“For me, the artist’s job is to look out at the world and reflect. It’s my particular job to tell the world what it’s like to be me right now.”
To some art critics—notably, those who believe creator and creative outcome should be kept church and state—those might be words of heresy. But Patricia Cronin is no heretic. After all: As a kid, she figured she’d become a nun when she grew up.
And reflecting on her life now, she has said she wasn’t all that far off.
“I spend my days quietly, methodically working by myself on something I think is important, and I’m in a community of women. The things I liked about [life in the convent], I actually got.”
Cronin was born in Beverly, Mass., in 1963, to a school teacher and a wastewater treatment agency worker, and her upbringing was one anchored in religion. She attended Catholic school and strummed guitar in church, and was exposed at an early age to the pervasive religious trappings of classic art. Meanwhile, she was a prodigious lover of drawing, but rather than Madonnas and prodigal sons, her output was more focused on the equine.
Cronin studied art and art history at Rhode Island College, and got accepted into the prestigious Yale University Norfolk Summer School of Art program in 1985—which brought her into a community of creatives from all around the country, and led her to the realization that to best ply her craft, she needed to be in New York City. Soon enough, she was earning a Master’s Degree at Brooklyn College.
Cronin has said she maintains an obsession with the body given her Irish Catholic childhood, and her first project to break out in a major way focused on exactly that: She created a series of erotic Polaroids from the perspective of the artist as participant, and they were featured in a landmark show she co-curated, Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-plicit Art by Women. Yet despite the acclaim her work received in the The New York Times and other outlets, it cost Cronin her teaching job at Pratt, where she has noted she was surrounded by older men in an environment where those who couldn’t do, taught.
As she was curating the show Cronin met the artist Deborah Kass—and was instantly drawn to her. Kass had co-created the Women’s Action Coalition, and Cronin began attending regularly as the two forged a friendship, and then a bond and tight relationship that would stand the test of time.
But despite years of testament to that fact, they couldn’t get married. And most of the legal benefits they could get via the law dealt only with death. So Cronin, meditating on this (and also on how nearly all the public sculpture throughout New York City depicted and celebrated men), began crafting what would become her masterpiece in 2002: Memorial to a Marriage, a three-ton marble funerary sculpture that depicts Cronin and Kass embracing naked in bed. After purchasing a plot for herself and Kass in New York’s famous Woodlawn Cemetery, eternal home to Duke Ellington, Herman Melville and other notables, Cronin had the statue installed on the gravesite. It later toured the world.
As Cronin has said, “What if a protest song and a love song … are rolled up into the same song? I use art historical forms to lull my audience into a false sense of security. They have invested their time, they have moved their body through or around my work, and as that’s happening the content is slowly revealing itself. That’s how, I think, you change hearts and minds.”
(In 2011 Cronin and Kass would wait hours in the sweltering heat to get married on the first day it became legal in New York, finally receiving government recognition of a bond that had already endured for nearly 20 years and was set, quite literally, in stone. Today they create in studios next to each other.)
Cronin next brought her philosophy to Venice, Italy, with the exhibition Shrine for Girls, which utilized the three altars in a deconsecrated Catholic church to focus on a trio of international atrocities: the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping by Boko Haram in Nigeria; the gang rape and murder of cousins in the Katra Sahadatganj village of India; and the secretive church-run Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, revealed to be forced-labor institutions for “fallen women.” The installation is haunting: A pile of clothes atop each altar—one consisting of hijabs, one consisting of saris, and another consisting of uniforms from the asylums—represents what is left of the victims, and calls chillingly to what is missing. On the whole, Shrine is a cry of urgency for the perpetual crises faced by girls and women around the globe.
With Aphrodite Reimagined, which recently debuted at the Tampa Museum of Art, Cronin’s output seems to have in some ways come full circle. Cronin was commissioned by the museum to respond to one of the pieces within its collection—and Cronin, perhaps unexpectedly, selected a simple broken marble torso of Aphrodite, all that remained of the goddess of love after the limbs were lost to time and an art dealer removed the head so he could profit off the sale of both remaining parts of the sculpture. Cronin restored the goddess to startling life by recreating her missing portions using a clear, green resin modeled after the sea glass she comes across at her cottage in Long Island. The result is a woman torn apart by the past, reinterpreted, reclaimed and reborn.
The museum was looking for a way to bridge their classic artifacts with their contemporary collection, and the piece does exactly that—and Cronin was a brilliant choice, and perhaps the only true choice, to forge the connection. In her work, history burns with searing life into the present—as does the artist’s own past.
All told, Cronin creates with two missions in mind. As she has said, “I’ve kept reminding myself that the artist’s job is to look out, to see the world as incomplete, then try to complete it in my studio.”
