The Pioneering Italian Designer Speaks With Artist Jessi Reaves About His Life-Spanning Career
- Interview: Jessi Reaves
- Photography: Daniel Dorsa
Gaetano Pesce was born in 1939 in La Spezia, Italy, but has lived and worked in New York for the last 50 years. His work across architecture, industrial, and furniture design can also be seen as an art of social commentary—which, for Mr. Pesce, is a continued search to contextualize his bold aesthetic within a broader timeline of socio-political concerns. His models and drawings are held in some of the most renowned collections in the world, like the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among others. His designs are bright, joyful, sensual, and never predictable. Although widely recognized as a pioneer of Italian design, his work has continuously reinvented itself over a 50-year career, dancing across mediums and delighting in a great range of subject-matter. An eccentric, ironic, anti-design attitude is captured in the seeming banality of his forms: a giant foot; an armchair made of resin-soaked rags; a small, wooden, rainbow choo-choo train with a cotton puff of smoke. He is remarkably calm, determined, and loving in all that he does. Here, the 80-year-old designer welcomes artist Jessi Reaves into his Brooklyn studio, for a conversation on taste, aging, metaphor, and of course, chairs.
The last exhibition I saw of your work was centered around the Pratt chair—I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that chair. One thing I noticed were the many hidden images within it, like sculpted figures of people having sex, that acted like brackets to support the seat.
This chair is a statement that tries to communicate and to tell a story. It has to do with a certain type of work, it represents different ways of being and of thinking: believing in work is almost a religion, the structure is a technical knowledge, and almost mathematical, a calculation. Making is an act of love, it is a culture, a mystery like a labyrinth, a science, an embrace and above all, it is affection for what you do.
Do you feel that your work plays with traditional notions of “good taste”?
I don’t think good taste has anything to do with this.
This chair and many of your other works rely on molds, but you force them into different territory. Typically the mold is a tool by which to make exact copies, but you really play with the content of the moulded object, or serial modes of production in general.
Yes, I try to make molds that are elastic so that I can de-form the mold in a way, so that each time it gives the object a different shape. I say that it is very important to be incoherent. That is what allows you to be free. I'm not talking about freedom in general, I'm talking about freedom over yourself. If you repeat yourself then you are stuck.
What about the coherence of images? You have spoken repeatedly about your ideas regarding imagery versus abstraction. It seems central to your philosophy of design: you have said that you prefer to communicate with images versus abstract shapes, and that you find it is easier for people to understand images.
Abstraction is very close to superfluous decoration, and generally it is simply a tasteful composition. Without a doubt we are in an era where communication has dramatically grown to the point where it has become a characteristic of our times, and art needs to take this into account. I believe that in order to communicate we must use a language that is understandable for those who follow us, and the simplest one for this would be the recognizable figure. If I wish to say that the red flag and its successors draw blood, I must show it with figures representing what I’m saying. For example, my work on the Tehran library at the time of the Shah— which also is relevant for our times—spoke of torture, and this was visible in the architectural forms that I had designed. That dictatorship, and even the one of today, weighed heavily on the minorities which could not support the regime and it got to the point of crushing them.These concepts are difficult to represent in an abstract language. Another valid example is women as prisoner of the prejudices of men, who has suffered violence for centuries: it cannot be represented in abstract works.
When we look at your work we often see images of people, heads and bodies. But I feel like your work is also quite painterly—are you interested in painting? Do you follow any artists?
I find Mondrian was much more interesting when he was young, and that Duchamp is very deep. I think that Michelangelo’s contradictions are exceptional, and naturally Leonardo’s curiosity makes me envious. Goya for the political content in his work, Giotto for his interest in progress and evolution, Masaccio for his suffering, Bernini for his irony in the Barcaccia Fountain, and Borromini for his contrasts. With futurists, I discovered the importance of new languages.
When I first saw your work, it was in images in books, but it blew a lot of doors open for me as an artist, especially in terms of what was possible between art and design. I appreciate the confidence and sense of humor in your work. Do you feel like you are someone who pushes the boundaries of design?
