We came across Sarah Ferguson's "Hillary & I" series a while back, and marveled at the coy and arresting paintings of the Secretary of State. We just never thought of Hillary in that way before. But after"Texts from Hillary" we began to seriously consider the multiple facets of this dynamic woman. And then we saw the Buzzfeed article, where a nude Hillary gazed down upon us from a lonely New York apartment window. Where did this come from? And who would paint such a thing? We had to ask the artist about it. Sarah Ferguson was there to answer our queries.
HP: First, what made you decide to paint Hillary in the nude? Do you view her gaze as confrontational or merely self-possessed?
SF: It was a photo of Hillary that I found on Getty Images that pre-figured the painting. She was staring directly at the camera in this deadpan way. It was a naked expression and it needed a body to go with it. So I collaged some photos of body parts from different woman. I make lots of collages, but this one had to be painted, I mean, it had to be made real in the way that paint can make illusions real. I think her expression in the painting is one of self-possession and confrontational only because it’s not easy like a seduction. She’s not asking for our approval. She’s not eroticized at all. She is just standing there, silently demanding, “Take me as I am, baggage and all.”
Some of the reactions to this painting have really surprised me. It made a woman cry, in a good way, at a gallery in New Orleans. It totally pissed off a woman in my studio at SVA (School of Visual Arts in New York). Thank god there were lots of people around because I couldn’t shake her off. She was yelling at me, “Why did you paint her like that? You hate her! Admit it!” and all I could say was, “No, I like Hillary! Really!” and we went back and forth like this and I was getting more and more upset until Jerry Saltz walked in and said, ‘Look, some people just can’t handle casual nudity!” But the strangest reaction for me was when an old man, while standing in front of the painting, began explaining to me why women should never shave their pubic hair. It had something to do with friction during intercourse.
HP: What do you think of the Buzzfeed article and the subsequent attention you received because of it?
SF: I’ve never smoked crack, but I imagine it feels similar to what I felt watching the Buzzfeed site that night. The attention is so fleeting, but hey, 16,000 hits! That’s a lot of people who saw half of the naked Hillary painting, shot by someone who had literally peeped through a window. The picture is fantastic and the viral stats say quite a bit about what we want to look at today. I loved the feedback and the vote count. I think the “WTF’s” won or maybe the “LOL’s”. “EW’s” lost big time, thank God. As far as subsequent attention, well, this is quite nice.
Which politician would you most want to see naked?
SF: You really don’t know?
HP: Tell me about your "Hillary & I" site.
SF: That was back in ’08 at the height of the primary. I was having these conversations with Hillary, giving voice to the mini-Machiavelli inside me. I was advising her, flirting with her, keeping company so to speak. I loved crafting those conversations. I was so into it to the extent that when I claimed to be crying or laughing, I really was! It was terrible watching her bow out, I wanted more than anything to be able to see what she was made of, you know, the fate versus character thing. I wanted to witness that with Hillary. Plus I wasn’t excited about Obama. I knew he was the status quo candidate, primarily because his entire shtick was about change. Funny how that works. As soon as I heard Hillary would be Secretary of State I thought, ok, here comes Cowboy Diplomacy Act II. Remember how she kept saying ‘The era of cowboy diplomacy is over!”? What she really meant was, ‘I’m going to do it much better, just watch.” And sure enough, Hillary totally mastered the tactics. You’re either with us or against us! But this time, threats are unnecessary. Of course you want to be with us! Again this is not about whether I agree with a particular policy or not. I’m just talking about the form of politics and how it’s practiced. She’s incredibly gifted.
HP: On "In Belief We Change," you riff on "Diamonds are a girl's best friend": "But when mean affairs / are a girl's best friend, / a lass needs a lawyer / and a hard-boiled employer.” How do you see Hillary as embodying Marilyn Monroe?
SF: I’m not sure that I do. In fact the paintings of Hillary as Marilyn embody someone more like Anna Nicole Smith. It’s more of a caricature of femininity. For me the feminine is encoded in form, not cosmetic adornment, so I don’t read high heels, short skirts, makeup, hairstyle etc, as intrinsically feminine at all. It’s just what most women do to mate. But Hillary’s appeal transcends that. I mean when someone says, “Hillary is hot!” they’re responding to something else, something inside her. Maybe it’s her martial energy, her facility with language, her confidence or some combination of those things and her curves. I don’t know, but whatever the thing is about Hillary both men and women respond to it, especially her male counterparts around the globe. They totally dig her. So in that world, she is a modern day Marilyn, hence the rip on “Diamonds are a girls best friend.” Of course in Hillary’s case, political clout trumps diamonds.
HP: How would our country be different if Hillary were President?
SF: As far as foreign policy goes, I suspect there would be little difference in our strategic objectives and the amount of diplomacy versus force used to coerce our ‘friends’ and enemies. But domestically things would be quite different for a couple reasons. First Hillary likes being in the ring, slugging it out while Obama avoids the ring, preferring to sit back and watch. But the problem with that is that those willing to be in the ring have a greater share of control over the debate. Second is the fact that the mainstream media would hold Hillary accountable in ways that they do not with Obama. It’s hard to imagine Hillary signing the NDAA and not risking re-election. Just as it’s hard to imagine her dumping the public option and not being vilified by the so-called progressive pundits and bloggers, the same ones who at first called for the public option but are now pulling for the mandate to buy private health insurance. But maybe the most important difference is that we would be spared images of Hillary golfing with Boehner. I mean does every president have to take up golf? I don’t think so. I don’t see Hillary doing it. God bless her.
HP: Have you ever met Hillary?
SF: No. Campaign events aren’t my cup of tea. I know she gives lectures and attends events around town, but look at me, they don’t let riff-raff like me into those things. Don’t you have to pay or be a member or something?
If you did meet her what would you say?
SF: I would say I understand that she may not like the work, but that it’s not really about her and the people that do like the work are, for the most part, crazy about her. I would also tell her that every women who has seen the work and claims to know her inevitably says something like “No, really, I know her. She would love this!” Meanwhile, every man who claims to know her says just the opposite, “You better hope she doesn’t see this. She wouldn’t like this at all.” I find that fascinating.
HP: What are you working on now?
SF: Funny, I spent a year and a half trying not to paint Hillary. I just painted other things, other compositions, avoiding portraits in general, but Hillary in particular. Then I decided to create a pseudonym, a new name that I would create and publish work under online. It was like somehow Sarah Ferguson had too much baggage. I wanted to unload it.
Anyway, I’m in my studio. It’s the first day of the year. I’ve just spent the last month developing a plan for this new person painting what I was building on with these new compositions, no portraits. But he wasn’t inspired at all and so I asked him, “Well, what do you want to paint?” He said Hillary. So I’m working on a gigantic portrait of Hillary, from a collage I made with a head I liked and a body that I liked better than the one that came with the head. There’s a sleek microphone in the foreground and those beautiful wood-paneled doors of her office behind her. I’m almost done. It’s called “Cowboy Diplomacy” and I’m painting it, not him. He’s bye-bye.