And then there’s the part that often causes those aforementioned critics to bristle: “I just think it’s the artist’s job to tell you what’s it like to be ‘me’ right now.”
Sure, Cronin’s art could be viewed totally divorced from its creator. And Cronin herself could be viewed totally divorced from her art. But what if one is the key to the other?
Together, like her Aphrodite, they are whole.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Debbie Millman: Of all the Greek gods, Aphrodite is probably the most familiar to us moderns. You've seen the goddess of love in Western art from ancient times onward, and you can still catch glimpses of her in fashion magazines. But you've never seen her quite like this. Aphrodite Reimagined is a sculpture by the Brooklyn artist Patricia Cronin. She took a fragmentary torso of the goddess from the first century and reconstructed the missing parts with translucent resin. The hybrid sculpture is now on display at the Tampa Museum of Art. A lot of Cronin's work plays with the past while reimagining women and sexuality. Her memorial to a marriage is done in the manner of a 19th century mortuary sculpture but depicts the artist and her female partner in a loving embrace. Patricia Cronin joins me now to talk about her extraordinary work and career. Pattie, welcome to Design Matters.
PC: Thank you so much for having me, Debbie.
DM: Pattie, I understand you were once arrested for closing down the Holland Tunnel. Can you bring us back to the moment and tell us more about it?
PC: Well, it was the early '90s and it was the Casey versus Webster Supreme Court decision, and we were pro-choice, different groups of feminists, and there was WHAM, the Women's Health Action Mobilization, there was WAC, the Women's Action Coalition, and lots of different organizations got together, and we just decided that's it, we have to stage a huge protest and go to the streets. So we did go and block the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and yes, we were all arrested.
DM: How did you close it down? You just stood in front of it?
PC: Oh, yeah. You lay down. We did training for this. Absolutely. You know how to go limp. You know how to not get up. But yes, we were arrested. They took Polaroid's of you while you're being picked up and dragged into the paddy wagon.
DM: Were you in jail?
PC: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's kind of a funny story because my grandfather was a detective in the NYPD, and my father grew up in the Bronx. It's like besides being white and English speaking, it's the one card. I don't have a lot of cards I can ever play anywhere. You certainly not a class card. So I thought my grandfather was a detective in the NYPD, and they say, "Oh, that's great. What would he think of you now?" I'm like, "Well, he's dead. He doesn't think much of it right now." On my way out when they finally released me, because you have to go for a court appearance later on, they slipped me the Polaroid of me being arrested. They're like, "Go on. Get out of here." But I have this document, this Polaroid of me being arrested, which I love as a souvenir, a little badge of honor.
DM: Absolutely. Is it framed and somewhere in an important place in your home?
PC: No. But I should frame it. I'm making a note right now.
DM: Pattie, you were born in Beverly, Massachusetts. Your mom was a third grade teacher at Saint Augustine Catholic School, and your dad worked for the Narragansett Bay Commission Waste Water Treatment Agency. You attended Catholic high school and even played guitar in church. So how important was religion in your upbringing? It sounds like the centerpiece.
PC: It really was. We were middle class or lower middle class. Back then I guess it would be the '70s in Brockton, Massachusetts, you could not have a lot of money but the tail end of the GI Bill was still filtering through a lot of suburbia. And religion was really important. It was a very devout family, and I took it really seriously. I'm the oldest of four children, and it meant a lot to me. I say we grew up in kind of like Jesuit social justice wing of the Catholic church. So I feel like I got a lot of my sense of values, the values that I really cherish from that upbringing. And yes, I did play the guitar, the folk mass, for five years at Saint Nicholas Church.
DM: Wow. Now is it true you also wanted to be a nun?
PC: Well, I thought I was going to be a nun. But if you think about it, right? So how do I spend my days now? I work alone, very quietly, methodically over things I think are very important. I live mostly in a community of woman. I mean, it wasn't that far off. It's just not exactly the same thing.
DM: Not exactly. As a kid, you drew obsessively and you especially loved drawing horses. You won first place in an art contest at your local library in Brockton, Massachusetts for drawing a Palomino horse. I bet Susan Rothenberg would be proud.
DM: The prize was that you got a hardcover book of your choosing, and you selected Harriet the Spy.
PC: I did. To be able to choose a hardcover book, you might as well have told me I won a million dollars.
PC: I just thought this was the biggest prize anyone had ever won, and I thought very carefully, very, very carefully. And it tells a little bit of what's going to happen in the future. It's like I pick a strong, protagonist who's a young girl similar to my age, who's out there with some sense of agency. I thought that was a good choice.
DM: Absolutely. Now, you were playing guitar, you were drawing. I also understand you were writing a lot of poetry. Do you still have any of that poetry? Do you still write poetry? Have you ever published any poetry?
PC: I've never published any. I'm not still writing it. Although writing has come up in my work and I've written two books, but they're kind of funny art books, conceptual projects. But I'm convinced that this big manila envelope of all the poems and the drawings still exist in my mother's attic. At some point, I'm going to find them.
DM: Oh, then I'm going to need to see everything.
DM: Please. Now, you studied art and art history at Rhode Island College. What made you chose that particular school?
PC: Well, it was a mile from my parents house. I didn't get into RISD. A lot of times when people go to introduce me, once you start saying Rhode Island, they always finish it with School of Design.
DM: You didn't get in?
PC: I'm like, no, no, no. Rhode Island College. Small state school. Public education. But it was really wonderful. It was on the other side of town, and they had a very concrete, very traditional, solid art education there that I thought was really incredible. So I got this really great foundation that then helped launch me because one of my professors, his best friend in grad school was married to somebody at Yale. So our school had a special relationship with Yale, and I got nominated for the Norfolk fellowship, and it ended up being a fantastic situation.
DM: That professor was Don Smith, and he nominated you for the Yale Norfolk Fellowship Program, which you were accepted to in 1985. You've said that the subsequent experience was key for you in part because you met other young artists from all over the world for the first time. How did that change the way you were making art?
PC: I was already getting a BFA in a Liberal Arts education so that was really important. I wasn't going to an art school, which, for me, was I needed to be more well-rounded. I wanted to whole education, not just drawing, painting, sculpture, photography. And it changed because I learned more about our history but also I knew that everybody was in New York. If I was going to be an artist, I needed to come back, apply to graduate school in New York because that's where all the artists were. I mean, imagine trying to be an opera singer, like a great opera singer in Oklahoma. I don't think that's possible if the med opera's here and we know where all the other great ones are. It's a really special fellowship. Only certain schools can nominate students, and they pick the 30 best in the country. It's the best undergraduate art award anybody can win in the U.S. and when I told my father, I'm like, "Yeah, I want to go to school in New York." And he grew up in the Bronx. They had moved out after my grandfather retired. They moved to Rhode Island. He's like, "Pattie, are you sure you want to go to New York? We worked so hard to get out of there." It was like, "Yeah, dad. I'm going to New York."
DM: Interesting that he was more concerned about where you were going to live than what you were going to do for a living. Were you always certain that art was what you were going to pursue? Was there ever a time you ever wanted to be anything else? Aside from a nun.
PC: No, that was it. Yeah, I just knew. I mean, I dabbled a little bit because I thought at the beginning I'm going to need a job. Maybe I should focus more on graphic design or marketing. And we had this new professor there that was coming from that field. But it was really the history of art that just sucked me in, and there's just so much still to learn there about civilizations and history that still inspire me.
DM: You sent to New York. You earned your master's from Brooklyn College, and you've said that you selected this school because Phillip Pearlstein, the painter, and Lee Bontecou, the sculptor, taught there. What was it about these two artists in particular that drew you to Brooklyn College?
PC: Well, at that time it was like 1986, there still aren't a lot of really well known female artists that had teaching jobs. So to have someone at the caliber of Lee Bontecou teaching at Brooklyn was a complete draw, and Phillip Pearlstein was the only artist I knew who was living but also making a living from his art. And they were just so prominent I thought, "That's where I want to study. These are two really good role models for me."
DM: Did you ever sense that you didn't want to work within a single artistic genre in the same way that when you were a kid you were doing poetry and guitar and art? As an artist, you are now defined by multiple artistic outlets and pursuits, and, again, have a lot of range.
PC: I know. That was never my idea.
PC: No. I thought I was just going to make paintings my whole life. I mean, actually I can't remember exactly now, but my undergraduate degree I think is in painting and drawing, and I think my graduate degree is in painting and print making. So only two dimension mediums. I never even studied sculpture.
DM: When did the sculpting begin?
PC: People or institutions contact me and offer me an opportunity, and I tried to kind of creative problem solve and figure out well, what's the right image or form, what's the right content to match this moment in time. And a lot of times painting just wasn't the answer. So I was like, "All right. I'll learn how to do this." And I love new information. So I mean, I'm like, "Okay. I'll learn how to sculpt marble."
DM: Yeah, no problem.
PC: I'll figure it out. I'm a good mimic.
DM: Interesting. Your major debut on the art scene came in the early '90s when you released a Polaroid and water color series of erotism that flew in the face of the heterosexual paradigm. Many came from your perspective participating in various sex acts, bringing the viewer intimately into your life. Pattie, was it daunting releasing something so personal, so intimately sexual?
PC: I feel like I'm supposed to say yes, but the answer's frankly no. Because my question was if we think about Courbet's The Sleepers. Courbet's on one side of the room. Famous 19th century French painter. And there's two women just having finished made love on a bed on the other side of the room. Well, what do you do if you're the cultural producer? You're the artist, and you're one of those women. So my question was, what does it look like within that erotic space, not looking from the outside at that erotic space.
