Orly Genger Transforms Madison Square Park with 1.4 Million Feet of Lobster Rope

On a tuft of grass in mid-Madison Square Park, we weren’t the only ones enjoying a beautiful afternoon in New York City among Orly Genger’s colorful crocheted landscape—but we were the only ones seated on the lawn with the artist herself. Commissioned two years ago by Madison Square Art, Genger’s largest and most daunting project yet weighs two tons and spans 4,500 square feet of the park, which the artist has reimagined using 1.4 million feet of hand-knotted and -painted fisherman’s rope. Sitting beneath the colored canyons and the primary-colored topography à la Dr. Seuss, we spoke with Genger about the extensive process leading up to her Red, Yellow, and Blue installation, the past lives of her reclaimed nautical rope (and its sopping-wet arrival to the studio, lobster claws in tow), and how it feels to unleash a project in the center of New York City and watch it unfold.

Artsy: How did you approach this project—two years in the making—knowing your work would be seen in such a public destination for both New Yorkers and international visitors? Did you begin with a clear idea of where the project would lead?

Orly Genger: I was invited to put a proposal together, so I came to the park and spent some time here, and watched how people walked through the park. There were two things that I noticed: one was that the ground felt very flat, so I knew I wanted to make something that gave the park a vertical element. And then the other thing that I noticed was that people use the park to commute from east to west a lot, because of where it’s situated. So a lot of people had their routes that they just stuck to, and they kept going in those ways, so I wanted to give people reasons to stop within the park, and travel within the park.

Artsy: How do you pace and scale a project of this size?

OG: This project was the main focus of my life for the past two and a half years, so I really view those years as almost purely production. I was using that time to make sure that I created enough material so that when I came to the park to install, I had the right pieces to work with. My biggest concern was making sure I wouldn’t find myself short of material during the installation period, and that [process] consisted of knotting the rope, which took place during the day hours, and then priming and painting during the night. So towards the end of that period, the work became very challenging—seven days a week, non-stop pretty much. Over two years, I went through different phases, but it was definitely very intense for the last six months.

Artsy: Can you talk about your process in more detail, and the materials that you were working with?

OG: [The sculpture] is made of 1.4 million feet of rope, reclaimed lobster rope, collected from all across the Eastern Seaboard. So fishermen that could no longer use their rope sold it to us. It was a massive undertaking just to collect that quantity of rope. And the rope arrived in the studio wet, from the ocean, with fish scales and lobster claws, and smelly; in the winter it came frozen, so it was quite an ordeal just to begin to get to the point that I could handle the rope. But once I did, it was a very physical process of hand knotting. The rope is very heavy; the whole piece weighs over 100,000 pounds. I think that sometimes because the material looks soft, there’s an assumption that it’s light, but really it’s not.

Artsy: The rope is repurposed from across hundreds of miles of the coastline. Can you talk about how this element plays into the work, particularly as you’ve mentioned the act of knitting and crocheting to be conducive to sharing stories?

OG: Very much so. I think it’s a compelling part of the entire story, that the rope had a previous life, which was very functional and totally different and from another location. I think that many of the fishermen who gave their rope would have never expected for it to end up the way it did, here.

Artsy: Have any of the fishermen come to see it?

OG: Yes, I believe so.

Artsy: From New York, the installation will travel to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum outside of Boston. Will the work respond differently to the new space?

OG: Yes. The grounds at deCordova are closer to a sculpture park and there are more works of art nearby, so to start with that will be placing the work in a different context than here in the park. The grounds at the deCordova are also hilly and invite visitors to wander around and discover.

Once it opened, people were all over it, and it was full. And that was really lovely, and that was always my intention, for people to really interact with the work. But I also must say, I do appreciate it when the pieces stand alone. Because you’re able to see the forms in a much clearer way. But it’s two different things, and I am interested in both.

Artsy: Can you talk about the meaning of the title and the different colors?

OG: The title Red, Yellow, and Blue comes from Barnett Newman’s title, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue. In some of my past work I have referenced male artists from the 1960s, usually sculptors, [and] it’s the first time I’m taking on painting in a more direct way. These pieces are so much about the color. I also wanted to use the primary colors because I felt that there was an accessibility to them, or at least a perceived accessibility, and I wanted this work to be non-restrictive.

Artsy: Did you expect people to touch the work?

OG: Oh very much.

Artsy: Or add things?

OG: No, but when you drop something in the middle of New York City—you expect to not know what you’re going to get. It just comes with the territory.

Artsy: You mentioned that you have been back to the park many times since the work was installed. Can you describe that experience, seeing others interact with the work?

OG: For me, it’s just a great feeling to see people enjoy something that you made. And, it’s bringing some sort of happiness, that’s a really nice feeling. It’s also nice to be able to peak someone’s curiosity, and feel like maybe you made them think in a new way or move in a new way—even for a moment. That’s a really great feeling for me. But I think some of the more interesting things happened while we were installing, because it wasn’t clear what it was, and people were asking questions, and in the beginning, a lot of people didn’t like the change, and we’re in a public space where people feel really…I think more invested in everything, feel like they have ownership over things in the park, public spaces. So people kind of had no issues about telling me exactly what they thought even when it was bad. It’s interesting, very different to working inside a gallery or museum.

Portrait by Natan Dvir.

We couldn’t help but admire Orly’s red, yellow, and blue bracelet ensemble for her collection inspired by the installation and available through Grey Area on Artsy. Browse the collection and explore more works by Orly Genger on Artsy.