Joseph La Piana

Saul Taylor / April 24, 2019

A darling of the art, fashion and design worlds and a favourite investment of each of these industries, Joseph La Piana recently undertook his most ambitious project by installing a version of his much-fêted “Tension” work on Park Avenue. Installed during one of the worst storms of the winter, the resulting public exhibition has won plaudits from critics and wowed gen pop with its contemporary message.

How did the Park Avenue installation come about?

The Fund for Park Avenue has a selection committee that decides on who the next artist will be to exhibit along Park Avenue. The committee consists of directors of museums, patrons of the arts and curators. But it does not actually fund the project, they fund the beautification of maintaining the malls along Park Avenue from 52nd to 70th Street. They were familiar with my work — specifically with two bodies of work that they admired — and asked if I would consider making a presentation to the committee, and that’s how it evolved. That was two years ago.

How did you get the funding?

I had to look towards the patrons of my work who I am so grateful to.  I was able to raise close to the million dollars that was necessary for the fabrication of the sculptures. Then New York City Parks Commission gets involved in the permitting. Their engineers have to review the drawings. That was an expensive part of the process because once I had my own drawings I had to deal with the fabrications and determine and finalize the materiality — wind loads based on the weight of the sculptures and the impact of the environment around them. That was challenging. Not to mention understanding the way that these sculptures would come to life from a logistical standpoint during the period of time which we installed — which happened to be the coldest, rainiest, snowiest four days of the whole winter.

What are the sculptures made of?

The material is a synthetic rubber called Hypalon and it’s what they use to build canoes and boats, so it can withstand extreme temperatures; it’s puncture and mildew resistant. I’m not joking when I say it needs to outlive who we are. That was a major consideration. Researching that and testing the material constantly to make sure that it had the malleability that we needed but also the resistance that was necessary in order to create the tension. And pushing the material to the point of understanding its longevity and its ability to sustain itself without collapsing.

Were there any shaky moments?

The engineers from the city determined two weeks prior to the installation that the wind loads they calculated were greater than what we calculated. At that point they said the base plates needed to be an additional one-inch thick to create another 1000 pounds resistance per plate. Or we could dig down 10 inches and bury the plates. That’s what we had to do. At that crucial moment we hired the Fund for Park Avenue’s landscaping team to deal with that — to excavate and put things back in order once we were done with the installation.

Would you do it again?

Yes! It’s the excitement and thrill of it obviously, there’s a lot of adrenaline running.

How was the launch event?

There was an amazing dinner at the Four Seasons in the Pool Room where dear friends, patrons of my work, museum directors and other creative people from the fashion, art and design worlds came to support me, which was fantastic. I think the important thing that came out of all this was how emotional the process has been. Because when I was installing the sculptures people would stop me and ask me to explain the work. People were crying. I wasn’t expecting them to have that reaction to the sculptures. All the Instagram posts and social media has been people quoting things from Gandhi and explaining how moved they are by the sculptures.

What does the “Tension” work represent?

I remember the first few days, especially, because the wind was still so strong and the weather was so severe that you could see the material vibrating. You could see the sculptures trying to maintain their composition in the context of their environment. Think about a boat — a major liner in the ocean during a storm — the impact of the climate on a structure. Or a plane flying in the air and being moved by a storm. It has a different impact on you because of all the social, political and environmental things that we’re experiencing as a country and all over the world. People are moved by the understanding that we as people are being stretched to our limits and pushed to the point of no return. The sculptures represent this hope that in the same way they are under stress and tension, we as people find a way to cope with continuing our lives in the same way as these living sculptures.

Are you surprised that people have such an instant emotional reaction?

Yes, definitely. It’s hard because as an artist we don’t create work to have some predetermined idea of people’s responses to it. We create work out of our process, our experiences and, of course, there’s always a hope that people understand it in the context that it was created. But, it’s even more powerful when you learn about your work through people’s own personal experiences of it. I think that’s the difference between public art and walking into a gallery. You can still have that visceral feeling walking into an exhibition, but when your work is in the public realm the impact of it and the relationship between the work and the public is somehow heightened. It becomes magnified in a way that I wasn’t aware of.

How has New York played a part in your development as an artist?

At my last panel discussion someone asked me about the “Tension” work and how it relates to what’s going on around us in the context of growing up in Brooklyn to Italian American immigrant parents. My parents were born and raised in Sicily and I basically grew up in the hood. My experience of summer was taking the cap off a fire hydrant in the street and that was your beach. Playing handball and stickball and throwing rocks at factory windows and building igloos out of mountains of snow that piled up on dirty city streets. And one thing that I’ve never really discussed was I grew up with a father who was intensely angry. He didn’t speak with his mouth; he spoke with his hands. We lived within an environment that was extremely tense — we were walking on eggshells. My father would hit my mother and would chase us around with two-by-fours. It suddenly dawned on me that outside of the cerebral, scientific, theoretical aspect of my work, my experiences as a human being are part of my work in such a major way that I haven’t really discussed until now. And I think that my interaction with the public allowed me to be more vulnerable in talking about it, because people have shared with me in a vulnerable way which has allowed me to want to open up in an equally vulnerable way.