DM: But in the center of it.
PC: Yeah. And I just thought well, this is a really interesting aesthetic but also conceptual problem I wanted to solve.
DM: Did you see it also as performance art in any way?
PC: Oh yeah. There are definitely documents of performance, especially the Polaroids because that's so immediate. It's hard to document these kinds of things with water color in the moment, but a Polaroid, it's really easy.
DM: And did you feel shy or nervous about exposing yourself literally and figuratively? I'm thinking just from my own point of view now, so forgive these silly questions. But I'm like I could never ever do that ever then or ever in the future.
PC: I don't think they're silly questions. Everybody's different. But it was a very specific moment in New York history at least. It's the early to mid '90s. Identity politics are people who are not in hegemonically normative bodies, like a white straight male, European descendant body. Actually felt a lot of rage. We've got AIDS going on. We've got just it's the Bush years. I mean, Bush won. It's really bad. There just didn't seem to be any boundary between what you were doing in your bedroom with your lovers and your friends, and what we were protesting about on the street. Like that architectural wall didn't exist, and so it just seemed like we were all putting our lives on the line by protesting, laying down on streets everywhere. And it all just seemed really urgent.
DM: The New York Times gave that show a glowing review. But you've said that the show got you fired from your job teaching at Pratt. What happened?
PC: When you're a young woman ... I mean, look, we're in the Me Too Movement now. You're in your mid to late 20s. I was in my late 20s. I'm teaching adjunct somewhere. I'm teaching at a place with a lot of old white straight men, maybe they are not having shows. So they couldn't possibly be getting glowing reviews from the New York Times. I'm working really hard. This is my first teaching job or just about at Pratt. And I get a great review in the New York Times, and they put it up in the little faculty billboard. Well, all the men go crazy. And I get called to lunch by the chair of the department. He says, "Okay. So now we know who you are." Then my contract wasn't renewed, and that was it.
DM: I wonder if that would happen today.
PC: Well, we have a Supreme Court Justice under a lot of heat right now. Who knows. Who knows what the repercussions are for lots of behavior. That's really discriminatory all the way up to criminal.
DM: Ultimately, you've quoted Tony Morrison in saying that, "the best art is political, and the artist should be able to make unquestionably politic and irrevocably beautiful art at the same time." You've likened it to a love song and a protest song being rolled together in the same piece of music, and that's always been your goal. Is this when you knew that your work needed to communicate your beliefs to the world or was that always just an intrinsic goal?
PC: Well, I thought I had this really political, contemporary content that I want to put in my work, whether it's lesbian visibility, feminist art history, when nobody wants to hear about it. Right? Marriage equality when it's not legal. Museum directors are laughing at me when I tell them what I'm working on, and I thought, "Okay. If I do new content that a lot of people aren't interested in or downright don't agree with, I'm not going to do it in new media. I'm not going to have screeching metal and screaming people." I'm like, "How am I going to-" to use a Hillary Clinton line-, "change hearts and minds?" So I thought, "My aesthetic strategy has been to lull my audience into a false sense of security by presenting them with images or forms that they're familiar with, and then as they spend some time with it, then the content slowly reveals itself." So it's, I don't know if it's diabolical, but so far it's been working I think.
DM: Smart. You met your partner, the artist Deborah Cass, who has also been on Design Matters, around the time of an exhibition that featured your Polaroids and water colors, the one that we were just talking about. Was this the show that featured the life size cutout of Madonna?
PC: Yes. Yes.
DM: How did you get a life size cutout?
PC: My friend worked a video store. Yes, there used to be things called video stores where you went and rented VHS cassettes of movies, and yeah, Madonna had a film and ... Maybe it was for the album around 1992. I can't remember the name of it.
DM: Probably the album around the sex video.
PC: Right before then. Yes. So I got to go home with a life size cutout of Madonna.
DM: That was when she looked so diabolical.
PC: Yes. It was great. I still think she's a genius.
DM: Oh, absolutely. You've said that your favorite place in New York City is the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you're favorite painting is Duccio's Madonna and Child. What is it about that work that so deeply resonates with you?
PC: I've lived in Italy and I spend a lot of time there, as much as I can there every year. And I love going to Siena to see his Maesta that was installed in 1311, and we have his Madonna and Child at the Met. It's my one go to. Any time in the Met, I just have to go and make a little visitation, just visit this painting. Now, it is outrageous. I mean, I think they spent $45 million for this painting. It's some outrageous amount of money. But it does have this other worldliness to it, and not being a practicing Catholic now even though I grew up with that, there are a lot of things that resonate with me that when these artworks were made, people thought they had the same power as the actual religious person.
DM: An amulet. Absolutely.
