Orly Genger, in Madison Square Park
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
By CAROL KINO
Published: May 1, 2013
“If I could put my body into my work,” Orly Genger likes to say, “that would be the ultimate.”
Some might argue that she does that already in her sculptures. Over the last 10 years, Ms. Genger has become known for creating ambitious installations from seemingly endless coils of rope that she crochets and teases into shapes that recall Modern masterworks.
In 2007 she filled a Chelsea gallery with 250,000 feet of knotted, paint-saturated rope, creating a black, lava-y environment that suggested Walter de Maria’s “Earth Room.” The next year, using similar materials, she built an even larger installation for the lobby of the Indianapolis Museum of Art — a sly take on the aggressive metal stacks and cubes of Minimalists like Tony Smith and Donald Judd. In 2010, for a show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., Ms. Genger used 100 miles of red painted rope to create “Big Boss,” an 11.5-foot-high stack that burst through a gallery wall and bubbled over for 28 feet into an adjoining room — a giant Color Field painting run amok.
Now Ms. Genger, 34, has delivered her largest and most labor-intensive work yet, a public sculpture in Madison Square Park called “Red, Yellow and Blue.” On view through Sept. 8, it’s made of 1.4 million feet of hand-crocheted lobster-fishing rope, which she has used to create three towering enclosures, each painted a different primary color. Seen from afar, their undulating walls arch up into the trees, suggesting a mash-up of a Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipse,” a psychedelic cityscape by Peter Max and a Claes Oldenburg-esque layer cake.
Covering three separate lawns in the park — some 4,500 square feet — the project is the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s largest to date. More remarkable, Ms. Genger has handled practically every inch of its materials herself. For the last two years, she and a team of assistants, most of them young women, have spent almost every day in her studio cleaning lobster claws and fish bones out of the rope and crocheting it into the chunky scarflike strips, some 150 feet long, that she used as building blocks.
“I like getting dirty,” Ms. Genger said recently. “It makes me feel like there’s more freedom to break rules.”
And on a cloudy day last month, Ms. Genger got dirty with a different crew, this one made up of burly young men who dragged and piled nearly 200 of those strips onto steel supports to create the wavy wall of the red enclosure. Passers-by stopped to stare and take photographs, while Debbie Landau, the director of the conservancy, fretted that the artist, who is just over 5 feet tall, might be pushing herself too hard.
Yet Ms. Genger seemed elated. Usually “I’m the first one to see flaws in my work,” she said later, as she led the way into the blue piece, which had just been painted. “But look at this — it’s electric.”
Around her, the brilliantly colored rope walls looked as if they were writhing. After two years of intense production, sculpturing the work in public was “the fun part,” she added. “It’s frightening and exciting at the same time.”
She had good reason to be excited. Not only is this Ms. Genger’s first major public sculpture in the city where she was born and raised, but she has two other collections on view as well. The dealer Larissa Goldston is showing “Iron Maiden,” a group of small metal sculptures cast from superhero figurines and rope, in a pop-up space at 530 West 24th Street through June 22.
Ms. Genger also makes knotted rope jewelry in collaboration with the designer Jaclyn Mayer, and their latest line, also inspired by “Red, Yellow and Blue,” recently had its debut online at the design showcase Grey Area.
As for the installation, it will become the first Madison Square Park commission to travel: Ms. Genger will reinstall it in October at the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., where it will remain for a year.
For Ms. Genger’s supporters, the attention seems well earned. Susan Cross, the Mass MoCA curator who commissioned the massive red piece “Big Boss,” called her “a force of nature,” adding that her work has broad popular appeal.
“Everyone can relate to it, even though it’s this overwhelming size,” Ms. Cross said. “You see that it’s rope, but you understand the labor involved. I think that really pulls people in.”
Lisa Freiman, who heads the department of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, singles out Ms. Genger’s savvy reworking of art history.
“I really see her as one of the most important sculptors working today,” she said. From the start, she noted, Ms. Genger has been “taking on classic Minimalist and Postminimalist and feminist art at the same time, and doing it in a completely original way.”
Building each piece is something of “an endurance performance,” said Ms. Freiman, who describes the artist as “one of the toughest makers I know.”
Yet by her own account, Ms. Genger did not start out that way. Growing up in New York City with parents who collected modern art, she said, she was so shy that she rarely spoke until she was 12. Instead, she said, she drew: “It was kind of a safe space. It was always the thing I felt that I could do well.”
When she discovered sculpture as an undergraduate at Brown University, Ms. Genger became obsessed, spending hour upon hour in her studio. “I was really drawn to working with my hands,” she said. “It was more about using my body as the tool and having a direct relationship with the material.”
At first she focused on collecting found objects like chairs and brooms and encasing them in gobs of white plaster. Then, during a postbaccalaureate course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she began playing around with yarn, using her hands to make chains and slip knots. Soon she was creating sculpture that recalled the craft-based work of 1970s feminist artists like Harmony Hammond and Faith Wilding.
After returning to New York, Ms. Genger had her first show at the Stefan Stux Gallery in Chelsea, and her career began to take off. Some of those early pieces prefigured the more severe forms of the work she is making today, like a six-foot-high stack of droopy white rectangles, or a spiraling dark-green floor piece fashioned from a long crocheted strip several times her own height.
Her work took another leap in 2004, when she built her first outdoor piece for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. Forced to find a material that would be more weather-resistant than wool, she discovered mountain-climbing rope. The resultingconstruction, a green phallic-looking column that rises 15 feet from two puddles of purple and green rope on the ground, fired Ms. Genger with new ambition.
After that, she said, “I became more interested in the heft of the material and the massiveness that it gave to the piece.”
Then came the Earthwork-like installation at Ms. Goldston’s gallery, the forbidding Minimalist sculptures in Indianapolis and the eight-ton “Big Boss.” For “Big Boss,” Ms. Genger said, “I wanted to make a piece where the minimal and the very organic both could coexist, and where you felt that they needed each other.”
Not long after that installation” went up, Ms. Landau, the Madison Square Park Conservancy director, stumbled across an outdoor piece by Ms. Genger at the 2010 Pulse Miami fair: a group of white Judd-style columns that the artist had toppled onto a grassy lawn, transforming them into curvy lounge chairs. Once she was standing “within the work, touching it,” Ms. Landau said, “the light bulb went off: how wonderful and different it would be to have Orly’s work intersecting with the park.”
Ms. Genger’s plans were presented to the conservancy’s board the next spring. One early idea involved filling the park’s central lawn with mounds of red rope, but she ultimately decided to transform three smaller lawns into rooms instead. Besides “giving the park some verticality” by building walls, Ms. Genger said, “I wanted to create spaces where people felt held.”
She also wanted to explore the “very, very fine line between being contained and feeling like you’re suffocating” and “feeling contained and safe.”
Then came the task of procuring 50 tons of rope, and quickly, so she could get to work. By then Ms. Genger’s installations had become so large that she had shifted away from climbing rope “because of its cost,” she said. But during the construction of “Big Boss” (some of whose materials were recycled into the current piece), Mass MoCA had discovered a cheaper source: the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, which has become an informal clearinghouse for the worn-out ground line used by fishermen up and down the New England seaboard.
Channon Jones, 40, a third-generation Maine lobsterman who was one of the largest contributors to the piece, recently observed that Ms. Genger had probably wrangled more rope than he had. “Maybe in my lifetime as a fisherman I might have used that much rope altogether,” he said, “but not all in one place.”
Ms. Genger savors that sense of accumulation, too. “I stand here and I feel the past two years of my life — every knot. It’s a physical manifestation of time.”
Published NYT 05032013