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Artist Teresita Fernández Transforms New York’s Madison Square Park

By CAROL KINO

This spring, with her installation Fata Morgana, Fernández transforms a New York City park into a shimmering landscape—the artist’s most ambitious (and public) project to date

 

ONE AFTERNOON IN upstate New York, the sculptor TeresitaFernández stood in the middle of an enormous fabrication house and gazed up at the first test piece for her latest project. More than two dozen people craned their necks along with her—curators, designers, engineers, as well as representatives from her galleries in San Francisco and Manhattan. Soaring overhead was a reflective canopy supported by galvanized-steel scaffolding. Its precision-cut golden mirrors had been pieced and bolted together in layers, without attempting to camouflage the industrial, labor-intensive process behind the work. Yet as the structure glinted and shed dappled light onto the concrete floor, reflecting and abstracting the upturned faces of the crowd, it somehow conveyed the illusion of an arbor filled with sun-drenched leaves.

 

It was the result of “a lot of trial and error,” said Fernández, as the crowd oohed and aahed. “And a lot of years of working with reflective material.”

 

Fernández, 46, has been exploring what she calls “landscape sculpture” for nearly two decades, creating installations that suggest pools of water, underground caverns and constellations in the night sky. Her work has been compared to that of light and space artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, land artists like Robert Smithson and conceptualists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres. She has shown all over the world, from the Modern Art Museum Fort Worth, in Texas, to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. In 2005, she won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and she recently completed a three-year tour of duty as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, reviewing and offering recommendations on monuments and other public projects in Washington, D.C. But despite her many accolades, Fernández isn’t really a brand-name art star.

 

The piece she was looking at upstate is likely to change all that. On April 30, it will open as part of a massive installation in New York’s Madison Square Park, a Flatiron District oasis whose contemporary art program has been mounting projects since 2004. Called Fata Morgana, after the bewitching horizon-line mirages said to lead sailors to death at sea, it will be composed of 236 round, mirrored panels whose scalloped edges cannily echo the leaves of the surrounding oak and London plane trees. Installed on 12-foot-high scaffolding, it will traverse a distance of 485 feet, covering most of the oval walkway at the park’s center.

 

Fata Morgana will be the largest installation in the park’s history, and the Brooklyn-based artist’s largest and most ambitious undertaking to date. “We commissioned this monumental project,” says Brooke Kamin Rapaport, senior curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, which oversees the sculpture program, “because Teresita is really an artist who is on the cusp of greatness, and I think that Fata Morgana is going to propel her to the highest rank of artists working today.”

 

Fernández uses modern industrial materials, like fiberglass, epoxy and cast acrylic, as well as ancient ones, like marble dust and gold, to evoke the natural world. In 2000, for New Mexico’s SITE Santa Fe, she assembled curved plastic strips into a wave whose coloration modulates from deep blue to white, conjuring the illusion of a waterfall. In 2005, at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, for a piece called Fire, she massed thousands of dyed silk threads into two concentric circles that suggest a ring of flames. The disparity between the materials she employs and the naturalistic illusions they create is always evident, and yet that disjuncture somehow adds to the works’ power to awe.

 

Unlike many artworks, Fernández’s creations need to be experienced in person. In photographs, they look precisely composed and austerely beautiful, perhaps, but lack the ephemeral, unpredictable quality that makes her work so exciting. How they change as viewers move through them, or how light waxes and wanes—all of that is central to Fernández’s approach.

 

One installation in her nearly yearlong solo show, As Above So Below, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts (through April 6), suspends a raft of gold- and black-colored plastic tubes from the ceiling. Called Black Sun, the work shimmers like moiré as you walk its length, suggesting a glowering sky when seen from below and an undulating landscape from above. Another installation, Sfumato (Epic), comprises more than 40,000 chunks of glinting graphite. Pinned to the walls, as if to suggest an enormous flock of birds or a swarm of bees, the assemblage seems to ripple in the wind as you pass by it. Like all of Fernández’s work, these pieces also have complex conceptual underpinnings and are full of literary and philosophical allusions. Black Sun was inspired by a Mesoamerican myth in which the sun god disappears into the underworld’s western entrance at night, reappearing on the far side the next day. The entire show, meanwhile, is focused around the notion, common to Vedantism and transcendentalism alike, that the infinite is present in the infinitesimal, and vice versa.

 

Fernández is examining the notion of what it means “to make sculpture that evokes landscape,” says Denise Markonish, the MASS MoCA curator who organized that show. “Not like an earthwork, not just painting that’s interpretive, but a hybrid in between.” And that hybrid, Markonish adds, seeks to “evoke the ineffable.”

 

Fata Morgana aims for something similar. The piece will “define a glistening procession for the visitor,” says Rapaport. “As light comes through these canopies, that brightness will emanate across and through the work.” Fernández’s extensive tests of the material on site suggest that its mirage-like glow will be visible from as far as two blocks away, as well as from the encircling canyon of buildings.

 

Fernández has made only a handful of public sculptures, but her first, in 2001, was also installed in Madison Square Park. Called Bamboo Cinema and produced by the Public Art Fund, it was an eight-foot-high labyrinth, built with concentric circles of bright-green acrylic tubes that made everything around it—whether you stood inside looking out or outside looking in—appear like a slow-motion filmstrip. What fascinated Fernández was that people used it “as a kind of privacy screen,” she says. “What I love about public art is that you can plan it out all you want, down to the last bolt, but the way it feels is always a complete surprise. People inevitably use it in a way you don’t expect. I learn when I do this.”