PC: Some of that is still there and it's very rewarding and soul nourishing for me to go visit that painting.
DM: Is it worth $45 million? What makes something worth millions and millions and millions of dollars? It's also subjective and yet it's also financial.
PC: I know. It's hard to answer a question like that right now because being an artist, ultimately you are making something that you would like to sell in exchange for money, and it's just so hard right now. I just keep thinking of all the children that are separated from their families at the borders or in family detention. Outrageous phrase in itself. So it's so hard to talk about luxury goods, and that's how we evaluate civilizations, and then look how we're treating people. Like real people. I don't have an answer for that question unfortunately right now.
DM: Do you think that art is a luxury good?
PC: Some of it is for sure.
DM: What kind of art would you consider to be a luxury good?
PC: I'm also a professor at Brooklyn College. So a lot of my ... Especially my graduate students are very aware of the auction houses and the trickle down economy of all of that. I tell them all the time put blinders on like you're a street horse, and do not pay attention to the market. Focus on making art history. Don't focus on making market history.
DM: One of your most famous pieces is Memorial to a Marriage, which you created in 2002. It is a three ton Carrara marble sculpture that elegantly and beautifully depicts you and Deborah Cass, your now wife, naked in bed. You created this sculpture with a grant from the Grand Art's Foundation. At the time you were making this, you were pondering two separate things. First, most of the sculpture found throughout New York City depicted men. The second was your inability at the time to marry Deborah and how the legal benefits and protections afford you both as a couple by law mostly dealt with death. So you decided to make a statement about both of these issues. The Financial Times and many others have described the piece as a masterpiece. How controversial was the piece when it came out? You were both, you and Deborah, you depicted yourselves naked in bed in an embrace. What was the reaction at the time?
PC: We unveiled it at Woodlawn Cemetery. We structured the day as if it was a funeral. There was a historic walking tour led by a curator called The Beautiful Women of Woodlawn. The tour existed before my sculpture got there. There's many gorgeous sculptures. Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is designed as America's [inaudible 00:21:22]. JP Morgan, Miles Davis. I mean, we've got like Herman Melville, amazing Americans are buried there.
DM: I think it's Gertrude, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Matt Millington.
PC: Madam C.J. Walker.
DM: Yeah, it's quite a crew.
PC: Oh, it's good. It's really good. And I picked a plot that was halfway between Ralph Bunch, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and Piccirilli, Italian immigrants who carved the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It's location is a sunken little garden. And then we did a graveside kind of service where they talked about the sculpture, and nobody wanted to leave until they touched me. It was really interesting.
DM: Touched you or touched you in the sculpture?
PC: Touched me personally. Physical contact. It was really interesting, and then we had a reception at the Woolworth Chapel, to give you another idea of who's buried there. And then close family and friends came back to our loft in Tribeca and watched The Sopranos and drank red wine and had pizza. So it was really structured like someone had died.
DM: Did you need to get permission from the cemetery to unveil the sculpture there?
PC: Oh, no. They were very ... There were Kim Meade and White Mausoleums there, Daniel Chester French, Angels.
DM: But the topic matter was quite different.
PC: Yes, but as I like to tell my women artist friends, if you want permanent public art, you've got to buy the land. So when I bought the plot, I could on a pre-need basis, right? Because both of us are still alive, you can put whatever grave market you want. They're very open.
PC: So you can have your architect build you a mausoleum or you can put your sculpture of yourselves there.
DM: You hacked into the cemetery.
DM: I came across this story about the marble that really intrigued me. You said that one of the most exciting weeks in your life was when you were selecting the marble in Italy. Apparently they don't allow or didn't allow, I don't know if they still, allow women in the quarries and they wouldn't sell you a block of marble, as large as you need it, and then ship it unless you personally picked it out.
DM: Is it true you had to get special paperwork and other materials to get access to it?
PC: Yes. Women weren't allowed in the quarries because the quarries are at the top of the mountains, and you're going in. It's almost like being inside a cathedral because they've dug into the mountains. Yes, special paperwork. Had to be stamped and signed giving us permission to go in there because women were too distracting. This is in 2001. I mean, it's 21st century.
DM: Yeah, but that's still women and men are separated in certain synagogues and other houses of religious worship.
DM: We don't want to be distracted by each other.
PC: No, or can't go to dinner with Mike Pence.
DM: You've said that the process of making the sculpture was very long. You made many different clay maquettes. You had nude models that resembled you and Deborah pose in your studio. What was that like to see people that looked like you posing naked as you in an embrace in your studio?
PC: I know. I called them surrogate us's because I needed the hair texture, body type, and I needed to get the pose right. Took three years from the initial sketch to installing the finished sculpture. But it was fascinating because I got to look at every history of sculpture book and xerox them and put them all over my studio and just try to, how did they do that, and then try to mimic it myself.
