Dumpster Diva

One man’s trash is artist Phoebe Washburn’s treasure.


A few years ago, Phoebe Washburn arrived every day at the loading dock of the Barnes & Noble bookstore near her Brooklyn studio to trawl through its discarded boxes. After a few months, she recalls, the workers asked her, “You’re still packing your house? You haven’t moved yet?” No, Washburn told them, she wasn’t moving—she was hoarding the cardboard for her work.

Washburn’s sprawling landscapes of detritus have made her, at age 34, one of the country’s most closely watched young artists. The critical attention has won her a coveted spot in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, opening in March. “She’s able to incorporate such a range of experiences in one work,” says Biennial cocurator Shamim Momin. “You can see it as a sculpture, as a painting, as a living environment that changes. And your relationship to it constantly shifts as you walk through it.”

Installation view, Regulated Fool’s Milk Meadow, 2007, a sod factory built with wood, motorized conveyor system, soil, seed, fish tanks, painted gravel and other mixed media

Since that early cardboard period, Washburn has moved on to newsprint and scrap wood, but what her massive, room-size architectural sculptures all share is that they’re built from the scavenged bits of the urban world in which she lives. She prizes the castoff and mass-produced—the pencils, crates and day-old newspapers that none of us much cares about—and then sorts, layers and transforms them into what she calls “spectacles of environments.”

“I’m not interested in art with a capital A,” says Washburn, who considers the beginning of a work to be the moment she decides to bring the trash we dump outside back indoors for a second look. “This concept that art gets made only after you step inside a studio that’s completely steeled off from the real world feels very artificial to me.”

Washburn’s magpie inventiveness is everywhere on view in her studio, which calls to mind a high school science project gone awry. A cavernous space, it’s jammed with fish tanks, conveyor belts, wood scraps and power tools. In a corner, tropical water lilies from a recent work are growing in a makeshift pond. Much of it Washburn has carted herself during her daily commute from her Manhattan apartment near the Bowery.

But there’s no hint of the bag lady in Washburn. A plain- spoken, unassuming beauty, she has startling gray eyes and pale coloring, which are set off by the gray hoodie she’s wearing today. As she gives a tour of her projects in progress, she apologizes for the obstacle course. “Sometimes I find myself working in the oddest places in here,” she says. Washburn laboriously builds up her works onsite, regularly reusing materials from previous shows as well as the stuff left behind in the gallery space. As a result, she’s never certain how they’ll come out. “I think because my work is so much about process and about what I learn along the way, it makes sense to go through it the hard, slow way.”

There’s been nothing slow about Washburn’s ascent. While a grad student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, she was a standout from the start. “We all thought, Wow! This is pretty amazing, something that was beyond a student sensibility,” recalls painter Gregory Amenoff, who was one of her professors and now chairs the visual arts program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. “She made these sophisticated sculptural statements from the lowliest materials possible.”

Detail of lily pads and duckweed floating in a pond in the artist’s studio.

Of course, she’s not alone: Low-tech, gritty art built with what many would consider rubbish is hardly a new idea. (Think Schwitters and Rauschenberg for starters, and more recently, works by Tara Donovan and the late Jason Rhoades.) Still, notes Amenoff, “It’s very hard to transform everyday materials. And it’s especially hard to manipulate them in such a way that you’re aware of them in the context that the artist creates, not in the context that you see them in every day. That’s one of the things that makes Phoebe so fresh and original.”

Chelsea gallerist Zach Feuer came to the same conclusion after Amenoff and Jerry Saltz (another of Washburn’s SVA instructors and now New York magazine’s art critic) urged him to drop by to see her work. In June 2002, one month after graduation, Washburn had her first solo show at Feuer’s gallery. Her maelstrom of cardboard, wrote Kim Levin in The Village Voice, “engulfs the gallery like a force of nature.”

Like many artists of her generation, Washburn favors a process-oriented approach that roams freely among artistic disciplines. Her second show at Feuer, an installation titled Nothing’s Cutie, in 2004, was built using painted strips of wood and drywall screws. That it looked like an exploding shantytown was an “unexpected, happy accident, a by-product,” Washburn says, acknowledging that she’s drawn to images of favelas. “I do find them very powerful and beautiful, but I’m not romanticizing building out of trash, where people have to solve problems out of necessity as opposed to being an artist tinkering.”

Installation view, Between Sweet and Low, 2002, cardboard

Washburn was still tinkering with her ideas for Nothing’s Cutie the day Feuer brought Los Angeles collector Dean Valentine to her studio. “It was like walking into the underside of the bleachers at Shea [Stadium],” recalls Valentine. “It took up the whole apartment, and I was just flabbergasted by the combination of the rawness of the crap she’d picked up on the street and her formal control over these vast expanses. And there was Phoebe, who’s very attractive, with a carpenter’s apron around her waist and a hammer in her hand. I thought the whole thing was crazy and sexy and charming.”

Valentine bought the piece on the spot for $14,000, which enabled Washburn to finish it. To date, it’s the only one of her installations owned by a private collector. Her environments are typically commissioned by museums and exhibited temporarily (though some come with instructions for reinstallation). Their scale, mass and materials make them a tough sell to collectors. In the past two years alone, she’s made works for the Hammer Museum in L.A., the Whitney Museum at Altria and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. And while inclusion in the Biennial is known to boost an artist’s value, Washburn, apart from the occasional smaller piece, “is pretty close to as un–commercially marketable as is possible,” says Feuer.

For the Whitney Biennial, Washburn was trying to figure out what to do, and reluctantly scaling back, after the museum suddenly nixed her original plan, an installation that involved selling soft drinks in the gallery.

If her works seem to cry out with some sort of eco commentary, Washburn insists that is not her intent. “I’m not green; I’m greedy,” she says, conceding that she benefits from this age of waste and excess. “There’s definitely an aspect of hoarding that drives this, absolutely! If I see someone walking down the street with a nice piece of wood, I’m like, Where did they get that?”

Washburn’s hoarding instincts took root early on. She grew up in Philadelphia in a house stuffed with the books, animal skulls and bones collected by her father, a physical anthropologist who taught at Temple University. Her mother ran a hair salon, and Washburn learned to make pin curls on mannequin heads. But her keenest childhood memories, she says, are of the solitary hours she spent caring for the assorted newts, guinea pigs and fish she kept in cages and tanks in her bedroom.

These days Washburn lives with her husband, artist A.J. Bocchino, a fellow pack rat and New York Yankees fan. The pair have known each other since eighth grade and work in adjoining studios.

Lately Washburn has been incorporating snails and other living things into her work. For the Deutsche Guggenheim, she constructed an 80-foot sod factory out of plywood and conveyor belts, its roof covered with the quickly yellowing grass it produced.

Her next solo show opens this fall at the Feuer gallery. As the conversation turns to her extensive collection of baseball cards, she mentions that one of her fantasy art projects is to make a baseball stadium. “Some of my ideas are too ridiculous at this point,” she says. “Now that I’ve ratcheted up their complexity and scale, I realize that some of them will sit in my sketchbook longer. So that’s on the back burner.”

She pauses, then adds, “For now.”

Regulated Fool’s Milk Meadow: Mathias Schormann; Nothing’s Cutie: Robert Puglisi and Adam Reich; both courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery