Rochelle Feinstein Makes Work That Is Purposefully Hard to Define

This past December, I met the abstract artist Rochelle Feinstein at her studio — a 900-square-foot space in an industrial office building in Queens, N.Y. — to discuss her upcoming exhibition, “You Again,” a survey of her work that will be displayed simultaneously in six independent galleries in Paris, Zurich, New York, Miami and Los Angeles, beginning this month at Bridget Donahue in Manhattan. Unlike many painters, the ineffability of personal experience concerns Feinstein less than the cultural conditions that create it. What interests her is, “How can I enter that cultural condition and how can I enter it right now?”

Feinstein, 70, who retired in 2017 from her position as professor emerita of painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art, has been asking that question for some time, most directly since the late ’80s. Up to that point, she’d tried to synthesize various elements of abstraction and representation in her paintings, giving priority to formal elements such as patina and mark making in an effort to convey inner states of ephemerality. “I was trying to do everything in a painting, which is a big problem,” she said. Having earned some recognition within the art world but little satisfaction, she began using mixed media, grounding her projects explicitly in their material and social contexts. Today, Feinstein’s work is known for its unpredictability and ironic allusions to pop culture and art history. “Image of an Image,” her 2018 retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, included works inspired by Barry White, Michael Jackson, the 2008 financial crisis and the absurdity of Women’s History Month, whose very existence underscores women’s marginalization.

Feinstein attributes a shift in her practice to the death of her father, in 1984, which gave her the clarity to act on her own artistic instincts. “I said, ‘If I can survive my father not acknowledging me at all as a woman, I can survive the art world not acknowledging me,’” she recalled. The revelation was a long time coming for Feinstein, who was born to a working-class family in the Bronx and raised in Queens. Her mother suffered from mental illness that sent her in and out of psychiatric institutions; her father, Feinstein said, “was evil,” and aggressively opposed to his daughter’s education. (She took the name Feinstein from a man she married in her 20s and chose to keep it after they divorced.)

At 17, she was living on her own in a one-room basement apartment and working full time while she completed high school. After she graduated, a string of jobs as a typist led her to the famed advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, where she was promoted to set stylist. At night, she attended classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology before transferring to the Pratt Institute, eventually receiving an M.F.A. in printmaking from the University of Minnesota. By the time she arrived at Pratt, she knew she wanted to make art — an awareness inspired in large part by reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 “Memoirs of Hadrian,” a fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor. “I realized that painting was part of history,” said Feinstein. Meanwhile, the 1970s had brought a wave of protest art into the public discourse. “I thought that was the premier language at the time,” she recalled. “And I wanted to get in there.”

If there is one impulse that unites Feinstein’s oeuvre, it is perhaps this desire to tap into shared lexicons. The grid figures prominently in her work, both as a continuation of the abstract tradition and in recognition of how it shapes modern life, including our inner landscapes. Always, she seeks to find the grid as it exists in the world already, often in unexpected places. The result is sometimes diaristic. In “Brainchild” (1993), for example, titled after a childhood nickname given to her by her mother, Feinstein drew inspiration from a drawer in which her mother kept bits of string used to tie bakery boxes; like so many who lived through the Great Depression, she found such things impossible to discard. Conceiving of the brain’s quadrants as a grid, Feinstein divided a canvas into four parts and filled each with butcher’s twine and ombré-colored yarn glued in coiled formations then painted over them with black, gray and white acrylic paints. The result is not beautiful but absorbing — “I don’t want to make work that’s beautiful,” said Feinstein — interpretable literally as a representation of the brain’s gray matter but also as a tactile portrayal of muted disarray and psychic compartmentalization. The grid is revealed as an organizing principle but also a fragmenting one, resisting wholeness.

It’s difficult to summarize Feinstein’s output, and that’s no accident. “I made a practice of not working serially and not refining,” she said. This approach is clear in “The Wonderfuls,” a collection of more than a dozen 33-inch square works Feinstein began in the last days of 1990, when, determined to use the last of some red and green paints, she wiped them onto a canvas with a squeegee until the painting took on what she considered to be a “hideous” resemblance to holiday plaid. She titled that first work “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an arch reference to the 1946 Christmas film. (“I hate that movie,” Feinstein said. “I don’t think it’s about familial love. I think it’s about money.”) Later works in the series include “Wonderful Sex” (1992), which incorporates a dish towel Feinstein bought at a presidential library in Texas around the time Bill Clinton was making headlines for an alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, and “Wonderful Country” (1996), a map she made from photos of food cut from grocery store mailers and embedded in resin. The canvases bear little resemblance to one another but operate together as a meditation on the word “wonderful” itself, on its vacuity and overuse in American culture.

Despite Feinstein’s long career, she and the show’s curators were determined not to approach “You Again” as another retrospective. Instead, Feinstein worked with each of the six galleries to create new pieces that respond in some way to older ones of hers that the galleries hold in their archives. Each venue will display these newer works alongside their forebears (with the exception of Hannah Hoffman Gallery in Los Angeles, where only recent pieces will appear). The exhibition’s title operates both as a nod to its multiplicate structure and, depending on how you say it, a gesture of wry self-reflexivity: You, again?

A feeling of distance — from people, from sensory experience and between expectations and reality — infuses much of Feinstein’s work and in “You Again,” it is expressed partly through her use of cardboard. Around 2017, she became fascinated with Amazon — its totalizing and isolating power — and began incorporating remnants of shipping boxes in her projects. She is interested, too, in what she refers to as “the corporatized rainbow,” the “failed aspirational symbol” that many companies deploy in an effort to capitalize on ideas of diversity and representation. For “Upcycles” (2021), she used yarn and grommets to affix eight irregularly shaped squares of cardboard onto a 60-by-58-inch canvas. The canvas itself is covered in a rainbow of swathlike striations and the cardboard cutouts are painted in the same vibrant acrylic colors but have a muddy appearance because of their brown paper surface. The work is approximately the same size as its predecessor, “Grids Are Us” (1992), which Feinstein made by transferring images of New York-based newspapers onto a linen printing plate, producing an irregular grid of record that must be read backward. Such print media, Feinstein reflected, is now far less ubiquitous than packaging, though both “Upcycles” and “Grids Are Us” are concerned with shifting attitudes toward gay life in America and will be shown together at Bridget Donahue.

When we spoke a second time, this month, Feinstein was preparing to visit Miami to finalize the placement of her work at Nina Johnson. It is important to her that each piece be encountered as an independent experience, not determined by the works around it, even if they share DNA. “I don’t ever like to do compare and contrast,” she said. For this reason, the decentralized format of “You Again” is a fitting one. To look at her works in any of the six galleries is to appreciate them on their — and your — own terms, with an ambient awareness that your context for doing so is incomplete by design, a fact that makes understanding not a prerequisite but an open possibility. As Feinstein says, she requires only two things from art: “I need to learn, and I need to feel. I want to learn something about where I am in this world, at this moment.” Here, she answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

What’s your day like and what’s your work schedule?

When I’m not doing something else, I’m in the studio all day. I try and get here around seven in the morning, to beat the rush hour, and I often stay until after the evening rush hour. So they’re very long days, and I don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends during the pandemic.

How would you describe your studio?

It has a view — I can see the New York skyline, all of it, from my windows. And it’s big for me. I’ve been in this building for almost 10 years. Previously, I had a studio across the hall that was the size of a broom closet, but then this one opened up about three years ago and I said, “I want it.”

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

With language, usually.

How do you know when you’re done?

There’s nothing left to do.

What’s the first work you ever sold, and how much did you sell it for?

It was really stupid. I was unemployed at the time, and I couldn’t pay my rent, but I was making these beautiful woodblock prints in my apartment. I mean, they were amazing and very involved. Somebody told me that the Museum of Modern Art was accepting pieces for review by what was then called the Prints and Illustrated Books Department, and that you could bring work in and meet the committee. I said, “All right, I’ll do that. Maybe I’ll get my rent money.” They loved the piece I submitted and asked how much it was. And I’m such an idiot: I told them my rent was $143 and so that was my price — $143.75. That was around 1982 and the piece is still in the museum’s collection. It’s hilarious.

How many assistants do you have?

I don’t have any full-time or even part-time assistants. But I do have a crew of people whom I love and trust and whom, whenever I’m really in a pickle, I can call. I don’t work with anybody as a rule, but I’m very grateful for those people saying, “If you need us, just let us know.”

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

I never thought of myself as professional. I think this question is very of the moment, though, because artists have become professionalized. It’s just the way it is. But I think I really thought I was an artist when I got a check from Alice Neel for a contest I’d entered. I won second prize, but she said, “You should have been first.” So I thought, “Oh, I’m an artist. Another artist recognized me.” I think I was at Pratt then, so I was maybe 27 years old.

Do you talk to other artists?

Oh, a lot.

What’s your worst habit?

Is insomnia a habit? It’s something I’m almost constantly fighting, though sometimes I just relent and stay up all night. I stopped drinking a lot of coffee, and I stopped smoking around 25 years ago. Hmm. I haven’t had sex in a long time. So I don’t know if my habits really exist now.

Speaking of insomnia: When Terry Gross interviewed Mel Brooks last year, she asked him if there was anything that, at his age, really troubles him, and he said he’s pretty lucky but he has insomnia. And what he does is what I do. He puts his sleep mask on and he turns on any show that he knows is going to bore him to sleep. I put on anything that has 10 seasons. Now I’m onto “Dexter,” which I don’t really watch but play to put me to sleep. I’m like a 95-year-old man.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve never bought more books in my life than I have during the pandemic, but I’m reading very few of them. At the moment, I have Clarice Lispector’s “Complete Stories” (2015) by my bed. It’s amazing but I’m not really reading it. Sarah Schulman’s book “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” (2021) is great too because I can open it anywhere and find something interesting to read. During the pandemic, the amount of time for which I can truly focus on something has been really off.

What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?

Oh, that’s easy. It’s “Ceci Est la Couleur de Mes Rêves” (“This Is the Color of My Dreams”), a Joan Miró painting from 1925. It’s a complex, gorgeous, very spare piece. There’s a daub of blue paint in one corner, which he squished into the surface over a background of very, very light colors, and he’s painted the word “photo” above it. It’s like he’s talking about old media and photography and painting coming together, and he’s using the word to stand in for a photo. I first saw it in around 2006 and it still yields a lot from me. It’s a piece about dreaming, about imagination and about projecting imagination onto the painting itself.

What do you do to procrastinate?

I read the news. I’ll start with the New York Post and TMZ — the headlines are always about a celebrity or somebody having a baby, but I need to know what everyone thinks — and then I’ll go to The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Atlantic.

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

You want to see? They’re really the weirdest things. [Feinstein extracts two battery-operated cat dolls. One has black stripes on its faux fur and the other has orange. Both wear red and green tartan bow ties and measure about 10 inches tall. She places them on a table and turns them on, and they dance in unison to a low-fi recording of Shania Twain’s 2002 song “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”] I love these guys. Look at the empathy in their faces! I got them in Rome. I’d done a talk there that was organized by a university program and afterward we went to this really touristy restaurant. This guy came in and he took this thing out and put it on our table. Everyone said, “Go away!” But I said, “Wait a minute. What, what is it?” He showed me and I bought two of them. They really helped me the whole time I was in Rome.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Rochelle Feinstein Makes Work That Is Purposefully Hard to Define

Fry Electronics Team

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