DM: The piece is powerful but it's also poignant. The way that the figures feet touch is very beautiful. The art critic Judy Bellcove stated that the work was an emphatically romantic project. When you're looking at it really, really closely, it feels extremely romantic. Would you agree with that?
PC: Absolutely, and I'm glad she wrote that and I'm glad you picked up on it. Because when you're at a grave site and you're looking at something that is undeniably romantic, how could you deny anybody that? How could you deny anybody the right to marry someone that that's what they feel like about them? When I made it, it was before gay marriage was legal anywhere in the United States. I thought I was making it for a future audience. I thought my audience wasn't even born yet, and I thought, "Well, what about when we walk through cemeteries and maybe it's the loves who are married together. We should walk by their graves and say, 'Oh my god. Can you believe it used to be illegal to have an African American and a Caucasian person marry.'"
PC: Right. We should be appalled. I thought we should've been appalled at this too.
PC: Feeling like a real sense of loss and longing for civic inclusion and ritual celebrations. If all we got was the end of our life, these wills and healthcare proxies and power of attorney documents, I thought, "I'm going to make the most poetic protest object I can muster."
DM: And the feet are touching.
DM: I love that. After 18 years together, you and Deborah married on July 24, 2011. The first day it become legal. You waited three hours in the heat to do so. Did it occur to you at that moment that what you didn't think was ever possible to be able to envision in your life was now happening?
PC: I guess not because in those 18 years, my father passed away, Deb's mother had passed away. So many people that should've bene there at our wedding when it should've happened weren't around anymore. So I'm sorry. I'm still pissed.
DM: Fair enough. Absolutely. You are the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Rome Prize in Visual Art from the American Academy where for many years you were also a trustee. While you were in Rome in 2007, you created a series of pieces depicting the work of Harriet Hosmer, the 19th century sculptor. What motivated this particular body of work?
PC: Well, when I was making Memorial to a Marriage, flipping through those sculpture books, and I'm a great student of art history. And I see this one sculpture, I go, "Oh, that's funny. I don't know that one." Then I looked at the sculpture again and I thought, "Wait a minute. This is extraordinary. Why have I never heard of her?" I knew right then and there, "Okay. I got to finish this marble. But as soon as I'm done, I got to look into her. She's my next project." The more I researched her, the more her life was completely fascinating, being the first professional female sculptor, moving to Rome when she was 22 years old. 1852, when women aren't allowed to walk down the street unaccompanied by a male relative. They can't go to college in the United States. They can't own property. They can't get divorced. I mean, nothing. I thought, "Okay. She became famous for carving these huge marble sculptures. Wait a minute." So that's when I just knew she needed a lot of attention.
DM: And you gave it to her in quite a beautiful way. I'd also like to talk to you about Shrine for Girls, which is the exhibition you mounted in a deconsecrated Catholic Church in Venice. In the three installation, it documents three crises, the Magdalene Laundries, the church's forced labor institutions against prostitutes and mentally ill women and others; the Boko Haram girls in Nigeria, and a case of two cousins, and this is just tragic, two cousins who were raped and murdered in India. Taken together they serve as a shrine for abused girls throughout the world. Each tableau features a mound of clothes representative of the victims that they document, and you've said, "The emotional power of these empty clothes derives from a comprehension of what is absent." I'm wondering if you can elaborate and talk a little bit about how you came up with this concept and the subsequent work that you made.
PC: At the time, I was working, actually I'm still kind of working on it, is more of a project on global crisis and masculinity and the Italian curator Ludovico Pratesi invited me to do this show. He said, "I know where I want it. I want it in the smallest church in Venice. Let's run up there, look at the church, see if it speaks to you, if you can come up with anything." On the way over to Italy, I watched this movie Philomena. I'd never heard of the Magdalene Laundries at all. So that was just completely tragic. Run by the sister's of charity mostly. Prominently in Ireland but also in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the United States. Any young girl who would jeopardize the moral reputation of a family could just be dropped off at one of these prisons. Their names are taken away. They were given numbers. Their hair were cut. I mean, malnourished and just worked from morning til night. No education, nothing. It could be anything from stealing an appel to being an orphan. Yes, you could be a prostitute or an unwed mother. I mean, anything. So those are horrible.
The book of Haram Girls, 276 kidnapped from Dapchi from their school in the middle of the night. I think about 100 are still missing. Just completely tragic. And then also Pushpa and Murti were two cousins, 12 and 13, gang raped and lynched in India in Uttar Pradesh.
DM: And the pictures are just horrific.
PC: I got these three stories in my head and they all got in there right around about two months and I couldn't get them out. I had an opportunity have an exhibition in this very small church.
DM: And this was during the Venice Biennale, is that correct?
