets and appeared in his campaign), and it’s clear in this interview why.
A pirate’s ship zooming through the sky. A cartoon house balancing precariously on the edge of a cliff. A squat rococo hut. These three structures by Rachel Feinstein, together titled Folly, debuted this month in New York City’s Madison Square Park.
Derek Blasberg: I looked up the word “folly” in the dictionary and it gave me five definitions: the state of being foolish, an absurdity, a costly undertaking, a theatrical review, and a whimsical structure built as a conversation piece. Which definition do you think best sums up your new works?
Rachel Feinstein: All of them! I like all of those things. The word “absurd” is good because, for me, a folly doesn’t serve any real purpose. It’s not as though someone is going to live in these houses, or that this ship will go into water. All art is basically absurd, in that its only purpose is to enrich life and to give pleasure—not to do practical things like feed or clothe. The concept of Folly has its origins in mania and excess, in the times when kings and queens built ornate fantasy structures, like Egyptian pyramids or Roman temples, which were intended primarily as decorative objects.
DB: Do you believe that modern society retains those elements of folly?
RF: When I look at those fantastical structures I sometimes wonder, “Are we at that point today?” That’s what I liked about having these baroque, rococo sculptures in Madison Square Park. They add whimsical pleasure to the city. There aren’t a lot of true pleasures left in New York. This town is about capitalism, making money, pushing oneself, striving for the next challenge. But in Madison Square Park, I see people enjoying life and being happy. I wanted to do something that would make people smile. Sure, there are deeper meanings to my work and to my inspirations, and if people see them that’s great. If my work causes people to reflect on childhood or on mortality, that’s wonderful. But if they just want to look at something pretty while they’re eating lunch, that’s cool too.
DB: The baroque aesthetic has been a longtime influence for you.
RF: It really began in 2000, when I took a trip through Bavaria, Germany, and I saw the real thing for the first time, as opposed to the Florida version of baroque that I saw when I was growing up. Let me tell you, Liberace and America’s version of rococo is totally not what it’s about. It’s not gold yucky “elegance.” Baroque is meant to show you so much decadence that it reveals the presence of death at every turn. It’s frightening. The highest and most frightening forms of rococo and baroque still exist in palaces and hunting lodges around Bavaria.
DB: Like King Ludwig’s palace, which I remember so well because it was the basis of the Disneyland castle.
RF: Yes, but King Ludwig’s palace was in itself a Disney version of real Baroque palaces like the Nymphenburg Palace. Growing up in Florida, I was familiar with the façade. I saw Disneyworld as a magical and amazing place from far away, but I also saw what it looked like up close, and I saw what was behind the façade. I remember thinking, at a young age, “This is all bullshit. This is all fake, and I don’t believe it.” You see that in my work too, there’s a front and back, and that’s purposeful. When I was in college, I was obsessed with duality in fairy tales, and how good and evil exist in opposition, like old and young; the yin and yang of life. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Carl Jung. He said that when you hit middle age—which is where I am, and I’m freaking out about it—you have to rebirth the second half of your life, and live in the opposite sex to that in which you lived for the first half.
DB: Does that mean you would live the rest of your life as a man?
RF: It’s interesting. In my home life, I am very girly, and my husband [the painter John Currin] is very masculine. But in both of our professional lives, the roles are different: I’m a sculptor, which is more masculine, and I use tools and saws and fiberglass resins. John is more feminine; he uses soft brushes and pretty paints. So, according to Jung, I have to become more masculine at home and then more feminine at work. He says that in order to continue life and not look back, a person has to change how they live by moving forward differently into the second half of your life. Which makes sense.
DB: Do you think there’s something feminine about the follies?
RF: Maybe. The concept did come from doing a set for a women’s fashion show. In 2012, I did the set for a Marc Jacobs show. He called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do it, but said I only had two weeks. So, I just started googling things I liked. Since I was supposed to make a set, I researched Picasso’s work for the Ballets Russes. Dalí did some sets too, so I found pictures of those. At the time I was also working on a show for the Gagosian in Rome, and the inspiration for that was Roman ruins. Marc had said, “Do whatever you want, I just don’t want fairy tales.” He wanted sad and melancholy. No princesses. Then, that’s where Folly began. I had been drawing objects, cutting the drawing up, and then gluing it back together. In creating the work, I could realize these small paper objects as large metal structures for the first time.
DB: Is creating the miniatures your favorite part of the process?
RF: The history of miniatures is interesting. “Follies” began when certain kings and queens would commission renowned architects to make incredible dollhouses. It happened to coincide with the crumbling of the aristocratic world. For example, Marie Antoinette would relax by becoming a shepherdess in Petit Trianon. I think people can escape into miniatures. I’m a bit like that. Whenever things start to get funky in my life, I’m like, “I’ll just sit here and make a little house out of white paper.”
