Playboy may be known for its spreads of voluptuous bare-breasted females, but it also has a deep history with the art world, having commissioned works by renowned artists who include Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring over its 60-year history. The brand has since rekindled its relationship with art, hiring curator Neville Wakefield as its creative director of special projects. For his latest endeavor with the brand, Wakefield asked artist Richard Phillips — whose work you may recognize through his hyperrealist paintings of starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus — to create a sculpture in Marfa, Texas. For his first sculpture in 23 years, Phillips fused together three iconic emblems — a 1972 Dodge Charger; a concrete form inspired by the Marfa sculptures of Donald Judd, the artist who made Texas desert city an art destination; and the Playboy Bunny. We caught up with Phillips — who recalled Playboy as his “gateway to sexuality” when he was very young — at the New York unveiling of Playboy Marfa last night to talk about Playboy, reimagining the Dodge Charger for the project’s second phase, and Marfa.
How did Neville approach you about the project?
I think it was an email, it could have been a phone call, but it was pretty straightforward. He asked me to create a sculptural project for his involvement in the relaunching of the Playboy brand.
Were you familiar with the brand’s involvement in the arts prior to that?
Not specifically, kind of overall. I knew they had been involved with another project, but I knew there was a consolidation of artists beginning to work together on this project, so it was very exciting for me to be asked, and when he did, I simply said yes.
How much time have you spent in Marfa so far?
I actually have been working entirely from New York City. There’s so much of the planning and conceptualizing and all the details that have to happen to make a project like this happen artistically. It came from working in my studio, working with engineers, working with 3D renderers, working with site maps. Literally make building models — all these things. So once we had the people who were in place for the construction, doing all of the research of the area, and the site mapping and all of that — we were in constant contact about every single aspect of it, but there was far too much work in the city to do, not only in this phase, but in the coming phase of the project as well. It’s been very exciting and very intense.
So you haven’t visited the site at all in person?
I’ve actually never been to Marfa. I really look forward to it. In a way, it’s not necessarily important that myself as an individual sets up there, but it’s more important that the elements that we’ve constructed there come together on that specific site.
So everything you’ve seen has been based on photographs of the site?
Yeah, absolutely everything that I’ve seen has to do with maps and photographs and planning and models and engineering drawings and all the things that go into the realistic aspect of putting together a sculpture.
What was the inspiration for the sculpture?
First of all, the site is something we talk about — Marfa. Literally, in terms of the American landscape it has now become known for the destination for America’s faith in visual empiricism in the sense that Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation was there and the untitled outdoor concrete sculptures are to me one of the most important resetting of terms of art in the history of the United States in a certain sense, so there was a natural space to think about in terms of how one resets, and how one focuses attention, and once that was established, it was for me the structural form, or the base of the sculpture was inspired by those same Donald Judd sculptures. It had seemed to me that that type of primary structure, that irreducible form would be a natural base to begin with. Moving from there, we titled it at the 18-degree banking that the Daytona Speedway — which I recently visited for the 24-hour race — is tilted on. The piece takes on its own new character, and the Dodge Charger, which incidentally won from 72, the Daytona 500, on that very same banking with Richard Petty in 1974, places the hallmark of American automotive power directly on top of an irreducible iconic form of sculpture. From that point, we have the global emblem of Playboy, which reached its zenith in that same time period. That light cast down upon that structure emblem of power and the three of those things kind of bring together a starting point for the energy. Each of those elements — the sculpture, the car and the emblem — were really started by one thing, and that’s passion. If you really think about it, how does anything start? And it’s about passion, so it’s a consolidation of that. But then the light itself, seen literally from miles away, becomes a kind of beacon for that resetting of terms, that refocusing of vision, and I think that’s really what that whole project was about.
Was it a requirement to include the Playboy bunny in the sculpture?
It wasn’t necessarily a requirement, but I felt that it was absolutely essential. I think that it’s amazing. When you see the images of it, when you see the films of it and the way that we sited it, and we exhaustively worked that out, it provides this framing context, and when you’re traveling through the road, which the car represents — a ‘72 Dodge Charger can transverse that landscape at an awfully fast speed, so that represents not only itself as a beautiful form, but as a power potential, and that potential to go everywhere. In a way the brand and the images of the sculpture represent our new way of communicating in a certain sense, which is that those images can almost go everywhere instantaneously.
Did you ever think about using a car other than the Charger?
There was a discussion about other cars, but we landed on the Charger because it is an icon of American muscle car power, which incidentally is now going to be tested this weekend at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I’m going to tomorrow. The Dodge Charger represented Richard Petty’s favorite car and it was the spearhead of the Dodge Rebellion, which again came at the same time where Playboy reached its zenith in terms of its distribution, and not coincidentally, Donald Judd was in the process of deciding to by land on that. He first visited in ‘71, bought land in ‘77. In the midst of that, it’s that idea of space being that frontier of the greatest pressure you can put on art. Not urban environments, but that kind of openness of land.
Can you give us any hints about how you plan to reimagine the car?
Yes, absolutely. When we think about muscle car culture, like the Playboy brand, and like the idea of “minimalism” — these have become global ideas. They have long since gone out and dissipated into the world. Muscle cars are traded at auction for ridiculous prices all over the world, the global brand of Playboy is seen everywhere, and in minimalism is in target, and you think of the term to describe so many different things. So, the essential thing about the car is that it’s this shell, this possession of power. The concept is not to redo anything, but to imagine what you could possibly do, what type of power could really be involved and how you could use it. Believe me, we’re considering every single detail of what could be brought to the form of the ‘72 Dodge Charger anew, not retro anything, but anew, to make it as functionally powerful and as aesthetically powerful as we could possibly make it.
When do you plan to actually go out to Marfa?
I hope to view just like anybody else would as soon as I possibly can. In a way being able to come to it coming down that highway, I’m looking forward to that moment just like anyone else. It’s exciting to do that. We collaborated with a group of amazing and incredibly capable people there who were able to realize it absolutely to a t.
How do you hope that this piece to make an impact on Marfa and art history?
I know that there have been interesting reactions to the piece, and in a way, its function as art creates a starting of a discussion. There are elements of it that are not quite clear what the meaning is. Art’s role is not to necessarily always create this stable narrative, or easy read, so the complexities of the piece, or the back history of it, some of which we just discussed, are all parts of that that can be discovered once someone gets into it in terms of its background. But most importantly in terms of its empirical logic, and that’s something that I’m greatly inspired by the work that is in that community, from the [John] Chamberlain car pieces to the Judd abstract geometric forms.