PC: Yeah, was part of the 2015 Venice Biennale, and there were three alters. You couldn't hang anything on the walls. I'm sitting there thinking, I'm watching Indian tourists go into their hotel and I'm thinking, "Oh, I wonder what they think about what happened two days ago. These two cousins." I'm like, "Oh, what these women are going through. Oh my god. They need a shrine in their honor." I was like, shrine, shrine, shrine. Shrine for Girls. I've got three alters. I've got three stories. I've got three tragedies. They all where different clothes. I just wanted to use a light, minimalist, kind of interventionist touch. We all know the shape that clothes are supposed to take up, and I made sure to make them kind of like an arabesque. I didn't want them to look like dirty laundry, and I didn't want them to look like folded clothes at the Gap. It had to be a little bit more baroque than that. Then there's a little photograph of each of the events over to the side. So the narrative arc can just happen individually for each viewer.
DM: You've said this about people viewing the clothing, "We're not looking at a pile of curtains. What we all have in common is we all have bodies. We all have skin, bone, muscle, flesh, and some people's are treated with dignity and some aren't." Pattie, I'm wondering if you can share with our listeners what happened when a group of Indian women tourists visiting Venice walked by the exhibit when it was closed and read the signage outside.
PC: So outside I had a sign that said, "Shrine for Girls," in the 12 most frequently spoken languages in the world. One of them is Hindi. We had to rope it off one day. So the doors are still open because the BBC was recording something with me, and the acoustics had to be perfect. But they saw the central altar and they saw all the sarees in a pile, and they knew what to do. They went back to their hotel room. They went through all their suitcases, and they found the one black saree they were traveling with for morning, and they came back and they gave it to me to add to the shrine. This is how I define success. It's like forget about auction houses, forget about sales, this is success. When I can communicate across language barriers and geographical boundaries, there's no press release in Hindi, just the name, and it's one of the most moving things that's ever happened to be as a response to my work.
DM: Well, that particular piece. I think all of your work actually speaks across language barriers and geographical boundaries. Reflecting on art's role a few years ago, you said that you strongly agree with the idea that art has the potential to transform society. Do you still feel this optimism at this moment and time?
PC: I don't know if it's the optimism, but yes, it has the potential. If people don't use it to that goal, that's their decision. But yes, I really do. And I saw it in Venice because everyone from the wealthiest Russian collectors to tourists to the art cognoscenti to school groups. Teachers brought their school groups from just north of Venice with lesson plans and went from alter to alter. I thought, "If everybody from the wealthiest to the youngest is sobbing in my show, then, you know what, that changed something."
DM: That's transformation.
DM: One of your most recent projects is at the Tampa Museum of Art. The curators there were looking for a way to bridge their contemporary art and classic art. You were invited to the museum and asked to respond to a piece. You chose a marble statute of Aphrodite from the first century of which only the torso had survived. You recreated the rest of the statue in a translucent resin using historical references and other sources. Completing the statute in a striking, amazing 10 foot piece titled Aphrodite Reimagine. What made you decide to choose this specific piece?
PC: Well, I think the conversation with the museum started maybe right before the election or right after the 2016 election. I was pretty despondent after ... I don't even want to call them the results, but okay, whatever transpired. And I just thought this is going to be the least creative period of my life. What am I going to do? And I walked in there and I saw this gorgeous statute. It's life sized, which is they're pretty rare. This particular type of Aphrodite, because there's lots of different versions, crouching. And she has kind of like the wet T-shirt version. So all the fabric is really clinging to her body. So everything's revealed and yet concealed. They had some funny, not funny but unusual 19th century photographs of 17th and 18th century restorations that were all wrong. I thought huh, maybe he's talking about fake news. And I started to tie these things together. I thought I could do something with her. And walking on the beach a lot and collecting some sea glass and the blue-green was perfect. I don't know. The color was good, and she's born from the sea, actually from the foam of the cut off gentiles of Uranus. I thought okay, a lot of things are tying together here that are bouncing around in my head that could be really fun to play with.
In this kind of toxic age of masculinity that I feel like I'm living in, it's kind of really kind of atonic to be able to go back and research the history of cult worship of a female deity. Most of my ... Obviously if I'm brought up Catholic, most of my wheelhouse is not Pagan, let's say, and this has been so much fun researching the role of women in Ancient Greece and Rome and just going back and trying to figure out what my relationship, whether it's political or theoretical, to beauty is. And it's just been unbelievably creative making new works and new materials that I never worked in, and at a time when I thought I was going to be really just have nothing.
DM: In your talk about social justice and aesthetic responsibilities, you stated that you rely on the seduction of the familiar to disrupt viewers expectations. And the questions you're most interested in asking are whose body has value, who gets to decide. Why those specific questions and how would you answer them?