DB: Were you like that as a child?
RF: Every artist is influenced by their childhood, whether they’re embracing it or denying it. Everything comes from that formative period. To be honest, I always think that artists have no new ideas after they enter adulthood, and they spend the rest of their lives making what they subconsciously discovered as a child. When I was little, I would sit in a little closet in my parents’ house in Miami building things. I was always a sculptor, always using cardboard and hot glue, and being messy and cutting things. On the other hand, John always loved paint and the sensuality of painting. Your personality is really formed in your childhood. In fact, that reminds me, I won an award when I was ten for making a sculpture out of tennis shoes. I had found all these old ’70s sneakers and I arranged them into this big tower, and my school entered it into a statewide competition at a youth fair. I won first prize. It was a real honor and it was going to get sent to the national competition, which was in Washington, D.C., and the winner would get to meet the president, Ronald Reagan at the time. So, I took it home and put it by the door—and my dog ate it! Devastating. I didn’t have time to make a new one and I never entered the contest.
DB: And you never got meet Reagan?
RF: No. Unfortunately!
DB: What drew you to Madison Square Park? I like the idea of grandeur and imagination living in a small green patch in a concrete jungle.
RF: John has a studio near there, and after I was asked by the Madison Square Park Conservancy to come up with a proposal I would sit there and just watch people. I need to live with something for a while to get the best ideas. When I saw an aerial map of the park, I was inspired. All of the paths are curved, there are no straight paths in the park. They look so whimsical, like some rococo pattern that reminded me of the porcelain table setting from an eighteenth-century wedding.
DB: Were there any hurdles in the realization?
RF: Yes, with a public work you have to work with engineers, and there are rules and regulations about sharp edges and low ceilings. Could people hurt themselves? Is this safe? I thought a lot about Alexander Calder because he was an engineer and a sculptor, and he didn’t have to put up with people telling him what and how to do things. He’s the genius of geniuses when it comes to public art and keeping the work within his own vernacular. He did it all. He even did the welding himself.
DB: I live in Chelsea, and my office is on the Upper East Side, which means I have to walk through Madison Square Park to get to the subway. I want to tell you that these sculptures have aesthetically enriched this journey.
RF: I love standing in the park and listening to what people say about them, and what they see in them. That’s the best thing in the world and it makes being an artist the best thing in the world. I would never want to be a celebrity. No way. When your work can speak for you, when you can be a silent and anonymous person on the street while something you created provokes a response from a compete stranger? There’s nothing as good as that.
DB: So, you go to the park and do a little eavesdropping.
RF: Yes, and I love it. I especially like it because it’s not a typical art gallery crowd. I’ve heard construction workers review them, and I just love when kids say “Look, it’s a pirate ship!” or they’ll run over and try and turn the wheel in the little house. That’s the cool stuff that I was hoping for. I also want to figure out how to stage live performances within the sculptures. I’m not a performance artist and that’s not what I do, but wouldn’t it be great if there could be a sort of open mike night, where people come and perform, inspired by the piece? My kids call Rococo Hut the Puppet House, so wouldn’t it be great to do a puppet show in there?
DB: Would you want it to be a children’s show, or a show of all kinds of artists? For example, could you imagine incorporating performance work from Kembra Pfahler or Marina Abramovic?
RF: I want it all, I want the crazy naked people and maybe some balloon makers. Animal party costumes? Sure, why not?
DB: When I look at your work, I sometimes think of this stupid art joke: “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.”
RF: That’s a good one. That reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s movie Fanny and Alexander (1982), which John and I always talk about. The movie is about a brother and a sister who live in a beautiful gold, chintzy, ridiculously baroque house, where the fire is always roaring and a governess with an enormous bosom takes care of the children. The father dies unexpectedly of a stroke, and the mother is afraid of being alone, so she marries the local bishop and moves the family to his austere home, where he lives with his whole family. The kids are freaked out and no one gives them any love, and the whole mood of their new house and their new life is very minimal and cold. John and I joke that that’s how we feel in the art world. There is so much minimalism and frigidity, and then there’s us. We’re the opposite.
DB: So, a better bad joke for you is: “I’d rather be baroque than rich.”
RF: But the real baroque. Not the Liberace baroque. Give me the Nymphenburg Palace and I’d feel pretty good.
Rachel Feinstein’s Folly, which includes the pieces Flying Ship, Rococo Hut, and Cliff House is on view daily until September 7, 2014, in Madison Square Park at 23rd Street and Broadway.
For more from NOW, go to www.gagosian.com/NOW