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WSJ Magazine February 2015 : Dasha Zhukova & Rem Koolhaas by David Bailey

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By TONY PERROTTET
IT’S A RADIANT DAY in Moscow, and two of the city’s most creative collaborators, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Russian-born art impresario Dasha Zhukova, have donned white construction helmets as they stride excitedly through Gorky Park, the 300-acre riverside expanse that was, until recently, a symbol of Russia’s urban blight. Created in the 1920s as a Soviet recreational paradise, the once-verdant park fell into decay after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, its barren fields scattered with broken carnival rides and roamed by drug dealers. The $2 billion renovation, which began in 2011, has transformed Gorky Park overnight into an Oz-like retreat, amid Moscow’s economic tumult, that would not seem out of place in Seattle or Barcelona. We pass manicured lawns adorned with flower gardens; chic cafes serving gyoza and wood-fired pizza; and yoga and capoeira classes by the Moscow River. There are jogging trails and a state-of-the-art bicycle-sharing program. Wi-Fi is available in every leafy nook.

For the past two years, the most exciting attraction in this cosmopolitan Arcadia has been cultural: the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Zhukova’s ambitious attempt to connect Moscow to the international art world. Garage was named for its original home in a more remote area of the city, an avant-garde bus depot from the 1920s designed by the revered constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov. Founded in 2008, it introduced Russians to global art stars such as Marina Abramović, John Baldessari and James Turrell—a radical notion in a country that had been cut off from Western artistic influences for decades. “Garage was the first space truly dedicated to contemporary art,” says Sandra Nedvetskaia, the director of the Cosmoscow art fair, held in Moscow last September. “Those early shows were unprecedented for Russia. Garage paved the way.”

For the moment, Garage is housed in a temporary site in Gorky Park, a stunning prefabricated pavilion designed by Japanese Pritzker prize winner Shigeru Ban, incorporating 20-foot-high columns made from recycled cardboard to create a circular, light-filled temple of art. My meeting with Koolhaas and Zhukova coincides with an exhibition, titled The New International, that examines contemporary art in the post-glasnost era. A copper shard of Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vō’s We the People, a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty in life-size pieces, sits near the work of Russian provocateur Alexander Brener, who spray-painted a dollar sign on a Kazimir Malevich painting in Amsterdam in 1997.

Koolhaas and Zhukova are leading the way toward the heart of the futuristic park, where our goal is an unmistakable landmark of the Communist past—a Soviet relic called Vremena Goda. The name means “seasons of the year,” and it opened in 1968 as a model restaurant for the working masses. Trapped in Gorky Park’s spiral of decay, it shuttered in the early 1990s and is now a graffiti-covered ruin. From a distance, it looks like a two-story concrete bunker, but this structure will be reborn in June as the new Garage.

Trailed by an entourage of young Russian art experts on the Garage team, we gingerly step over debris to enter the time-battered shell of the Brezhnev-era building. I’m immediately struck by its soaring ceilings and wraparound windows, which allow sunshine to stream in. The centerpiece is a crumbling mosaic, a kitsch-heroic Soviet image of autumn personified as a wild-haired woman, the last of the seasonal images to survive. Instead of erasing the building’s scars, Koolhaas has kept them as a central part of his design. “The building is basically a found object,” he says, pointing with approval at the battered pillars and gaping holes. “We are embracing it as it is.”

“Rem likes to challenge the white-cube tradition of Western museums,” Zhukova adds. “The raw brick and broken tiles will be a more stimulating backdrop for art.”

As we wander the ruin, my two guides could hardly seem more different: Koolhaas, the 70-year-old Dutch design legend, towering and slim, lopes along in an austere gray coat, exuding the brooding, gnomic air of a Dostoevsky character; Zhukova, a 33-year-old Russian-born, California-raised philanthropist, has a dazzling white smile that brings to mind a young Audrey Hepburn. She’s casually glamorous in a vermilion cashmere top, sleek pants and sneakers, having kicked off her high heels with a relieved laugh after a press conference. But the unlikely pair share a vision.

As Putin is embarking on a Cold War rerun, barricading Russia from the world and passing clumsy censorship laws, and as the country has been rocked by a currency crisis, Garage has been attempting to forge ever-closer links to the global art scene. And, as the design for Vremena Goda shows, it’s doing so in a way that embraces Russia’s turbulent past. “Soviet architecture has one quality that is not generally recognized: its generous proportions,” says Koolhaas, dismissing the recent fashion for reviling and demolishing any relic of the Communist era. “We maintain that original aesthetic.”