PC: Well because I feel I've been told my body doesn't have value and I've been told somebody else gets to decide. So I like to go back in my work and say, "Oh, really? Well." Because I think it's the artists job to look out, hopefully keenly observe the world, right? Reflect and respond. And I see things happening that I completely disagree with and so I feel like my job is to at least protest, not be silent, to comment on them in the most convincing way I can using my whole skillset.
DM: A couple of years ago you said that the topics that you address don't tend to be a priority in the art world because it is still in a deeply conservative space.
DM: Why do you think that is? Do you think it's shifted at all even in the tiniest bit given the current circumstances, or do you think it's gotten worse?
PC: I'm going to go out on a limb. I'm just going to say it. All right. All of these hedge fund guys, they invest in, purchase, manipulate and promote the art of younger versions of themselves.
PC: I don't look like a younger version of them, and neither do my Latino, Latina, and African American artist. So women and people of color generally don't do as well in subjective fields.
DM: Do you see any cracks in that? Amy Sherald or do you think she's just an anomaly?
PC: There's always exceptions. We've had an African American president and aren't things peachy now? No. You know what I mean? There's always an exception and they're exceptional exceptions. Of course. But that's not the general rule.
DM: Lee Bontecou once told you, "Make the best decisions for the work."
DM: And you've said that that's exactly what you've done. You haven't thought about how your work will be received. Do you ever think about how your work will be received as you're making it, or do you think that in time your work will be seen as a very vehement response to the circumstances in which it was being made?
PC: I like to make work that people from lots of different ... I don't want to do a hierarchy this way because I don't really like that. But coming from lots of different places more horizontally. So if someone's only interested in the figure, they can relate to the work. But if someone's coming in, here's a philosophy professor, there's plenty there to digest. I want it to be as broad as possible, and I hope it can speak to many people.
DM: I consider you to be as much an activist as you an artist and as much an artist as you are an activist. Is there any advice that you could give to others who are under represented to combat inequality in a proactive way whether it be in subjective fields or art itself?
PC: I think it's kind of this age old rule. You just have to work incredibly hard. If you have the opportunity, you're going to go to lunch with your friend or are you going to spend that extra two hours do a little bit more research to make that work even better. Look, I would like more hours a week to do yoga or go for a jog or see my friends, but I feel like the opportunities are few and far between. So I'm not going to blow any of them. And if I don't get a lot of sleep or no one sees me for eight months, it's because I had to make that museum show. I think you just have to hold yourself to a higher standard, and that's really hard and it's not popular with your family and yeah. There's a lot of sacrifices, but in the end, I feel like I've made some really great work about topics nobody cared about when I made them, and I don't think artists are supposed to be herd animals. I really feel like that's ... I mean, nothing against accountants. I love my accountants. But that's for people who are supposed to all follow the same rule. Artists are supposed to be more separate. The work isn't supposed to look like anybody else's.
DM: Pattie, in addition to your art practice, you teach at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. I know you've also taught at the School of Visual Arts, Columbia, Mica, the new school Cooper Union and Pratt. How important is teaching to your work?
PC: I feel like I've spent so much time becoming a really smart person and there's no sense in having all this knowledge if you can't share it. And I always tell my students, if I'm not going to be in my studio talking to myself about my work, the only other place I want to be is in a young artist's studio talking to them about their work. Like those are really interesting conversations. I feel like I had some great people giving me really good advice when I was a young artist, and I've got it so why not share it. Although I know it's an East Coast/West Coast thing. I know on the East Coast they say, "Oh, you know when you've made it when you get to quit your teaching job," and on the West Coast they say, "You know you've made it when you get your teaching job." For me, New York's really expensive to live in, and as Adrienne Piper always said when she was a full professor at Wesley for years. She always said, "Get a good day job." And I always knew I would need a job. I knew my work was going to be political and it might not go with whatever these market trends are. I can't even believe we talk like this in the art world anymore.
But anyway, it's made it so that I can afford to stick to my guns and only make the work that I think is the most urgent.
DM: I have one last question for you. You've stated that, "Ultimately the artists job is to look out at the world and reflect. It's my particular job to tell the world what it's like to be me right now." So, Pattie, my question is this, what is it like to be you right now as you are doing some of the best work of your life?
PC: Wow. It's probably not a very popular answer. I'm really angry. I have a low grade fever of rage like 24/7. Really. That was actually before. In the last 18 months it's even more. But it just makes me want to make sure that I make work that somehow tries to attempt to give some dignity to the missing lives, rights, and histories of women.
DM: Patricia Cronin, thank you for being on Design Matters today, and thank you for provoking and inspiring the world and me with your remarkable body of work. You can see some of PC's work on her website patriciacronin.net and currently at the Tampa Museum of Art. And Memorial to a Marriage is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and is on view through 2019. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening, and remember, you and talk about making a difference, you can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.