For the past forty years, I have been trying to make people understand that art has always been functional: a portrait was for resemblance. Representations of hell were to create respect for religious dogma. Representations of sex were to excite those who were no longer able to do it etc. Things then changed with photography, when art hid away to just one dimension, that of culture. One of the hardest things to do is to change someone’s mind about these distinctions. I consider my work a way to widen the boundaries of art. If to what we call design, we add a philosophical, religious, or political component, then automatically it becomes an artistic message. For the past three years I have been interested in making work that does not belong to me. I believe that being unrecognizable is the proper way to live in our times, and in fact provokes the market, and it transforms it into something more intelligent than its current narrow-mindedness. The unpredictable causes surprises, doubts, curiosities—I think it broadens the mind and in a way, that is a function of art.
"The work of Judd does not interest me."
What do you think of someone like Donald Judd, who made both art and furniture, but kept them in separate categories? Mainly he emphasized the opposite argument, that the essence of what makes art more like itself is its purposeful purposelessness.
The work of Judd does not interest me. I think that in the art world today there are many superficialities, prejudices, static minds, cliché, and for this reason, inventiveness, progress, experimentation, and creativity have a difficult life.
In some ways I agree with you, but I also feel like this is a moment when we want to call every last thing art. I like to play with those distinctions as well, but I also feel slightly protective of a certain definition of art, because it is one of the few places where you can be incoherent.
One story is that during a very cold winter in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim invited me to her house, which was a museum by day and a mansion by night, a place where she hosted friends.When we arrived we had on some very heavy coats, and when the butler took them, he turned around and hung them on a Giacometti sculpture. I immediately thought that it might break, but instead it resisted. Therefore the Giacometti sculpture was a work of art during the day, during opening hours of the museum, and a coat rack for the home in the evening.
You seem to use metaphor often when describing your work, one example is when describing the time in which we live. You often say that time is liquid—what do you mean by that?
I say liquid because of the values that rise and fall, appear and disappear like waves in the ocean, and also are feminine because a woman’s mind is elastic, with values that coexist and contradict each other, but are always very active. As a young man, I was expelled from the public schools and so I was sent to an all-female school where I began to understand the mentality of a woman, which consists of being multidisciplinary, being available, being useful, all this comes from being the most important protagonist in creation. In the world where we are heading, we must choose between crisis and rebirth, that is, between a male mentality, and female mentality.
Interesting. But sometimes the narrative metaphors you provide for your work are a bit darker. One of your best-known works takes an image of a woman’s body with a ball and chain, which is transformed into a pop object. Or the faces of a man and a woman in a relationship become a cabinet—it opens and they turn away from each other, metaphorically they are not communicating. Am I getting this right?
I think you have understood them well, but in a negative sense. The image in the chair is to accuse men of his offences for the past few centuries that have imprisoned women, and made them slaves. This occurs in Arab countries, but also in Japan, in Africa, and even in the most evolved countries. In reality, the chair (UP5 and UP6) was extremely optimistic because its intention was to point out the problem. Maybe this will lead to a revolution and we will no longer abuse this creature that represents half of the population. As for the cabinet work “Do You Still Love Me?” it is a representation of two lovers, which had a dispute, and when the doors of the closet are shut, they reconcile. In fact, one asks the other, “Do you still love me?”
It seems the main content of your work is not design per se, it is a commentary. So how much is the metaphorical content a reflection of your own life? What about searching for something that feels right without knowing why?
Many of them represent my life. But mostly it is a comment on what I see in reality, so I know why I do it. Sometimes it is very personal.
Jessi Reaves is an artist currently residing in New York. Her work challenges conceptions of the “furniture object” by re-framing its ontology. She has been included in numerous exhibitions including the 2017 Whitney biennial & the Carnegie international. She is represented by Bridget Donahue in New York and Herald Street in London.
- Interview: Jessi Reaves
- Photography: Daniel Dorsa
- Date: March 4, 2020