The intact structure will be encased in a double layer of polycarbonate plastic, a translucent box that hovers six feet above ground. This exoskeleton will allow light to filter in during the day and project outwardly after dark. “The existing structure will be wrapped in a new layer, giving it a modern depth,” Koolhaas explains. Even the mosaic is being maintained in its damaged state by a conservator from Florence. In addition, one enormous wall of the new structure will slide open to reveal an atrium for large commissioned artworks. There will be a roof terrace, cafe, screening room, bookstore and outdoor sculpture—all the trappings familiar to museum-goers from Sydney to Shanghai, but lavish indulgences in Russia, where unimaginative, poorly lit institutions, with glowering babushkas guarding every room, remain the norm.

The Rotterdam-based Koolhaas had visited the U.S.S.R. many times in the late 1960s, inspired by its literature, art and architecture, especially that of the constructivist Ivan Leonidov, about whom he was writing a book. Indeed, he tells me, “Without Russia, I would never have become an architect.” This youthful romance was revived in 2009, when he helped found the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design “to change the cultural and physical landscapes of Russian cities.” Located on an island a few hundred yards up the Moscow River, Strelka was contracted to oversee the initial stages of the regeneration of Gorky Park, an effort largely financed by Zhukova’s husband—the London-based Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (the couple met in 2005 and were married a few years later; they have two children). Together, Zhukova and Abramovich have assembled an impressive art collection that includes works by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

And so Koolhaas and Zhukova found themselves in 2010 on an inspection tour of the then-dismal park, passing the poetic husk of the abandoned Vremena Goda, once a model for the Communist good life. At the time, Zhukova was looking for a new home for Garage, and Gorky Park was an obvious locale. “We knew our presence would make a real difference here,” she says. Koolhaas, meanwhile, found many elements of the building appealing, starting with its modest scale. The floor space will be 58,000 square feet, a fraction of, say, a typical Frank Gehry construction—Gehry’s design for the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi encompasses 450,000 square feet.

“I have long been worried about the increasing size of art museums,” Koolhaas says. “At one point I calculated that our firm was competing for museums that would cover 34 football fields in area. It was a form of madness—a binge of overexpansion.” He recalls his own childhood in Holland, where compact art museums staged exhibitions that influenced him enormously. “To me there is no direct relationship between the size of a museum and what you can do.” We gazed up at a spray-painted wall. “At the same time, I became interested in architectural preservation as an antidote to the exhibitionism of new museums. Here, we are not restoring the building. We are preserving its decay.”

WITH ITS CREATIVE interplay between Russia’s past and a global future, the new Garage is the latest sign of surging energy in Moscow’s art scene. “Garage is a hugely important institution,” says Marina Loshak, the new director of the Pushkin Museum who is currently overseeing its $700 million renovation. “It is transforming the way Russian people are exposed to art.”

“Garage has raised the bar for Russian museums and galleries,” agrees curator Evgeny Antufiev, who also directs Garage’s grant system for young artists. “Gallery owners now realize the global language of contemporary art. When we put on a show, we have to ask: How would Garage do this? We have to do as good or better!”

The enthusiasm is matched by foreign artists: California-based John Baldessari met Zhukova in Zurich and leapt at the invitation to have a one-man exhibition at Garage in 2013. “I never thought in a million years that I would show in Russia,” he says, laughing. “Most American artists show in Paris, Rome, London. I was the envy of all my artist friends.” He found the experience fascinating, as he met local artists and a receptive audience. “Dasha was completely charming,” he adds. “She has no attitude and is very dedicated and open.”

‘Dasha has always been focused on art and museums as a way to think about larger issues of community and city building.’
—Michael Govan
After our hard-hat tour, I join Zhukova for potent Italian macchiato and Russian sweets known as “chocolate potatoes,” as she explains how her own cross-cultural past prepared her to move between Russia and the West. She was born in Moscow, where her molecular biologist mother and oil magnate father divorced when she was 3. In 1989, she moved to Houston and had a bout of culture shock. “I didn’t know a word of English,” she recalls. “I remember seeing Froot Loops for the first time. I couldn’t believe that I got to eat colored circles of sugar for breakfast!” Her interest in contemporary art began when she moved to London, where she studied homeopathic medicine and launched her own boutique fashion label. By 2006 she had started dating Abramovich, and as the two traveled widely to galleries, auctions and biennales, she found her passion for art increasing, despite a lack of formal training. Her debut in London’s art scene came two years later when she co-sponsored the Serpentine Gallery’s summer party in Hyde Park, one of the city’s most anticipated and highest-profile events.

