Richard Phillips got into cars and sex around the same time. As a boy, hearing muscle cars rumbling through his suburban Massachusetts neighborhood inspired fantasies about racing, while Playboy was his entrée into grown-up desire. “I’m of a generation where you found the magazine hidden in the household,” he told ARTINFO about the venerable lads mag. “They were highly coveted and heavily traded amongst friends of mine way back when.” It makes some sense, then, that the artist was tapped by Playboy’s creative director for special projects Neville Wakefield to create the brand’s latest project, Playboy Marfa.
Playboy Marfa is a two-part work, and the company's biggest push to date since it began making moves to reinvent the brand via contemporary art back in 2012. The first part is an installation, sited along a highway in Marfa, of a 1972 Dodge Charger painted matte black and perched on a concrete plinth, tilted at 18 degrees — the angle of the bank at Daytona — in homage to former NASCAR racer Richard Petty. A neon Playboy bunny symbol towers over it.
The second part of the program, which will unfold over the coming months, involves the re-working of a functioning car, the same model vehicle currently on the plinth in Marfa. “The charger has been gutted to the chasse, and completely rethought, from its core to the outer limits of its classic lines,” Phillips explained. “It’s functionally empowered with a contemporary suspension geometry. And all the component parts that would give it the capability to be driven today.”
For Phillips, the gesture of remaking the car parallels Playboy's rebranding enterprise. At the height of its popularity, in the early '70s, Playboy was publishing stories by Norman Mailer and Margaret Atwood, featuring interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and commissioning original artwork by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Helmut Newton. (There are 4,000 works of art in Playboy’s private collection, according to Landis Smithers, the creative director at Playboy Enterprises). The Playboy empire included clubs and resorts across the country. At its peak, in 1972, Playboy’s circulation was 7 million. Today it’s closer to 1.5.
“Just as playboy became a kind of global brand disassociated from its own beginning,” said Phillips, “the idea of a muscle car and how they’re traded throughout the world, they’ve become fetishized and coveted, kind of gets away from that raw sense of what they were actually meant for, which was kind of an accessible, luxurious, way of blasting across space.”
Playboy is hoping to get back to its roots while burnishing a high art feel. It has pursued this through a bevy of art sponsorships — including the “Giverny” show at the Hole gallery in New York last year, as well as extravagant parties during Art Basel Miami Beach — and connecting with curators, artists, and art world personalities like Wakefield and Phillips. “I’m interested in the idea that the magazine in its heyday was a cross-pollinating platform where these different conversations, art, sex, politics, culture, would all take place,” explained Wakefield, who has already curated a show in Marfa related to cars called “Autobody” at Ballroom Marfa.
Wakefield contends that the work is not just arty branding, but an exploration of issues of art and commerce. Richard Phillips is a clever choice of artist to mediate this tension: The painter has always prodded the condition of art’s relation to luxury goods sponsorship. His 2010 series “Most Wanted” paired portraits of young actors with red-carpet backdrops of luxury fashion brands. He’s also done films and paintings of fallen child star Lindsay Lohan and adult actress Sasha Grey, two women who have transformed themselves through the media into brands.
He contends that the Playboy project fits squarely into his practice as an artist. “In this case, the brand steps forward and the brand becomes the palette. The project of a relaunch,” he said, referring to Playboy’s effort to rebrand itself, “becomes a verifiable subject. How does one articulate that? There’s enormous kinetic potential, and make no mistake, this will have that.”
For Marfa, however, the work is bound to provoke, particularly with the sculpture’s apparent riff on local hero Donald Judd’s iconic work at the Chinati foundation, “15 Untitled Works in Concrete, 1980-1984,” a series of hollow box-like structures made from slabs of concrete. (Marella Consolini, the COO of the Chinati Foundation, where Judd’s concrete boxes are installed, told ARTINFO that the foundation has no association with Playboy Marfa.)
At least one Marfa resident we talked to — albeit one who wished to remain anonymous — considered the Playboy project a slap in the face, little more than an attempt to ransack Marfa's symbolism for its cachet without interfacing meaningfully with the surrounding community. “The Playboy sculpture is a PR stunt masquerading as 'art' in order to capitalize on this moment that Marfa is having in the news, which is problematic for the community: it’s exploitative.”
“When I first moved here, 13 years ago,” said Douglas Humble, the residency manager of the Lannan Foundation, “some old timers told me about some changes they’d witnessed with the army coming and going and the air force coming and going. Now, with the art scene in Marfa, their response to it was that it’s kind of like a movie that everybody sits back and watches.”
“There's no way of doing anything in Marfa without referencing Judd,” Wakefield said, defending Phillips' riff on the great Minimalist. “He's such a monolithic presence there.”
Since the sculpture is only temporary, set to last approximately a year, it will pass. But for now, at least before the vandals get to it, the Playboy neon sign gleams brightly on the flat West Texas horizon. “It’s kind of like working into the void,” mused Phillips. “Yves Klein may have symbolized that. But he didn’t do that at 180 miles per hour.”