Survival of Serena, 2007. Aqua resin and patina, 38 x 84 x 32 in.

Physical States of Being: A Conversation with Carole Feuerman

Carole Feuerman has been working and exhibiting at “full speed ahead” for four decades. Over the last 10 years, with the growth of international biennials and art fairs, her international reputation has grown by leaps and bounds. Recently she had a double coup: her hyper-realistic Survival of Serena won first prize at the 2008 Beijing Biennale, and Olympic Swimmer was one of 10 works selected from hundreds of entries to represent the Beijing Olympics in the permanent collection of the new Beijing Museum of Modern Art. Taking cues from Feuerman’s foreign successes—among critics and public alike—American galleries, museums, and sculpture parks appear to be waking up to her work. The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto, Pennsylvania, gave Feuerman her first retrospective in 2001. Last year, the Amarillo Museum of Art followed with a second. In 2010, the El Paso Museum of Art is giving Feuerman her third retrospective, the largest to date. The museum will show 55 plaster, resin, marble, and bronze sculptures in “River of Life,” which is also scheduled to travel to Mexico, Spain, and China. This fall, Feuerman is having a solo exhibition at Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York. With studios in Florence and New York, she plans to exhibit two monumental sculptures at the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. As the first contemporary (and female) sculptor to exhibit there, Feuerman will be achieving yet another double coup.

Edward Rubin: When did you first realize that you wanted to dedicate yourself to art?
Carole Feuerman: As a child growing up in upstate New York and Hollis Hills, Queens, I knew that I wanted to pursue art as a career. When I was five, I helped my grandfather design and build our home by spray-painting an outline of each room on the lawn. In fifth grade, my teacher asked me to give weekly drawing lessons to my class. In high school, I sold my first painting to neighbors, who paid me $300. I guess you could say that officially made me a professional. I then went on to study art at Temple University and SVA.

ER: You started out as an illustrator. How did you segue from the commercial sector into the so-called fine art world?
CF: I always planned to be an artist, not a commercial illustrator. I wanted to create art that could interact with the viewer on a very personal level. Gradually, my illustrations became more three-dimensional and larger—some of them were six feet tall. I also began combining two and three dimensions. For instance, in Self Portrait (1973), I included sculptural legs and platform shoes beneath my painted portrait; Gloria, a painting I made for Gloria Steinem in the same year, also has three-dimensional elements.

ER: You said that you studied drawing, painting, photography, printmaking, and art history, but never sculpture. How did you learn to do what you do?
CF: I wanted to work in resins, but I didn’t know how. I went to some mannequin companies and asked if I could work for nothing and learn how to lay up resin. They said no. I was buying my resin at Canal Plastics in those days, and they offered to explain how to use the materials if I came at 7 a.m. before the store opened. I also had a friend, a realist sculptor named Ben Bianchi, who worked with resins and molds. He posed for Duane Hanson as the “artist.” He gave me lessons. After Bianchi taught me how to cast, I made my first sculptures, the erotic series. Panda, my very first erotic piece, was a little bit of my hip, a very tiny fragment with two male fingers on it.

I did 13 erotic sculptures, all realistically painted. In each one, I used fragments taken from two people. I showed the series in my first gallery exhibition, “Rated X” (1978), in Fort Worth, Texas. When I flew down for the opening, the gallery owner told me that Fort Worth was in the Bible Belt, so they couldn’t keep the show up. Three years later, Malcolm Forbes bought all 13 sculptures at my second solo show at the Hanson Gallery in New York. He spied them in the back room of the gallery. He also bought my first swimmer, Snorkel.

ER: Your most popular works are your hyper-realistic sculptures. Is it difficult to work like this in the current contemporary art environment?
CF: Physicality is a huge part of my work. The hyper-realistic style creates the physicality for which my sculptures are known. The realism stems from my desire to portray real emotions and physical states of being—from peaceful serenity to energy, from equilibrium to vigor. I make my sculptures about people who are comfortable in their own skin—a sound mind in a sound body, in other words. This is one of the defining aspects of my realistic style. Forty years ago, showing healthy, intelligent women was a radical departure in contemporary art. Now it is a widely accepted ideal, yet most contemporary artists don’t explore it—at least not in figurative art.

ER: You are best known for your sculptures of female bathers and swimmers and your technique of creating hyper-realistic water droplets that cling to their bodies. Survival of Serena (2007) shows a young girl resting languorously in an inner tube. In Catalina (2006)—for which you won an award from the city of Florence—we see a scantily clad woman emerging from the water. And Employee Shower (2008), your permanent installation at Grounds For Sculpture, features a young woman taking a shower. How did water become such an important aspect of your work?
CF: Water can be very calming and peaceful, which goes well with the tone I desire for my work. I play with the idea that ordinary activities—like cleansing or swimming—can put an individual in touch with deeper sentiments. The water droplets help to create a very physical presence in my sculptures. Our bodies are made up mostly of water. It is crucial for life—the earth could not sustain itself without water. Water connects all of us through this universal necessity. It has spiritual qualities. My poured-bronze works are also related to the theme of water and flowing liquid. The process that I use to make these liquid metal pieces, like Zeus and Hera, which is also at Grounds For Sculpture, has been called “painting with fire.” …see the entire article in the print version of October’s Sculpture magazine.