By then, she had been traveling back to Moscow for four years, exploring the spirit of the transformed city. “I tried to find out the pulse of the people,” she says. “I found young Russians very knowledgeable about global culture, talking easily about art in Berlin, film in New York. It was a new type of global Russia, using the Internet and with a deep thirst for knowledge. Garage has become an outlet for that youthful energy.”

Today, Garage does feel like a laboratory of Russian youth: Everyone working there appears to have just stepped out of college. “The average age of the team is 28,” Zhukova says. “We are very modern. We want to focus on the generation that is shaping Russia’s future.” Even the director, Anton Belov, was only 26 when he was hired in 2010. “Of course, I was working in the field, curating, organizing, editing, doing all the sorts of stuff they wanted inside Garage,” says Belov. “But at my age, becoming director was still a huge step.” The visitors are overwhelmingly fresh-faced too. At a Koolhaas lecture later that night, a line of twentysomething hipsters snaked across Gorky Park. Although a U.N.-style simultaneous translation service was provided, everyone spoke perfect English. “Our core audience is 18-to-35-year-olds,” Zhukova says. “As a friend of mine observed, I’ve almost aged out!”

So it almost comes as a surprise to learn that the heart of the museum is a historical archive—the world’s largest repository of Russian art from the 1970s to the chaotic 1990s, when the demise of the U.S.S.R. gave way to economic crisis and a sense of social collapse. “This is our secret room,” jokes archivist Sasha Obukhova, as she pushes open a doorway to reveal cardboard boxes overflowing with videotapes of performance art pieces. Many were recorded by Obukhova herself more than 20 years ago, when she realized that the era’s hidden creativity was in danger of being forgotten.

“Our contemporary art is rooted in the tradition of underground art,” explains Obukhova, a soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s. “In the Soviet era, there were no official exhibits. When freedom came in 1991, the situation didn’t improve. There was no financial support for artists, no market, no galleries, no press. And yet, there was so much activity!” Artists would stage pop-up exhibits in their homes, happenings occurred in abandoned warehouses, art essays circulated in single-typed copies. “Because it was all so ephemeral, it urgently needed to be documented.” She began recording events, and eventually collected thousands of photographs, press releases, invitations and posters. With no museum interested in the material, she stored everything in boxes at her parents’ apartment, filling an entire room. She was about to abandon the cache when Garage director Belov arrived in 2012 and suggested it be conserved in Gorky Park.

Garage’s research department is now housed in a gleaming white building, where a half dozen curators are busily cataloging piles of material. As we nose around, Obukhova pulls out a few objets at random: a poetry collection, The School of Airplane Stewardesses, from a one-man publishing house called, she translates, “A Bird You Cannot F— Enough”; videos of artists infiltrating peak-hour crowds on the busy Moscow streets, then raising banners so it looked like they were staging a mass protest; frayed, blurry photos of art gallery receptions, the men wild-eyed, with flowing beards, the girls blond and winsome in flowing dresses, looking like Allen Ginsberg groupies. Obukhova’s archaeological task is hardly complete. To give context to the archive, she now tracks down and interviews the artists. She often surprises them with her depth of detail. “They tell me that I’m like a psychoanalyst, because I help them remember.”
*online.wsj.com

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Continued..

THE HISTORICAL IMAGES were certainly news to me. I last visited Moscow at the nadir of its recent fortunes, in 1994, when Boris Yeltsin was flailing at the helm of the new Russian Federation and the idea of an art scene was all but impossible for an outsider to imagine, let alone access. Moscow was still enveloped in glum austerity—there were very few restaurants, and those that were open seemed to serve no actual meals. Exploring the city was a challenge. When I asked taxi drivers about a fare, they would demand $20 cash, no matter how short the distance. When I demurred, they shouted, “F— you!” and sped off.

On my recent trip to visit Garage, I entered a different world. This time, I checked into the Ritz-Carlton, whose gilded lobby was crowded with rich Chinese businessmen; up on the roof deck, overlooking Red Square, revelers on white sofas were gorging on sashimi. At one point, I followed crowds into the 24-hour Café Pushkin, where waiters were dressed like 18th-century footmen and oligarchs’ girlfriends, drunk on Beluga vodka, were throwing their high heels at each other across the table.

Moscow’s wealth is also spilling into the art world, as the super rich—at least those untouched by the country’s crippled oil industry or the ruble’s volatility—are gradually deciding that art may be more satisfying to acquire than another mega-yacht. Last September, the Cosmoscow art fair set up shop in the Manege (a cavernous former riding academy built after the Napoleonic Wars) with enormous success. A new wave of private galleries is giving young artists a platform for the first time. “There are so many incredibly talented artists in Russia, but there has been no opportunity for them to be presented in the United States or Europe,” explains Madina Gogova, a 28-year-old who with her twin, Mariana, opened Artwin Gallery in 2012. “They are celebrities here but unknown abroad.”

