Artist Q&A: Sculpture Phenom Alexandre Arrechea
From Cuba to Park Avenue, Los Carpinteros to Chelsea’s Magnan Metz Gallery, the Ardsley sculptor has been there, and keeps doing that.
Rafael Garcia Sanchez, Courtesy of the artist
Alexandre Arrechea is as surprised as anyone to find himself in a New York City bedroom community like Ardsley. But then, the Cuban artist’s career is defined by unlikely circumstances.
Arrechea is working on one of New York City’s most distinguished art commissions: a temporary public sculpture exhibition on the Park Avenue malls, featuring 10 towering creations that will line the flowery medians between 53rd and 67th Streets from March 1 through June 9.
The son of a sugar-mill machinist from a seaside village in Cuba, Arrechea began attracting international attention in the ’90s as part of Los Carpinteros, a Cuban art collective. Since launching his solo career in 2003, Arrechea’s sculptures, watercolors, and video work have been displayed in major art shows and galleries around the world and are currently on display in Chelsea’s Magnan Metz Gallery.
Arrechea moved his family from Madrid to Ardsley in August so he could dedicate himself full-time to the Park Avenue solo exhibit. Titled No Limit, the project features 10 of New York’s most iconic buildings represented as “elastic architecture”: an unwinding water hose, a measuring tape, and ever-spinning—and falling—toy tops.
Can you tell me a little about the Park Avenue project?
This is the third major work I’ve done in this country and definitely the largest. It is a very, very special moment for me.
What was the idea behind making New York buildings look elastic?
The appearance of moving is related to this idea that the buildings can respond to cold, heat, rain, and fog and change in function. They also increase and decrease in market value and tenant use, and so they are subject to changes in social value.
No Limit builds on work you presented in a 2010 exhibition, After the Monument.
Yes, that had buildings on the top of spinning toys, which evoked this idea of success and failure. What do you do when the top falls? You try again. It’s hard, but that’s the only way to keep the tops dancing.
Your sculptures are roughly twenty feet tall. Do you have people helping you build them?
We have ten people working in Brooklyn and five in Spain. We are also producing a documentary based on the whole experience. It is directed by a great Cuban photographer and close friend, Juan Carlos Alom.
What has been the most challenging part of this project?
Getting everybody on the same page. From designers to builders, there is a huge gap. I’m the one who controls that gap.
How did your life shape your work in No Limit?
I’ve always been interested in architecture. I was born in Trinidad, Cuba, an eighteenth-century village with Colonial buildings. As an eleven-year-old student, one of my art-class assignments was to draw some houses I was never allowed to enter—big, big mansions, prominent houses of the descendants of slave owners.
Once I continued my studies, I moved to Havana. I was amazed by the architectural contrast with my village—Havana has architecture that ranges from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century. That’s when I started to deal with architecture on many different levels.
When did you first leave Cuba?
In 1994, I went to Spain after receiving a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. I spent about five months there; it changed my whole perspective, and my work started to become known beyond my peers. Then I was invited to New York in 1996 to exhibit in Art in General, the nonprofit [organization and gallery space that helps artists produce and present new work], and my encounter with this city changed [me].
What really attracted my attention was speed. I was coming from a country where everything was slow. To adapt to this new reality, I had to speed up, have faster answers to questions. My work began to focus on Cuba in relation to other cities.
Until very recently, most Cubans have been completely prohibited from leaving the island. How were you able to obtain an exit visa?
Leaving Cuba is different for visual artists, even musicians. Artists became ambassadors. My father couldn’t have traveled and he wanted to. He was a machinist and worked with a lathe. When I saw the giant wheels for engines of the sugar mill, I was like, ‘Wow, my father built that?’
You traveled to New York City many times and have a workshop in Brooklyn. How did you end up living in Ardsley?
I have two young kids. So a good friend and advisor recommended this as the best place because of the schools, the landscape, and the weather. He was right. I have tranquility to work without interruption. And my kids can go to good schools. Also, there is almost no pollution.
Have you been surprised by anything here in Westchester?
How friendly the people are here. I really have good neighbors. Since my first day, they’ve welcomed us. It’s very unusual—it makes you feel at home.
Adrienne Sanders has written about unconventional leaders in business, politics and the arts for Forbes, Marie Claire, and the New York Observer. She lives with her family in Dobbs Ferry.