Interview with Rachel Feinstein: “I want to be taken more seriously”

The artist talks about her trials as a woman in a man’s field, the female way of working, her free-floating wackiness and making movies


Rachel Feinstein has already achieved fully fledged art-celeb status in her home base of New York. Dubbed a BYT (Beautiful Young Thing) by New York Times critic Roberta Smith; the 31-year-old artist’s striking looks, original dress sense and high profile marriage to painter John Currin have all tended to attract at least as much attention as the exuberantly assembled sculpture which she started to make in the late 90’s.

Now her work is starting to take centre stage: last year she had a solo show at Marianne Boesky Gallery where she had previously worked as a receptionist, and this year Sotheby’s New York commissioned her to make a major piece for their New York headquarters which took the form of a 2500lb suspended bridge, adorned with flamboyant gold flourishes.

Feinstein may still be a BYT (for a recent British Vogue profile she posed most appealingly in a billowing white dress à la Marilyn Monroe), but, as she explained to The Art Newspaper on the telephone from her studio in New York, her second solo show in London at Corvi-Mora finds Ms Feinstein reining in the Rococo, paring down her work and pondering a new direction in film.

The Art Newspaper: Looking at “Satinstein” (2002) the ornate gold leafed bridge commissioned by Sotheby’s New York, or “Wagenburg”, the flat, painted wooden row of eight plumed horses you showed at Marianne Boesky last year, your work seems to have become much more intricate, and its elements more integrated than the loosely assembled work in your first London show at Robert Prime in 1999.

RF: I think I had a big change two summers ago when I had to make a “Statement” piece for Basel. I don’t know whether it had to do with the pressure of that, all of a sudden thinking, “Oh my God, I have to get serious”. I also have another theory that when you have weird subconscious ideas, like the ones I had for Tommaso’s last show [at Robert Prime], you actually have a supply and you can tap into it but then it does go dry, you almost extinguish it.

TAN: So what did you do?

RF: With the Basel thing I felt like I was sucked dry of my own ideas. I asked my husband John [Currin] about it and I was panicking and he said, “Well what I always do is, I go to the Strand [bookshop] and I look through books and I just sit there for a whole day and see what moves me and hopefully that somehow will start something up.” And that was the first time I went and looked for something else, I didn’t look inside.

TAN: So you let outside influences filter in...

RF: Exactly. And it was not just that I had lost my own ideas, but also that I felt that there was a weakness in my own work which I wanted to get over. When you are married to someone who’s nine years older and really successful you really watch other people’s careers, and before I even started showing my work I felt that it was a weakness for people to make whole careers out of being wacky. There are people for whom, after three or four shows, it ends up being like a nail in the coffin.

TAN: So for you it was a sobering process?

RF: I constantly said to myself that I have to somehow become more formal; I want to be taken more seriously; I want my work to be around for ages and I don’t think it’s going to happen by doing the stuff that I was doing before. It was wonderful at the beginning because it was really me breaking free and just not being afraid any more to do what I wanted to do, but then the problem with all this spontaneous work is that you have to rely on working very quickly

TAN: It’s one of the downsides of art world success that you have to fit into other people’s exhibition schedules.

RF: Yes, and another thing that’s so horrible is that you have this little bubble that is your own world of working that’s really fabulous and then the bubble changes. When I made Tommaso’s first show I was doing it in my sitting room; I didn’t even have a studio. I was working full-time as front desk girl answering the phone and stuff at Marianne Boesky’s gallery—which now represents me. So the first thing that happens is the art movers come and pick up the stuff: these are six or seven guys who are all sculptors. They already look down on me because I’m a female sculptor, and I have a female kind of way of making things which is really crappily, where the whole thing is just put together basically with cardboard, and their whole thing is of steel. And they’re already bitter that they aren’t having this show, and then they pick up the work and the whole thing is just falling apart, because how you make spontaneous work is that you have to do it really quickly....

TAN: So you had to find a more enduring form for the spontaneity. Do you still make the work yourself?

RF: I’ve always done everything myself. I sometimes have two guys come in and help me if I’m in a crunch, though. For “Yesterday” (2000) [first shown at Basel 2000] I did every single thing myself. The only time I’ve ever had anyone to work with me was for “Satinstein” and that was for legal reasons, because that piece was a public commission for Sotheby’s and I wanted to have it hanging five storeys above people’s heads. It weighs almost three tons and they of course were terrified of something falling off.

TAN: So what were those extravagant bobbly rococo gold sides made of?

RF: Styrofoam. The steel was so heavy that we only had a few 100 pounds left for the actual thing. This is how they make all of the Broadway show stuff and these enormous things for the operas—by having these enormous blocks of pink styrofoam.

TAN: So can we expect more carved golden flamboyance in your new London show?

RF: I think that between Marianne [Boesky]’s show and “Satinstein” I finally pushed out the Rococo in some way.

TAN: Now you’re going to be all hard edged and minimal?

RF: No, no, I could never do that! But there were aspects of Marianne’s show where I did these really sucked-out, weird, more formalistic type of sculptures, which I think are very much based on my love of [Arte Povera sculptor] Pino Pascali. I love his stuff so much. I love how everything is white and the structure is flat sides with these stretched, semi-bulbous other sides, and that’s what I felt that I wanted to get back to.

TAN: So you’ve deliberately limited your vocabulary?

RF: Yes, it’s all in the form.

TAN: But the form is still pretty evocative: one of the Corvi-Mora pieces is a sculpture of a unicorn.

RF: That whole thing happened when we went to Paris in the early summer and, again, I was: “Oh God what am I going to do?”, and I started making this horse image (I still have this thing for horses, I don’t really know why). Then I was walking around the Musée d’Orsay and there was this sculpture by, I think, Canova of all these women lying horizontally, and the whole thing is about these peaks and valleys of their breasts or their hips or their buttocks in the air, arched on a horizontal plane like mountains. The beautiful thing is the spaces that the small of their backs makes between the plinth that they’re on and their bodies; this beautifully shaped hole.

I thought that it was so beautiful that I wanted to do something like that. And I started working on this life size, six-foot long unicorn that is like a woman and is very fleshy and has this enormous ass and a flowing mane and a big flowing tail and is lying horizontally with a sheet covering it. Unicorns are traditionally rather macho mythical beasts

TAN: There is always a strong element of the theatrical in your work. I remember you saying that when you made performance work you liked making the sets more than anything else.

RF: I think that it probably has a lot to do with Miami and going to Disneyworld thousands of times when I was growing up. Miami also has this kind of engrossing nature that’s always about rotting, because it’s so hot there. When I grew up it was the whole “Scarface” era. It was old people dying on South Beach, but these insanely pumped-up-with-money people driving around in these ridiculous cars—and it was all drugs money.

So it was always these incredible extremes, and I think that’s what I always try and do in my work. I can’t just look at something that's beautiful without thinking about death. It’s like standing in front of a Dutch still-life painting by De Heem: you know the artist is showing you these riches like lobsters, jewels and silver in such a gorgeous painterly manner to demonstrate that it will all rot, as he will too—so enjoy life, for it is fleeting.

TAN: There also seems to be a strong sense of the surreal underpinning what you do: creating images that come out of your subconscious, or that trigger it in some way

RF: The next thing I want to do is to make movies again, because I think the movies are really daytime dreams. I fall asleep and I wake up and then write down like what I just dreamt. The movies I’ve done so far are like that.

TAN: So you would stop making sculpture for a while?

RF: I think I’ll take a few months off and just try and work on doing the sets again, really elaborate sets. But I despise art movies—there’s such an “ooh” and “aah” thing about them. I don’t think anyone has ever figured out really how to make art films that make them part of the art world.

TAN: Would you want to make moves that aren’t art movies?

RF: Probably. I have to say that I feel like it’s a total let-down when you go to see an art movie; everybody wants to follow a story, you don’t want to pay some money and go and sit there for three hours and having nothing to follow. Just because they’re beautiful visual images—why don't you go look at a gallery with photographs in it?

TAN: For this show you’ve also made your first painting.

RF: It’s an image of this old women looking out of a mirror. I painted it on a mirror and I realised it’s “Who’s the fairest of them all?” It’s also so funny that as an artist you make art desperately to live on, and you think about this all the time, and then fashion magazines want to take pictures of me, and it’s not really the point. It’s supposed to be about the work—you’re not even supposed to know what I look like! I do love the spectacle of everything and even of myself, but then I do want it removed from my work. It’s this strange dichotomy in myself.

TAN: But in our celebrity-hungry times it is never going to be that easy to vanish into oblivion when you look rather gorgeous and love dressing up...

RF: John always says that the best thing that will happen to me is that I will get old and then finally people will stop noticing what I’m wearing...


1971: Born in Fort Defiance, Arizona; 1993: Columbia University, New York, BA Lives in New York.

Solo Exhibitions: 1999: Robert Prime, London; White Room, White Columns, New York. 2001: Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York; 2002: "Satinstein", Sotheby's, New York; Corvi-Mora, London. Showing now: Corvi-Mora, London