“I like to compare Moscow today to New York in the Gatsby era,” says the fair’s director, Sandra Nedvetskaia, an intense, slender woman in a designer sheath dress who left her position at Christie’s in Zurich to throw herself into the Russian art scene. “The rich are deciding how they should spend their money. And the parties certainly match up!” Although plunging oil prices have brought turbulence to Russia’s economy, I could see what she meant: We were shouting over music at the Cosmoscow opening reception in a place called Door 19, a luxurious penthouse loft adorned with works by Damien Hirst and Jonathan Meese. Supermodel Natalia Vodianova was cutting up the dance floor—her Naked Heart Foundation had just held an art auction, raising money to help Russian children with disabilities.

When Zhukova founded Garage, at the age of 27, she seemed to come out of nowhere. The British press snarkily referred to her as “Abramovich’s girlfriend,” painting her as a dilettante and Garage as a vanity project. These days, few question her commitment to the arts. Apart from Garage, she has started an art magazine (also called Garage), helped fund the online auction site Artsy and supported a $400 million renovation of a romantic “art island” called New Holland in St. Petersburg. (Still, she is pursued by her celebrity. At the press conference announcing the new Garage in Moscow, a Russian journalist asked her which American socialites she had met at Fashion Week in New York. “We are here to talk about art,” Zhukova said politely.) Apart from the archive, Garage has made forays in almost every sphere of visual art, creating Russia’s only system of grants for young artists and opening a 15,000-volume research library.

“Dasha has always been focused on art and museums as a way to think about larger issues of community and city building,” says Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Zhukova has sat on the board since 2009. “Ever since I met her in her early 20s, she has had a passion for contemporary art and genuinely feels it can improve society. For many people, it is a link to the broader world and the creative spirit.”

‘Rem likes to challenge the white-cube tradition of western museums’
—Dasha Zhukova
The move to Gorky Park was a direct attempt to involve a skeptical Moscow public. “At the old Garage, there would sometimes be more workers than visitors,” says Belov. “Now Garage is thronged all day.” Apart from conferences and debates, a program where the public was invited to ask curators questions lured 30,000 visitors. There was even a Bring Your Grandmother to the Garage Day. “Being here has its positives and negatives,” says Zhukova. “People come in who don’t like contemporary art, or don’t know anything about it. We have to adjust the way we communicate.”

“We have made Garage into a real institution, not a toy,” boasts Belov, adding that funding will be less and less dependent on Zhukova and Abramovich. “Dasha and Roman wanted it to be more self-sustaining.” Corporate sponsorship, individual donations, foundation grants, store sales and entry fees now cover 30 percent of the museum’s operating costs, with the aim of 50 percent in five years. “Garage started out as a family project,” says Zhukova. “It has a different scale now, as a public institution that is privately funded.” The models, she says, are U.S. institutions such as the Whitney, Frick and Guggenheim rather than government-funded European museums. “It took Mrs. Whitney 25 years before her museum went public,” points out Garage’s chief curator Kate Fowle. “Garage is doing it right away.” And she notes that, despite early criticism, Zhukova is self-effacing in comparison to philanthropists who still like their names immortalized. “The museum is called Garage,” adds Fowle, “not The Zhukova.”

Not everyone is convinced that Garage is a harbinger of a new artistic florescence within Russia. “A few people in Moscow are prepared to consider modern art,” says Daria Palatkina, a correspondent for the Art Newspaper Russia, which launched in 2012. “But in Russia generally, most people have never even heard of Malevich’s Black Square,” she says, referring to the radically abstract painting that electrified Europe’s avant-garde in 1915 and remains the most famous modern Russian artwork. She worries that Garage’s attempt to lure the public is swimming against the current of Putin’s backward-looking regime, which could lead to an exodus of young artists. “Our government is very traditionalist. It turns to icons and the church. And as Russia isolates itself, it will be even harder for the people of Garage to do all the beautiful things they want to do.”

Tensions over Ukraine have begun to reverberate in the art world, with museum officials facing hesitation from foreign lenders. “Culture is like a bridge that can connect things,” says Belov. “But if we can’t arrange art loans, we will have problems. Now it’s OK, but I hope things will not get worse in the future.” When the museum opens in June, the main solo exhibition will be by Rirkrit Tiravanija; a Louise Bourgeois retrospective follows later in the year. For Zhukova, the future is rich with potential, with Russia still a wild frontier for contemporary art: “I want Garage to be where people, art and ideas meet to create history.”

