“Art Is Magic Interspersed Within Everyday Minutes”: Rachel Feinstein on Her Madison Square Park Installation, ‘Folly’

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Installation view of Rachel Feinstein’s Rococo Hut as part of Folly in Madison Square Park (2014). Photo by James Ewing Photography, New York. Courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to view Rachel Feinstein’s solo show at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. There I admired what is perhaps her best-known sculpture, Puritan’s Delight, a gorgeous, glossy black carriage with a single light burning inside of it, as well as several of her paintings and other sculpture works in wood and clay. Feinstein does a sly kind of translation in her sculptural works, taking an image and then making and re-making it until it’s brand new, a version-of-a-version of the original inspiration. First creating small-scale maquettes in paper, Feinstein then turns them into large-scale, 3D works that often manage to retain the lines and feel of her paper mock-ups. Folly, Feinstein’s new installation in Madison Square Park, offers three large-scale sculptures that take their cues from historical follies, meant to act as a kind of theatrical backdrop for park-goers as they go about their day. Flying Ship, Rococo Hut, and Cliff House appear to viewers as drawings you might be able to walk into, gorgeous 3D sketches come to life amongst the greenery and flora of the park.

Feinstein often takes cues from the Baroque and Rococo aesthetics, with its buoyancy, grandeur, and playful elegance. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the Martin Friedman Senior Curator at Madison Square Park Conservancy, says of Feinstein’s work, “It is a time of stylistic polyphony in contemporary sculpture. Rachel embraces historic sources in her work — Ballets Russes, Commedia dell’arte, fairy tales, Fellini movies, the Italian master etcher Piranesi, Meissen porcelain – that certainly aren’t the typical fare for inspiration today. She’s not looking to riff on Modernism or to have a dialogue with the Minimalists. There is instead the grandeur, motion and excess of Baroque and Rococo art.”

Looking at the three sculptures currently on view at Madison Square Park, these influences appear smartly filtered through Feinstein’s eye. Made of aluminum pieces with a powder-coated white surface, then drawn on in a way that Rapaport recognizes as “the intimate surface drawing that characterizes Rachel’s pencil on paper line,” these follies refuse simple imitation. They are, instead, a generous offering, a portal to the past firmly grounded in the physicality of the present.

I interviewed Feinstein via email, to discuss the themes and inspirations behind Folly, working in many mediums, and the desire to maintain a distance from one’s own work.

Installation view of Rachel Feinstein’s Flying Ship as part of Folly in Madison Square Park (2014). Photo by James Ewing Photography, New York. Courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Flavorwire: Was Folly envisioned specifically for Madison Square Park, or was it a project-in-progress prior to your invitation to show work there?

Rachel Feinstein: I made Folly specifically for Madison Square Park. I was approached around two years ago to make a proposal for the park. I was so excited to make large permanent outdoor sculptures, especially since I had just finished making a huge runway set (GA: for Marc Jacobs’ Fall ’12 collection) that was very temporary and destroyed after use due to its size and construction. I also was in the middle of working on a show for Gagosian Gallery in Rome that was about fantasy ruins and Piranesi follies which inspired many of the structures for the park. A folly is a fantasy structure that has no architectural purpose except for beauty.

How did you structure the sculptures, both thematically and structurally, to respond to the unique setting of the park? How do you envision the response to your sculptures as outdoor, public works as opposed to those in a gallery or museum setting?

I am overjoyed to have these sculptures in the park for all the world to see and enjoy. And I love that they are surrounded by the backdrop of this beautiful natural oasis within the box of tall skyscrapers all around. I sat in the park often to better understand what I wanted to see. I imagined my sculptures to be stage props on a large theatrical set that was the park, with its trees as the first background layer on the stage and the buildings and city as the final painted backdrop. I have always been interested in 18th-century porcelain figurines, so I knew about Commedia dell’Arte. I also have looked at the Ballets Russes sets and backdrops painted by de Chirico, Picasso, and Dali. The Flying Ship came from a theatrical skit concerning Punchinello (the Fool) attempting to fly his ship to the moon. And Cliff House comes from a Ballet Russe backdrop painting by a Russian artist. Rococo Hut is a conglomeration of different fantasy Rococo structures mixed with Marie Antoinette’s Le Petite Trianon (her own fantasy shepherdess house).

