Installation view of “Rachel Feinstein: Maiden, Mother, Crone,” 2019–20, Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, © Rachel Feinstein

A Conversation with Rachel Feinstein

“Rachel Feinstein: Maiden, Mother, Crone,” on view at The Jewish Museum in New York through March 22, is the artist’s first survey show in the United States. The exhibition, which represents three decades of Feinstein’s work, includes sculpture, painting, and video, as well as a panoramic wallpaper, a major new commission, and the artist’s maquettes for sculpture. She lives in New York with her husband, painter John Currin, and their children. Raised in Miami, Feinstein received a BA in 1993 from Columbia University, where she studied religion, philosophy, and studio art. Her work was included in the first of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition series in 2000 and has since been included in numerous other shows worldwide. In 2018 Feinstein produced the “Secrets” series, comprising eight large-scale sculptures that re-imagine the Victoria’s Secret “Angels,” as well as ceramic sculptures inspired by Franz Anton Bustelli’s rococo Commedia dell’arte figurines.

Sculpture magazine: What have you learned from putting together this retrospective?
Rachel Feinstein: It’s very intense. I was warned about this from my husband, who had this happen to him when he was around 42, a little bit younger than I am now, and he had his Whitney retrospective. He just said, “Get ready, it’s not what you’re going to think. The things that you thought were so great about your early work are not going to be so great, and the things that you never noticed you’ll notice.” And it’s true. A lot of other things happened to me in my personal life recently—my father passed away in August—so it puts everything into perspective. I’ve always just floated through life and done what I wanted to do, but now I realize that there’s a reason for everything: that people become more religious as they get older either because you are closer to death, or because you’re more sensitive to noticing things than when you’re younger, and they start revealing themselves more clearly to you. I’m kind of having all of those things happen to me right now. It’s this really strange and profound experience that makes me crave joining a cult or something. It’s weird—I’m just starting to have this feeling that there are much deeper connections to lots of things in life. When I was very young, I was not attuned to that.

Model, 2000. Mirror, wood, plaster, and enamel paint, 90.75 x 40.5 x 52 in. Photo: © Rachel Feinstein, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Sculpture: Do you crave joining a cult because you crave certainty?
RF: I was a religion major because I was always searching for something. My father was Jewish, my mother was Catholic, and neither of them changed for the other but they kind of melded into one. I was brought up in both religions, but it never made me feel one versus the other. And then art became my religion, and I think for a lot of people it’s that way, where you find a deeper meaning in life through art. I saw God through Botticelli and things like that, and now it’s this craving for whatever is the next step. Whether it’s deeper art or beyond art, I don’t know. I think a lot of people turn to ayahuasca now for that reason: a whole connection to everything, this unhidden message like a thread going from the beginning of time, that feeling when you’re dreaming and were revealed everything, but when you wake up can’t remember what it was. I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Jung and wanting to get into a deeper mental state, and I mention the cult as a joke because that’s what some people do. I don’t think I’ll do that, but it’s about something beyond our own experience.

Sculpture: Was there anything you didn’t expect to see in your older work? Any surprises?
RF: Yes. For example, I started making sculpture as a kid; I always wanted to be an artist. My mom came up from Miami with her friends this weekend—these are people who have known me my whole life—and I gave them a tour. It was really interesting to hear it from their perspective because they’ve seen various shows, high school work and elementary school work, going to Skowhegan in my 20s and RISD summer school when I was 15, and the weird thing is, they said that they never really got what I did. They knew that I was an artist and would embarrass them—I was wearing casts of my vagina when I was 18 years old. I made alginate casts of my vagina and wore them as jewelry around the house, and my parents’ friends all thought I was a lunatic. One of my mother’s best friends had some friends of hers visiting, and she said she was really embarrassed by me. She said to them, “I’m so sorry, she’s very odd.” And then the man said to her, “No she’s not, she’s an artist, that’s who she is.” I thought, “My God, it’s taken me to this point in my life to actually really understand and accept that about myself.” That’s a huge realization. I come from a background where I wasn’t really an artist; I was someone making art in the backyard. So, even though I’ve been doing it my whole life, I’ve only just accepted that I’m one of those people who sees and does things differently, and that it’s a good thing.