On my last afternoon, Belov leads me back through Gorky Park to visit Garage’s next phase, an enormous structure known as the Hexagon. Built as the Machine Pavilion for the long-forgotten Soviet exposition of 1923, the building includes six vast wings connected together in a star. Right now, it’s just a ghostly skeleton with pigeons fluttering in the rafters—six gutted cathedrals dedicated to Russia’s tortured past. Belov explains that it will open after extensive restoration, at some period in the future.

“Every day, new things are happening in Moscow,” Belov muses. “I think within a decade, it could be as important an art center as New York or London.

“But this is Russia. You never know what will happen tomorrow.”
*Online.WSJ.com

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Ugh I really it was a solo feature on Rem, I can't stand Dasha.

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^ Agree. The fashion industry never has, and never will, convince me she is interesting.

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^ I always thought I was alone in completely being unimpressed by Dasha. Thank god it's not just me.

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An Exclusive Q&A With Photographer Steven Meisel

The prolific fashion lensman discusses his iconic images of supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Amber Valetta, timed to the opening of his exhibition ‘Role Play’ at Phillips in New York City

By TIM BLANKS

FEW PHOTOGRAPHERS have skated as successfully as Steven Meisel has across a multitude of worlds, all in the name of fashion. Prolific scarcely scratches the surface. You could label him an auteur, in the cinematic interpretation of the word, because however different each shoot is from the next, there is a signature, a kind of completeness, which speaks to the obsessive perfectionism of his vision. No detail is too small. Every shot is meticulously planned in advance and logged in his bandanna-wrapped head.

And like many great auteurs, Meisel has made stars of the women who’ve performed for his lens. The supermodels who in the late ’80s began to dislodge Hollywood celebrities from their pop-cultural dominance were directed by Meisel: Linda, Christy, Naomi and all those who came after, among them the woman who has played perhaps the most perfect Trilby to his Svengali, Amber Valletta. “Working with him is like working with a director,” Valletta says. “He’s so clear about what he wants. Each time he describes a character, you know exactly what he’s looking for. There’s no guessing. And I think that kind of communication is a part of his genius.”

Meisel, who turned 60 last year, was born in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island. After attending Parsons, he became a fashion illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily before being tapped by Elite models for test shoots—and then, soon after, by Vogue to photograph the collections. Since then he has produced hundreds of magazine editorials (including every Vogue Italia cover since 1988) and countless ad campaigns. The astonishing range of his output—from over-the-top couture glamour to sharp social satire—betrays a chameleon-like imagination. “He was the first person,” Madonna once told Vogue, “to introduce me to the idea of reinvention.”

Although Meisel himself has always been a closed book, rarely granting interviews, he acknowledges that every shoot is ultimately a part of his own story. Valletta, for instance, bears an uncanny resemblance to his mother, a former band singer with Sammy Kaye, now living in Palm Springs, California—and clearly an enduring inspiration. “Interesting, he’s always shot me in a wholesome way, even when the shoot is crazy,” Valletta muses about a collaboration that has seen her enact a vast array of characters, from Anna May Wong to Grey Gardens’ “Little” Edie Beale.

Meisel has recently revisited his past—at least as reflected in his work—as he compiled an overview of his photographs to be offered by Phillips (in the selling exhibition, Role Play, launched in Paris and is currently on view in New York City). The familiarity of the images is startling: They’re fundamental to the fashion lexicon of the past three decades. Given the assumed ephemerality of his subject matter, the timelessness of the pictures is equally remarkable. “He will always be able to find newness in something, as if it was always there, so his work doesn’t date,” says J.W. Anderson, the young British designer who has recently worked with Meisel on campaigns for the Spanish fashion house Loewe. “It’s like it was meant to be.”

Meisel’s surrender to that destiny is absolute—a blessing for fashion, because with every click of his shutter, the universe expands. As Donatella Versace says, “With each image, he creates a complete world, one that is at the same time total fantasy and also absolutely true.”

Tim Blanks: Your selection of images for the Phillips show seems to be a concise career overview. Is that how you saw it?

Steven Meisel: It wasn’t just my decision. I would have pushed it further, to be honest. They had first given me a selection, then we went back and forth. It was a compromise.

TB: The earliest image, from 1987, is of model Sean Bohary. I remember your shooting him in those days for Per Lui. Those images had such a transgressive, ambiguous edge. Did coming out of the New York culture of places like the Mudd Club shape you?

SM: When I was at the Mudd Club, I didn’t have a job yet. Besides, I’d been going out since I was 14, so there was much more before that; so, no, the Mudd Club didn’t influence any of those photographs. That was just me; that’s all I can say. It’s how my eye sees.

TB: Do you think you were looking for yourself in those photos? There was a strand in your work for a long time of very ambiguous, beautiful people with long black hair.

SM: I think I’m in every picture that I take, regardless of whether it’s a super-commercial something; it’s all me. So am I looking for myself in those kinds of photographs? It’s not intentional; it’s just a sensitivity. Thinking of the Sean pictures: Am I looking for me in them? No, I am them.

TB: Does that mean that everyone in your photos is an alter ego in a way?

SM: Um, not in every one, but yes, to a certain extent, sure.

TB: Thinking of your photos of Linda [Evangelista], for example, there’s a real symbiosis in those images.

SM: Yeah, that’s me, absolutely. That’s a part of who I am. But I have to be honest—I don’t know what I do. I learn more about what I do from other people asking me questions or commenting. It’s nothing I think about; I just do it.

TB: But are there moments when you stop to think, “God, I did that one well”?

SM: No.

TB: You mean it’s always on to the next thing?

SM: Yes. Emotionally, it’s very difficult for me to look at old work. That’s why it was so hard to do the Phillips thing. I either look at what I could have done better, or I start crying. I’m ridiculously sensitive, that’s just who I am, so it’s really tough for me to look at old pictures.

TB: Even when you’re looking at those pictures which I think of as a conspiracy between you and Linda? You don’t feel a thrill?

SM: I always get sad.

TB: You mean melancholy at the transience of everything?

SM: I’m not going to get into the whole meaning of life—of which there isn’t one anyway—but yes.

TB: What thrills me is your ability to re-create atmospheres, to evoke times and places and artists that meant so much to me. I’m assuming they meant a lot to you too.

SM: It’s a part of who I am, of who you are. It’s our experiences and our eyes and our hearts, of growing up when we did.

TB: Do you ever feel you missed out on anything, and you’re re-creating an earlier time out of that urge?

SM: No, I don’t think so. You mean, were there better periods? I think that things certainly had more taste. But then we get into the world we’re living in now, and I’m a realist. So, no.

TB: You’re something of a satirist, too.

SM: Absolutely. I would hope my sense of humor is obvious in everything. I don’t consider myself just a fashion photographer. It’s more than that. I’m also a very funny person, and I have a good sense of humor. And I hope people see that.

TB: What makes you laugh?

SM: Oh, Christ, I can’t answer that.

TB: It seems to me we’re living in an increasingly idiotic age.

SM: That, unfortunately, I don’t laugh at. I don’t find that funny. But I laugh all the time, at stupid things.

TB: I think of you more along the lines of a director than a photographer, putting together a production with the same team of people all the time: hair, makeup, set designer, lighting, star. Like the Steven Meisel Repertory Company.

SM: The Meisel Repertory Company is in my head and my heart. That’s where it comes from. I do do it all. I have many people to help me, but it is me.

TB: I’m getting Orson Welles.

SM: [Laughing] Maybe you’ve been at the bar too long. But I’ll take it.

TB: I keep coming back to Linda and the performances she’s given for you. I’ve often wondered how inspired you were by the Avedon series with Suzy Parker and Bradford Dillman acting out the public drama of the Taylor-Burton relationship.

SM: I thought that was brilliant. Did it inspire me? Sure. Everything I ever saw that I loved inspired me and is part of who I am. It’s all cemented in there. But I don’t sit and think about it.

TB: Was there one moment for you, a flash when you knew this was what you wanted to do?

SM: To be totally honest, no. I always ate up everything. But if anything, I thought, “Oh, my God, I could never do that.” I was still at Women’s Wear Daily, and Mr. [Alexander] Liberman had asked me to go to Paris to do the collections. But I couldn’t take any more vacation time or sick days, and I was thinking I couldn’t possibly quit, what am I going to do? So we just worked it out that I was hired, so I could get some money. But I was petrified. I never thought that I could do that, no. I’d loved photography since I was a child, but there was never a lightbulb that went off that said, “This is exactly what I could do.” I think it was insecurity and fear that drove me.

‘With each image, Meisel creates a complete world, one that is total fantasy and also absolutely true.’
—Donatella Versace

TB: I have head shots for hair salons in Greenwich Village that Anna Sui and you used to do for the Soho News.

SM: Yeah, we did. I was still at Women’s Wear. Sometimes Anna will ask me about something—“Do you remember this?”—and I don’t recall any of it. Then she’ll show me, and I remember.

TB: Would you describe yourself as obsessive?

SM: No, I don’t think so.

TB: Would you say you’re a man with a vision?

SM: Yes.

TB: How would you describe that? The ability to look at, say, an 18-year-old Karen Elson and completely remodel her into a star.

SM: I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s all the time. I don’t have an answer for that. I just know it.

TB: Is that talent a blessing or a curse?

SM: I guess for those who benefit from it, it’s a blessing that I see that way. Lately I find it a larger responsibility than I had thought about. I’m not being an a—hole, but I have changed so many people’s lives. I hadn’t really thought about it until recently when a girl or a guy I’ve worked with has brought it to my attention. “Steven, did you know at that time I was homeless, and you changed my life, and I’ve been waiting 12 or 15 years to tell you this?” So it’s not at all a curse to be able to help people and change their lives for the better. I’d say it’s a blessing.

TB: I mean for you, though, never being able to relax, always being driven to transformation.

SM: It’s not a conscious thing. When I see them, it’s not that the word transformation comes into my head. It’s just something about them that I see on a shoot. I guess I do see the best in them.

TB: Do you think you see in archetypes? When you’re looking at a novice 16-year-old, you can tell how to turn her into a swan.

SM: Yes, I can.

TB: Every model mentions the incredible precision, the speed, the sureness with which you make them into the person you want them to be.

SM: I don’t know why. I just know when I look, I see it. It’s how my eyes saw as a kid.

TB: Did your mother trust your input?

SM: I guess maybe she would have asked me whether I liked this or that better, but she was pretty good herself. She still is.

TB: I guess when a model works with you, there’s an expectation that she’ll become the Next Big Thing.

SM: I hate that. I think the business has changed so much. It’s more like how many likes you get on Instagram, which I do not do. I’m not into it. I don’t know what makes a star anymore. I’m just doing what I do. So is there an expectation? Not from me. And I hope not so much from the model, because I don’t want to disappoint anybody. My goal is just to do what I need to do on that day.

TB: If you feel the industry is changing—

SM: You know that it has; it’s our world, our society.

TB: In some of your most controversial portfolios—the oil spill, the horror movie story, the plastic surgery story—it feels like you’re pushing for more extreme reactions. The satire is quite apocalyptic, even bloody.

SM: There’s humor, but there’s anger. Like the oil spill story with Kristen [McMenamy]. That wasn’t supposed to be humorous, because the oil spill was horrible, and I was just pissed at the situation. The plastic surgery story, on the other hand, was just a comment. And horror movies? I love them. Which reminds me of something extremely frustrating that people maybe don’t know: I get two days to shoot these things, whereas years ago—speaking of how the business has changed—I had four days. And before that, I read articles about shoots that took weeks. It’s so condensed now, and in those two days, every time you have to stop when you’ve made a picture, and then you have to make a movie for the Internet. I hate how little time I have to do it. With the horror story, it was “Damn, I could have really gone on,” but I didn’t have the time.

TB: That story caused a huge fuss because it was presented as a comment on domestic violence.

SM: With that one in particular, I’m like, “No, it wasn’t about abuse.” If it had been about abuse, there would have been no sense of humor, because it’s a serious matter. But this was just my tongue-in-cheek love of classic horror movies. I remember I did one shoot in a cemetery with Linda and a group of people, and still people say to me it was about Yves Saint Laurent. Maybe he died that week, but that had nothing to do with Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t know what they’re all talking about. People just say what they say. They come up with their own ideas.

TB: I can imagine how irritating it is to do what you did—re-create your favorite scenes from your favorite horror movies—and that isn’t the story that’s being told about the shoot. And then the controversy is used as a stick to beat fashion with.

SM: I know, and then I get s— about it. And I didn’t even say that originally. That’s why I don’t do interviews, because then I read things and I’m thinking, “Where do people come up with these things?”

TB: But I think there’s still a subtle, subversive quality in your work that disconcerts people. Even if they’re not necessarily thinking about domestic violence, there’s always the context—the fashion magazine—to add that incongruous twist.

SM: Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t.

TB: Do you feel misunderstood?

SM: I don’t think about it. I don’t feel it with my work.
wsj.com

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Quote:
TB: If the work changes as a reaction to the world, you yourself seem to have also reacted. People are fascinated by the notion of you as a recluse.

SM: You have to become more and more insular, because it’s crazy out there. I don’t know what other people think of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. As I said, I’m an extremely sensitive person. I see too much and I feel too much, and it’s hard, that’s all.

