ONE AFTERNOON IN upstate New York, the sculptor Teresita Fernández 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.”