In the past you’ve spoken about your work in relation to the mortality and human impermanence of Baroque and Rococo. Does Folly address these issues as well?

I’ve always loved old art for how it makes me think about what the artist was feeling in their time, in a totally different century or place than where I am right now. Every person from then until now has had everyday routines of eating, sleeping, work, etc., which mostly consist of the boring moments of our lives, but art is the magic interspersed within those everyday minutes. Art leaves an impression of beauty of that time and who the maker was for the future generations — much like the empty space where the body was in the volcanic matter from Mt. Vesuvius. Having Folly in Madison Square Park, where people now are living their everyday lives, eating their lunches, watching their kids or dogs play, and talking to friends, brings me closer to my interest in human impermanence and how art figures into it as a way to make the “impression” of our time for future generations.

You’ve worked primarily in sculpture, drawing, and painting. Are there forms you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?

I wish I could figure out how to do live performances and/or make movies using my sculpture where it looks natural and not weird.

Installation view of Rachel Feinstein’s Cliff House as part of Folly in Madison Square Park (2014). Photo by James Ewing Photography, New York. Courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

You’ve spoken about the development of your work in regards to your sculptures becoming sturdier and more structurally sound with time. What do you find most challenging about the work you’ve been pursuing in the past few years?

Time and expense are the issues that are the most challenging to me now in my work. When you are young you have time, but no money, then when you are old, you hopefully have money but then no time because of it. With age and experience, I have figured out how to make sculptures I wanted to make many years ago, which gives me great satisfaction, but then I have lost my spontaneity and freedom to make whatever I want.

Do your desires for how your work is interpreted frequently shift? Do you have frustrations or objections to the critical readings of your work?

I sometimes wish I could be more cold, as I think that emotional distance as the maker of the work gives the art critic and viewer more power. Putting yourself out there with your heart on your sleeve isn’t the smartest way to the top, even though it is the most truthful and real way to go for someone like me.

What music, film, art, or landscapes influenced the creation of Folly?

Folly was inspired by Fellini, Catherine the Great with Marlene Dietrich, Ballets Russes, Commedia dell’Arte, Piranesi, and Nymphenburg/ Meissen porcelain.

You’ve worked in both bright multicolor and monotone. Is there a particular significance to Folly being painted all white? What are some of your most potent associations with specific colors?

The three Folly sculptures are white because the models they are based on are from cut paper drawings that are made three dimensional from white paper with graphite lines on it. I wanted to keep the integrity of the real white paper models. I love color, but I also love grisaille, and it’s about finding the right time and place when to use which. With the summer colors of the green grass and leaves plus the bright colors of the flowers, I thought keeping the sculptures white with graphite detailed drawings layered on top would make the works pop.

Folly is on view through September 7 at New York’s Madison Square Park.

Click through to see a slideshow of Rachel Feinstein’s other work.

Rachel Feinstein, Eva, 2005, enamel print on mirror, 41.5” x 30.75”. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

Rachel Feinstein, Satinstein, 2002, steel, rigid, urethane foam, plywood, polyurethane plastic coating, glass, 186 x 80 x 154 inches, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

Rachel Feinstein, Spanish Marie in pencil, 2006, graphite on paper, 11.5 x 9 inches. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

Rachel Feinstein, The Snow Queen (installation view), 2011. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

Rachel Feinstein, Puritan’s Delight, 2008, stained wood with electric candle, 66.5” x 101” x 91”. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Rachel Feinstein, Wagenburg, 2001, wood, high gloss enamel paint and hinges, 120” x 255” x 1.5”. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery