On the cusp of greatness: Alumna Teresita Fernandez takes New York art world by storm


By Nick Ducassi

Eager tourists stand in the middle of New York City’s Madison Square Park, smartphones and cameras in hand, craning their necks skyward. It’s not an unusual sight for a city that attracts millions of visitors a year to gawk at the impossibly tall skyscrapers and the iconic skyline.

On the other side of their collective gaze, however, aren’t the tops of buildings but dancing, glowing reflections of the walkway beneath their feet and their own faces. More than 200 panels—perforated discs, polished to a golden, mirrored hue—hover 12 feet in the air on steel beams and cover nearly 500 feet of the park’s center walkway.

The structure suggests leaves in a canopy of trees, and the discs bend the sun’s rays to their will. The resulting glow is mesmerizing, and can transport anyone within sight of it—around Madison Square Park, or those looking down on it from the surrounding buildings—to another world. And in a near-feat of magic, the play of light can transform the massive metal sculpture into the invisible—and that’s largely the point, says the artist, 47-year-old Teresita Fernandez ’90.

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The sculpture’s name—Fata Morgana—comes from the mystifying, hovering mirage created by looking out at the horizon line of the ocean. “It looks like a floating landscape. It is an optical illusion that distorts the natural landscape,” Fernandez says. “I was interested in this idea of distortion on a grand scale and how I could make a sculpture that appears like a mirage in the middle of NYC.”

“Fata Morgana” is the largest sculpture in the park’s history and received one of the longest runs of any installation there. Its nine-month run concluded in January 2016.

As big as the scope of work is, the concept for “Fata Morgana” was birthed in Fernandez’s small Brooklyn studio. Many of her pieces seek to evoke natural landscapes like caves, glistening bodies of water and the night sky. Like the grandeur of the other tableaus she has sought to bring to life, this one required “a team of fabricators and engineers,” Fernandez says. Installing the structure took more than three months, and the entire process, from conception to installation, took more than three years.

“The first thing I do when I start a new work is ask the very simple question, ‘Where am I?’” Fernandez explains. “I take that question very seriously. So, in a way I start excavating and researching where I am historically, economically, socially, geographically, visually, emotionally, physically—where exactly is this site located? Not just physically, but in people’s imaginations and in history and in the entire context of place.”

Certainly grand visions are nothing new for Fernandez, who recalls watching mystifying sunsets and skies while growing up in Miami. She witnessed “a spectacular colorful sky event every evening,” and she credits Miami as the birthplace of her “thoughts about specificity of place, of flatness, of
explosive color.”

Teresita Fernandez

Teresita Fernandez

Raised by Cuban immigrants, she spent her high school years drawing and went on to study art at FIU, where she eventually took a sculpture class. She loved the physical and visceral nature of sculpting; how she could mold the industrial to her will.

With an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University under her belt—there she became known on campus for the scale of her sculptures, which sometimes took up entire studios—she moved back to Miami, quickly making a name for herself in the burgeoning art community. Before long, she was invited to group shows and museums around South Florida and in the mid-‘90s presented her first solo show in New York City.

After an artistic residency brought her to Japan, her works began to further increase in size, scope—and exposure. Soon she was living and working out of New York City. Before long, Louis Vuitton was commissioning her to create site-specific large-scale installations for its Shanghai and Paris locations, and museums and private galleries began exhibiting her work, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in D.C., the Castello di Rivoli in Italy and the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo in Spain.

Along the way, she racked up a series of accolades, including a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts where she reviewed and offered opinions on public sculptures.

“Teresita is really an artist who is on the cusp of greatness,” Brooke Kamin Rapaport, senior curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, told the Wall Street Journal, “and I think that Fata Morgana is going to propel her to the highest rank of artists working today.”

Currently engaged in another commission and presenting a solo show at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York, Fernandez takes an approach to her work that, ultimately, has led to her connecting with audiences around the globe.

“For me, art functions as this kind of way-finding,” she says. “As human beings, we have always been trying to find our way, to place ourselves within the world.”

In Fernandez’s case, that place is front and center, at the crossroads of critical success and the appreciation of everyday viewers.

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