Also, I’ve just started to come to terms with this experience of shame I’ve felt because of not accepting that I was an artist, not accepting that I was a woman, not accepting that I was Jewish. All these things that for so long I’ve thought of as somehow being uncool and shameful, I now realize are my golden ticket—they are exactly who I am. And even though I felt shamed, I’ve still been doing it, and that’s a big thing: it’s like a theme that goes through the show, just being who I’ve always been. An artist, a woman, a sculptor—being a sculptor is much more difficult and shameful than being a painter, and being a figurative sculptor is even more embarrassing and shameful. I was talking with John [Currin] about how Jeff Koons basically makes the shame of being a figurative sculptor, a tchotchke sculptor, the shining force of his art. I’m just doing it from a totally different perspective, where it’s not this beautiful, perfectly made tchotchke, and that’s also shameful. You think about Chagall and his touch and how it’s kind of embarrassing, hokey, compared to Monet or something. I saw Florence Welch talking about making her music as kind of a shameful thing, and I found that to be really intriguing—maybe that’s a big bond for a lot of female artists. When I was just starting and said to someone that I was a female sculptor, they told me, “That’s really weird, that’s like a dog that can walk on its hind legs.” I’ve always thought about how being a female sculptor is not natural, in terms of the aggressiveness and the material, the overpowering thing that Richard Serra does—it’s about density and masculinity. My dad and mom never raised me within these parameters of girl versus boy, because I only had a sister, and my dad always wanted to have a boy and never got one. I’m the first born, and I was on the boys soccer team because he wanted a kid on the soccer team, and there were no girls teams in those days. So I would take welding, and it wasn’t weird. It was only when I met John that I saw that he does his things his way and I do things my way, and I don’t know if that’s wrong or right. But he actually makes art like a woman and I make art like a man, so we have a very strange toss-up that way.

Installation view of “Rachel Feinstein: Maiden, Mother, Crone,” 2019–20, Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, © Rachel Feinstein

My work has very specific timelines that are not based on years and dates but on big events in my life: pre-John, pre-kids, pre-September 11. Before John, I was making work based on my childhood in Miami and my experience of having no art history. Up until I went to college I didn’t take any art classes; there wasn’t a lot of cultural stuff happening in Miami in the ’70s and ’80s, and I actually liked that. It was really nice to be in a bubble and to fester in my own juices. If you talk to super-famous contemporary artists now, they purposely don’t really know anything pre-Andy Warhol. I think that early art doesn’t offer them anything. They want to keep a strict diet of stuff that only relates to them right now. I was like that more before I met John, and then he showed me how beautiful and amazing old art is and how you can get a lot of ideas and inspiration from stuff from a long, long time ago. Then my work shifted, really kind of very suddenly, into this rococo, Baroque stuff after that. A lot of people were like, “Why did you do that?” I was in “Greater New York” and having a lot of success with my more self-centered, childhood, Miami kind of art. Then after 2000, when I took this trip to Germany and Vienna and saw the Tilman Riemenschneiders and all these famous wood sculptures, I got very excited by them. And I lost certain collectors and certain art dealers because I did shift very suddenly.

There’s a show of Rachel Harrison up now, and it’s so wild for me to see her work at the Whitney and mine at the Jewish Museum. She’s an old friend and we knew each other when I was making work that was more similar to what hers looks like. I decided that the whole idea of irony, which is so strong in contemporary art, I didn’t want to do anymore; I wanted to make it all about heart and really open my body up and say, “Here I am, I’m revealing myself to you.” Because that’s what I saw in old art, and it melted me. When you look at a Duchamp urinal piece, you don’t have the experience that you have when you’re looking at the eyes of a Rembrandt self-portrait. I wanted to be more like that, and I changed as much as I could, having come from Miami and being a contemporary, living person. I’m still going to look hokey to someone who really loves Bernini—I don’t have the talent and the skill that Bernini had, but I’m trying in my capacity, in my own way, coming from where I come from.

Madonna, 2015. Polymer resin and pigment, 74 x 24 x 24 in. Photo: Robert McKeever, © Rachel Feinstein, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Sculpture: It’s so interesting that you speak of this shift as revealing yourself in your work, since this more recent work is so theatrical.
RF: I think that has to do with my childhood, having been raised in a completely insane place like Miami in the ’70s and ’80s. It really was the movie Scarface. I had a friend whose dad was a Colombian drug lord whose house they filmed the glass elevator scene with Michelle Pfeiffer in—that was an actual drug dealer’s house, my friend’s house. I went there for her quinceañera, and there were guys walking around with machine guns. The Miami of my childhood was lawless; my dad’s patients were people like Manuel Noriega. It was nuts, scary, and exciting at the same time. My dad would have these medical conventions in Disney World and in Aspen, and we would go on these amazing trips with these crazy people. I was also modeling for Bruce Weber when I was 14 years old and got to meet these beautiful guys that were doing the Obsession ads. It was a very larger-than-life experience.

I believe that every artist, regardless of whether they’re a writer, poet, filmmaker—it’s all based on your childhood, it’s all based on what you’ve experienced and seen, and you’re just re-creating that whole experience that you wanted to see as a child. I interviewed Ursula von Rydingsvard for my new book, in a chapter on nature versus art. I knew she was a child in Poland during World War II, and I always wanted to ask her, “Your work is so serious and so, so deep: this idea of brokenness but form and shape, does that come from when you were a child?” And she told me this amazing story: when she was a little kid, she remembers being on a pile of broken bricks from some bombed-out building in Poland. She was playing with all the broken bricks, trying to put them back together again, and this gave her an erotic feeling. And I said, “That’s your work, that’s your sculpture, it’s all these broken bricks being put back together again.” It was so amazing to hear that from her. Another time she was wearing this nightgown that they had given her in the camps, and it was very hard, starched linen, and it created these sharp angles in the sunlight. The way the linen made these triangle shapes was so beautiful to her—that’s her art again, those geometric, sharp cuts. It’s about going back to what made you feel good as a kid, that dream you’re trying to remember again. That’s why my pieces are so theatrical. There have been moments when I’m so sick of my shit and I just want to make something really quiet, but it’s practically impossible for me.

