Serena is surviving on the median between uptown and downtown traffic on Manhattan’s Park Avenue at 36th Street, just a few blocks below Grand Central. There, she dwells in flawless, larger-than-life quiescence, her luxurious long fingers caressing the shiny blue inner tube that keeps her afloat atop a stone podium. Her face is frozen in calm, her eyes closed, her makeup flawless, her head sheathed in a sequined bathing cap.
Survival of Serena is one of nine monumental sculptures by Carole A. Feuerman, the New York-based doyenne of hyperrealistic sculpture, now on display on the Park Avenue median, from 34th to 39th Streets. Like the eight other pieces in the exhibition “Sea Idylls,” which includes representations of women and men engaged in swimmerly, summer activities, Serena is likely to evoke thoughts of summer vacations, weekends in the Hamptons, lazy, sunlit intermissions of leisure and repose.
But, like all of Feuerman’s works, there’s more to Serena than may appear at first glance to the thousands of commuters, tourists, and others who hustle by each day. For instance, the inspiration for the original Serena was not some silk-stocking bathing beauty, but rather one of the many refugees who fled Cuba for the U.S. on all manner of flotation devices decades ago.
Below, Feuerman discusses her oeuvre, her inspirations, and her belief that hyperrealism is much more than just a perfect re-creation of any old slice of real life.
J. Scott Orr: Survival of Serena debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2007, won first prize at the Beijing Biennale in 2008, was displayed at an intersection in Soho in 2012, and is now on view on Park Avenue, yet most viewers probably don’t know where she came from. Do all your sculptures have backstories?
Carole A. Feuerman: Some of these sculptures may look at first to be simple representations of people having fun at the beach, but there’s always more to them. Serena and her original incarnation are a good example of that. The original one, before what people know today as Survival of Serena, was actually a refugee woman on an inner tube, just a dirty old tube as if it had been in the water for three days. There was a man’s hand coming out of the water and pulling her down. The woman was not happy.
Brooke with Beach Ball is another. Brooke may just look like any pretty woman holding a beach ball, but she is more than that—she’s lost in contemplation, there’s a feeling of gratitude for simple things, things that are free. If you look at the total aspect of my work, I only make sculptures that have meaning; they are more than just a reproduction of the person. It isn’t important to reproduce what the person looks like, it’s important that the piece has meaning. I want to get my point across with the sculpture.
JSO: You live in Greenwich Village, and your work has been shown all over New York, from Soho to the Met Cloisters. Are you from New York, and was the area essential to your development as an artist?
CAF: Yes, of course. I grew up in Queens, then Great Neck, and my art career was greatly influenced by the city and the surrounding area. At 18, I got married. My parents didn’t want me to be an artist, especially as a woman in what was and still is a male-dominated field. I always wanted to be a fine artist but didn’t know what kind of artist I wanted to be. I was moving from painting to printmaking, to creating wall hangings, before I came up with the idea of doing life casts. I always liked realism, but I never really thought of myself as a sculptor early in my career. I studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts. I paid my way through college as an illustrator; I worked for Time Warner Records in New York. I did the “Monkey Man” illustration for the Rolling Stones and the snake centerfold painting for Alice Cooper. I was doing very well in commercial art, but I still wanted to do fine art.
JSO: What made you make the jump from illustrator to hyperrealistic sculptor?
CAF: In 1975, National Lampoon wanted to do a cover with a realistic face in pain as his nose hit a grindstone. Because I was very anxious to do the cover, I told them I knew how to do life casts. I researched how to do it, but I couldn’t find a model. Then, the art director who hired me volunteered to be the model. Since it was my first life cast, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I didn’t use Vaseline on his face. He was supposed to have a look of being in pain for the pose, but he was in worse pain when I pulled off the plaster cast. I saw the result and thought it was really cool. But it wasn’t the type of art that was in style—there was always something, whether it be Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism or Pop art, that was in style other than what I was doing.