TB: Is the work some kind of remedy?

SM: No, it’s not a remedy. In many cases, it makes me feel more, like the story I was telling about models and not being aware I’d changed their lives.

TB: People always talk about the young models whose careers you’ve made, but I’m just as interested in the way you photograph older women.

SM: I don’t care about age. Society is extremely ageist, obviously, and it’s just nonsense. To think of a woman’s life as only interesting and important until 25 is stupid and also so hurtful to women. The business creates it and then lets you hate yourself for it. Age is beautiful; life is that. You just begin to be a woman past the age of 30. You’re just learning life and having experiences.

TB: But you’ve always felt this way.

SM: Yes, sure, but when I was growing up, the world wasn’t so ageist. Women were women, and it wasn’t teenagers. Babe Paley, Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh, probably in their 30s. It was OK to be a woman. Gloria Guinness, Jacqueline de Ribes. They weren’t 16 years old. Beauty is ageless.

TB: The fact you’ve never done retrospectives or books or any of the activities that everybody else does to dignify their careers for posterity…

SM: I don’t need it.

TB: It’s not because you think what you do is not important, is it?

SM: No. I don’t have an emotional need for congratulations. It was never a priority, just not so important to me, and then as the years kept going on, I thought, “Oh, God, another year to try and edit the thing.” It’s become an absurd task, so maybe I can’t do it now because it’s overwhelming, and I’ll go through contact sheets and in an hour I’ll be crying. Look how long it took for me to get 25 pictures for Phillips.

TB: The Phillips exhibition was a reminder that you’ve photographed men as well as women.

SM: That reminder was a conscious thing. I love to photograph men, but maybe people thought my men were too effeminate, too much style. I would like to do that more, and now maybe I can because I can pick and choose more. Men of all ages, too.

TB: Do you ever get bored?

SM: At jobs? Sure. Each job is different, with different circumstances and clients. I find the extremely commercial jobs are the most difficult because they don’t know what the hell they want. So, yes, I get bored. So I try to put less of that in my life.

TB: Ever had occasion to regret anything? I think of your work reflecting your life.

SM: It absolutely does. I think, “Damn, I put my whole f—ing life out there this week, but people didn’t notice.” I don’t ever regret it, though.

TB: So it’s all autobiography.

SM: Of course. It’s me, it’s what I’m doing or experiencing. You’re in a different head all the time.

TB: What’s most important for you? What ties it all together?

SM: I wish I knew.

TB: I see something beautiful but quite old-fashioned. I see loyalty.

SM: Now that you’ve said that word, that is definitely part of who I am. I don’t do it because of that, but when you said the word, I thought, “Ah.”

TB: I wonder if that’s why you get so emotional when you look at old images. You can find your own truth in them.

SM: [momentarily farklemt]

TB: A predictable question: Do you have favorites?

SM: You already know the answer: Absolutely not. Or you say something stupid like, “The one I’m going to do next.” I’m sitting here because I have to choose some of the Phillips images to copy, and looking at the photo of the three women laughing [Veruschka, Lauren Hutton and Isabella Rossellini, 1988], and I’m remembering. So, no: no favorites.

TB: In the end, it’s almost like you’ve cast yourself as a shaman for this huge tribe of people. You mentioned responsibility, but it also seems like a role you’re happy to assume in a way.

SM: The older you get, the more people tell you about it; then you accept it and you realize, “Hell, that is what I’ve done.” When you’re doing it, you don’t think about it. It just is what it is.

TB: Do you ever feel you’re a bit of a stranger to yourself, that you surprise yourself with what you do?

SM: Absolutely, and I’m surprised when someone else says something about what I’ve done. It’s insular. I do the job, then I walk away. Maybe someone will say something years later.

TB: So actually you’re very innocent as well, which is why you have such a virgin eye.

SM: Yes, I am, absolutely; absolutely too sensitive.

TB: What do you think the future holds for us?

SM: All I can say is I’m thinking. I know that there’s more, I think it will involve more people than just me. I never don’t want to work. Being an artist, being creative, it’s who I am. It’s not like here’s an age or here’s a day and I’m stopping. I will always work in one way or another as long as I’m physically capable. I definitely want to do more things than just taking a picture.

TB: So if anyone calls you an artist, you’ll take it.

SM: Absolutely. Something else I’ve finally accepted as well.
wsj.com

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I wish this was a stand alone magazine not a supplement!

I thoroughly enjoyed the feature on Dasha and Rem - Meisel's not so much!

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