Adam and Eve, 2007. Stained wood, 83.5 x 45.3 x 41.3 in. Photo: Marcus Leith, © Rachel Feinstein

Sculpture: Tell us a little about how you do make something. Do you draw?
RF: I love to draw, yes. Right now is a good example of the first day back after not working for a while. I have no idea how I’m going to start up again, and so I have two big bookshelves of stuff that I look at all the time: a big wallpaper book from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which has beautiful 18th-century panoramic wallpaper that gives me ideas for scenes, for the wallpaper and mirror paintings; then for sculpture I have a bunch of beautiful old books I bought from the Strand, from the late ’50s and early ’60s, that are mostly European. There’s one that basically became the theme of this show and of my book, called Maids, Madonnas, & Witches. Andreas Feininger did the photographs and Henry Miller did the essays, and it’s just very old-fashioned, black and white. Rudolf Stingel makes all of his paintings from this type of photography: high-contrast, beautiful black and white images.

I’ll start looking at that and doing the usual things to get my blood moving again, and sometimes that won’t help so I’ll just go to the Strand and spend a day or two there looking through stuff, just trying to find something new. And then I’ll make a drawing or two. Sometimes, like with the Victoria’s Secret stuff, one thing will inspire—one sculpture will open up a whole body of work. It’s like I’m a drug addict looking for the next high. It always has to be something outside of myself. I feel like I mined all the Miami surreal stuff pre-2000, like The Walrus Is Paul—all those works are so foreign to me; they came from no source material except within myself, and I don’t know if I can go back to that. I haven’t done that in 20 years. So, I’ll make a drawing and then if it’s going to turn into a plaster or resin or other three-dimensional type of object, I’ll make a Magic Sculpt or other kind of maquette. Or if it turns into one of the paper works, I’ll do the drawing, cut it up, then turn that into a three-dimensional paper sculpture with hot glue and really simple things like that. I try not to put in a lot of effort at that stage because if it doesn’t work out, I’ve only lost a couple of hours. But usually it’s pretty obvious right away if it’s going to work or not.

Installation view of “Rachel Feinstein: Maiden, Mother, Crone,” 2019–20, Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, © Rachel Feinstein

Sculpture: Do you have a sense of what pushes you toward a particular material?
RF: I always wanted to make ceramic works, but I wasn’t able to until recently. I would create these things that looked like ceramic; I couldn’t actually make them in ceramic because it’s so complicated. To make a huge ceramic work you have to have a giant kiln, you have to have craftsmen who will take on some crazy project like this without the whole thing exploding in their kiln. I’ve talked to great people about doing bronzes, but I tend to think, “Why not just work in ceramic when I’m trying to make it look like ceramic?” I know bronze is a much tougher material that will last till the end of time, but so does ceramic. Nymphenburg has these giant majolica-glazed figurative sculptures in their gardens that have been out there since the late 1800s, through 150 years of winters and summers, and they still look fantastic.

The more malleable materials just speak to me: I love working in wood and ceramic and meshy soft types of stuff that kind of lend themselves to you and push into your touch. Aqua-Resin is a fabulous thing, and making the Victoria’s Secret girls we used smooth-on stuff like EpoxAmite and all these resins that do different things. Some of them are more translucent; some like Magic Sculpt might be thicker. It’s really fun—and infuriating for a time until you hit on what you need. Peter Schjeldahl’s recent review of Richard Serra was one of the most beautiful descriptions of sculpture I’ve ever read: the idea of the fourth dimension, which is time and decay. My dad being a doctor and my mom being a nurse and this idea of Miami always being this big, decaying, rotting jungle, of course I’m a sculptor. I was terrified of opening a crate of a work I hadn’t seen in 20 years; I had no idea what I was going to find. It wouldn’t have been a couple of cracks on a canvas—I could have found something that was cracked in two and had parts missing from it. It’s a really intense physical experience, looking at something you made with very rudimentary materials, a hot-glue gun, and plaster bandages in 1997.

Satyrs, 2008. Polymer resin, nylon fabric, and polyester filling, 87 x 43 x 42 in. Photo: © Rachel Feinstein

Sculpture: Have you always been drawn to fairy tales?
RF: Interestingly, I think having kids has brought that all back out in me, as I began to read them again with my children, which is such a weird new experience. You find again this whole circle of life, that for one reason or another something has completely shifted and you like it for a different reason later. With “The Snow Queen,” I don’t think I ever liked it very much until I read it with my daughter when she was little. I got a big, beautiful Hans Christian Andersen book, and for me the story became about drug addiction and the people that I knew when I was growing up. I had three friends die of heroin addiction when I was at Columbia University—it was in the ’90s when everybody was trying to be Kurt Cobain. The story had a totally different meaning to me, and I think that’s why I find fairy tales and stories in the Bible and religion so fascinating, because you have different moments when they speak to you.