JSO: So, you went from a one-shot life cast job to making hyperrealistic sculpture your principle medium. How did you achieve your breakthrough in the art world?
CAF: First I made a series of hyperrealistic erotic sculptures, casting fragments of body parts from life. I had my first opportunity for a solo show in 1976–77 in Fort Worth, Texas, a location that was hardly ideal. I got there and was told, “You can’t show this art to people in Texas,” and they had to close the show. They did have the opening, but nobody came. I was a Jewish girl from New York showing erotic art in the Bible Belt. It was very discouraging, but I didn’t want to give up because this was a challenge, and I was going to persevere. I felt like my life was kind of falling apart, but I wasn’t about to give up.
JSO: How did you bounce back after such a discouraging first show?
CAF: After Fort Worth, I decided I needed to explore other subject matter with my art besides erotic pieces. I figured the cleanest thing I could do, and that I wouldn’t get in trouble for, is sports. Now, I didn’t know anything about sports, but I did these fragmented pieces: a leg on a bicycle, a hockey player, all different sports things fragmented, half bodies or whatever. I had this show at Hanson Gallery on 57th Street and nothing sold. In those days most shows were three weeks long. I was at the end of the three weeks and the director of the gallery said, “You should get out there and talk to everyone and anyone who comes.” So, this fellow came in and I was talking to him for a long time, and I noticed this older man in the back waiting for me. I finally approached him, and he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to you.” Then he said, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” He introduced himself as Malcom Forbes, and said: “You messed up, but I think you have a possibility of making it. I’m very interested in your work.”
The erotic pieces were part of the show, but they were being kept out of sight on the floor in the back room. Forbes bought one swimmer from the front room and all the erotic stuff in the back.
JSO: So, you were finding your way, perfecting your craft. This was in the early years of the hyperrealism movement. Were there other artists you could emulate?
CAF: You must remember that hyperrealism didn’t really exist in sculpture when I started out. At the time there were only three of us creating hyperrealistic sculptures, and we were working independently, each doing our own thing separate from the others. There was no roadmap to follow. We were creating and exploring the genre at the same time. There was Duane Hanson, who started out doing accident victims then started doing everyday people. John DeAndrea was doing nudes, and I was sculpting swimmers. We were each doing different things with it. I was the only one making them to be displayed outdoors, though.
JSO: You’re best known for sculptures of swimmers, divers, and people interacting with water. Was there a moment when you decided that you’d make a career depicting people who are wet?
CAF: I took the kids to the beach on the North Shore, and I saw this girl coming out of the water. She was so beautiful, there was water streaming down her face and her body. She looked so proud, like she’s really got it together. It was enlightening. I said I’m going to find somebody to pose for me and do this portrait. I identified with this girl; it was a very important moment in my life. I did my first swimmer because of this girl in 1979–80. I’ve done many sculptures of other things, but I became identified with the swimmer. Everybody wanted to buy a swimmer. If I didn’t do swimmers, I felt like I wasn’t going to make any money. And I always just naturally returned to the water in my practice. I’ve been around water for a lot of my life and my work has been greatly influenced by water. When I want to mentally reset, I go to the water. A lot of people do that, even if they don’t recognize it. You take a shower, and you are refreshed; you drink a glass of water, and you are refreshed.
JSO: Since those days, your practice has matured and your work has been shown all over the world: in New York, Milan, Venice, Rome, Saint-Tropez, Paris, Naples, and many other places. What has kept you going all these years?
CAF: There are themes that have repeated across my work: balance, preservation, trust, justice, perseverance. Perseverance has been a theme in my life. There were many points at which I had to persevere and struggle, points at which I could have given up. The first 50 years of my life were tough, but I never wanted to give up my art. I’m a fighter and a survivor and I don’t give up.
“Sea Idylls” is on view on Park Avenue between 34th Street and 39th Street in New York through March 20, 2024.