 

FERNÁNDEZ WAS BORN in Miami to working-class parents who had left Havana after Castro came to power. She maintains that she grew up feeling more American than Cuban but says her émigré background gave her a strong sense of purpose. “When you’re the child of an immigrant, you don’t have the luxury of messing up,” she tells me over lunch near her Boerum Hill studio a couple of weeks later. “You become very aware of the opportunity afforded you by someone who has given something up.” Her father “lived the American dream,” Fernández says, building yacht hulls in someone else’s factory, then working his way up to become manager before opening his own luxury yacht-building company. Their house, she recalls, was filled with books, which she absorbed with alacrity. “They would always tell us the only thing they can never take away from you is your education,” she says. “And you were taught to carry yourself with dignity.”

 

She also grew up making things: After school, she and her three siblings would spend hours at a dressmaking workshop owned by her great-aunt, where her grandmother and other relatives worked; she’d sit under the cutting table, surrounded by bolts of cloth, creating projects with scraps. “I never went to a museum as a child; plus my parents were working,” she says. Being at the workshop “was like having my own little studio.”

 

Although Fernández always loved drawing (“The art room was a refuge,” she says of high school), she didn’t pursue sculpture until she took a course her sophomore year in college, at Florida International University in Miami. “There’s this wonderful thing that happens with metal, that you can heat it and completely change the shape of it,” she says. “I fell in love with the physicality.”

 

Three years later, she was a star pupil in the M.F.A. program of Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, where she became known for making room-size installations and for fearless experimentation. “She could go through an incredible number of ideas in a week,” says her former professor Elizabeth King, who still teaches sculpture there. “She was what we call a studio rat: She just made one thing after another, some really magical, others really rough.” Her thesis project was a 12-by-24-foot rectangular plaster slab, incised and drawn on so that it resembled a worn-out public bathhouse floor, not unlike a handmade, trompe l’oeil version of a Gordon Matta-Clark building cut. King, who remains close to Fernández today, recalls it as “a real triumph.”

 

Back in Miami, where Fernández moved after receiving her degree in 1992, her work completely sidestepped the identity politics fashionable at the time. Nonetheless, she was noticed. Louis Grachos, then a curator at Miami’s Center for the Fine Arts, remembers being wowed by a room-size installation he saw in 1993, in a show at the now-defunct Cuban Museum. A trompe l’oeil bathroom with rust-streaked walls and a long plaster sink was so transportive and technically adroit that “it just blew my socks off,” says Grachos, now executive director of The Contemporary Austin. “It was almost like an alchemist had pulled it all together.” (He later showed Fernández’s first waterfall piece in Santa Fe.)

 

Bonnie Clearwater, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, was struck by the project too. In 1995, she gave Fernández her first museum exhibition; the next year, she included the artist in Defining the Nineties, a group show that helped put Miami on the art-world map, partly by drawing so many international visitors. Fernández’s contribution was an installation inspired by Adolf Loos’s unrealized design for a windowed swimming pool for Josephine Baker. She used subtle gradations of blue paint to suggest water and placed one-way mirrors on the walls instead of windows, so people inside could gaze at themselves, and those outside could watch them doing it.

 

Later that year, Fernández had her first solo show in New York with Deitch Projects in SoHo, where she presented an installation that transformed the gallery into a sunken pool. And in 1997, Lehmann Maupin, which represents her today, organized a group show with her in mind: She contributed a well whose reflective surface was made from multiple layers of mirror, scrim and drawing. “A lot of my work then was about looking and being looked at,” says Fernández, who seems detached from her own much-lauded beauty.

 

By then Fernández was applying for fellowships and residencies, one of which took her to Japan, which she continues to visit each year. “It’s a place where people understand the quietness of my work instantly,” she says. “I feel I’m from Japan as much as I am from Miami.” There she became fascinated with the gardening technique known as shakkei, which uses architectural and landscape elements to frame a view, incorporating it into the design like a living painting. This led to several pieces about gardens, like Landscape (Projected),from 1997, which summons up thoughts of a grassy lawn with green paint, light reflecting off the paint and the sound of a sprinkler. Her vision of nature soon grew broader, extending beneath the earth and into the heavens. “It’s like I am always trying to amplify that sense of what landscape is,” she says.

 

‘It’s like I am always trying to amplify that sense of what a landscape is.’—Teresita Fernández

 

In 1998, she moved to Brooklyn and began working in the same small, neat studio she maintains today. She also married and had two children: son Caspian, now 13, and daughter Cypress, 11; she and her husband are divorced. Early on, she made a decision to care for her children herself, taking them with her to the studio and making art when they fell asleep. Motherhood forced her to be more organized, she says. “It makes you very lean and very lucid. You have to trust your instincts, because you don’t have time to try 10 things.” She won the “genius” grant only a few months after Cypress was born.

 

Fernández made her first permanent installation, Seattle Cloud Cover, for the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2006. Occupying a block-long walkway over a railway bridge, it presents vibrantly colored images of clouds, drawn from sources like Hokusai, Japanese anime, the Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, the Hudson River School and Fernández’s own Miami photographs. Printed onto glass, the translucent frieze transforms the city’s famously gray skies while adding their reflection to the composition. “Depending on the light and the time of day and the season,” says Lisa Corrin, the curator who commissioned the installation for the museum (she is now director of the Block Museum at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois), “you might see the sun penetrate the colored film and create a carpet of color beneath your feet. This is the excitement of Teresita’s work. It bears repeat visitation.”

 

Considering Fata Morgana’s nearly nine-month run time—it will stay up through January 10, 2016—Madison Square is clearly banking on the idea of return. But for Fernández, the commission offers something beyond popular success: a chance to advance her views about landscape on a grand scale. “Think of it as something that’s underneath your feet and behind your head and at the bottom of the ocean and in the night sky,” Fernández says. “It’s not just about place but about placing yourself in a place. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been trying to place themselves. This is why we have always looked up at the night sky.”