Don’t Call Tara Subkoff an ‘It’ Girl

Dan Flavin’s outsize light sculpture looked like a luminous frame. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tara Subkoff posed strategically in front of it, its rectangular shape and pastel fluorescence complementing the candied pink of her Simone Rocha dress.

“There’s an optimism to this piece,” Ms. Subkoff said. That suited her. “I’m the kind of person who sees the glass as half full.”

Ms. Subkoff, 46, had paused for a closer look at the Flavin, her first stop on a serpentine tour of the new Museum of Modern Art on a recent Wednesday.

The space, opened up and chicly redone, was a fitting setting. An actress, artist and, in an earlier life, unregenerate gadabout, Ms. Subkoff seemed intent on presenting the world with a shiny, self-assured and elegantly gift-wrapped version of herself.

She had slipped off her satiny Moncler parka and drifted past the entrance, ignoring its showy welcome sign, to make her way to the escalators, scouring a map along the way. She had come with a mission: to locate the work of Pope L., an artist perhaps best known for strapping himself to a skateboard, donning a Superman costume and crawling the length of Manhattan.

Wandering along MoMA’s broad corridors, which meandered like avenues from east to west, she was suddenly disoriented.

Not that she minded. “Getting lost in a place like this makes you feel like a kid again,” she said. “It’s a playground. It allows you to see things through the eyes of a child. That’s the real job of a museum, to make us all feel like children, to make us see things with fresh eyes. MoMA got it right.”

As she spun around, random scenes caught her gaze. “This is magic,” she said, having stopped abruptly at the sight of a somberly lighted black box on an upper floor. It was home to “Rainforest,” an installation conceived by David Tudor, of bell-, bucket- and pipe-shaped pendants suspended from the ceiling, each emitting the rustles and murmurs of an imaginary jungle.

She poked her head inside what looked like the supersize hair dryer to listen to the sounds of vagrant winds, chittering birds and wildlife, as rapt as if she had entered some mystical chamber of wonders. Puzzled at the sight of her, a visitor asked discreetly, “Is she an actress?” Well, yes. And no.

Ms. Subkoff, it may be recalled, is no stranger to the art world. Her clothing label, Imitation of Christ, founded with Matt Damhave in 2000, with Chloë Sevigny as creative director, was a raffish hybrid of performance art and fashion show, a collection of upcycled vintage clothes that was in its way a precursor to the sustainability movement.

She counted the artists Rita Ackerman, Richard Phillips and Dash Snow as friends and collaborators. Even now her inner circle includes Mirabelle Marden, an artist and daughter of the artist Brice Marden, and the photographer Jessica Craig Martin.

“I was very much this Edie Sedgwick of the art world at that time,” Ms. Subkoff recalled.

“I had a big Chelsea loft and had my friends all over to my house for parties. I spent almost every night out with Dash and Dan,” she said, referring to the artist Dan Colen.

Living perennially in the public eye, she was tagged an “It” girl. But invoke that phrase now, and she bristles.

“I’ve never been an ‘It’ girl,” Ms. Subkoff said. “An ‘It’ girl is a socialite or someone with money who goes to parties or someone who doesn’t do anything and is famous for doing nothing.”

She appeared in the 1997 romantic comedy “As Good as It Gets” and in Whit Stillman’s 1998 film, “The Last Days of Disco,” among other movies. Four years ago, she made her directorial debut with “#Horror,” about a rich-girl sleepover gone awry, a film that was coolly received.

These days, Ms. Subkoff is reinventing herself once more with a multimedia installation at the Hole, a gallery on Bowery (through Nov. 17). The focal point is “Deepfake,” a 25-minute video that follows a character, Eve, as she drifts through the California desert. In the room’s center, poised on a rotating bed, Eve glances into a cellphone camera to admire her porcelain features.

For Ms. Subkoff the work is a testament to her vociferous feminism. “I was exploring the concept of what it means to get older and for there to be a newer, upgraded version of yourself, a kind of A.I. sex companion available for male consumption,” she said.

The show also marks a turning point on her road to self-discovery. To reach it Ms. Subkoff had to clear a few hurdles. More than a decade ago she received a diagnosis of a brain tumor and underwent a craniotomy, an experience that cost her time and momentum.

“A brain tumor is a stigma, a real stigma,” she said. “A lot of people think you’re contagious or dead.” But Ms. Subkoff, who clearly thrives on exposure, did not miss the chance to put her trials on show, detailing the excruciating episode in Harper’s Bazaar and The Huffington Post.

As she spoke, she grew restless, searching distractedly for a show curated by Amy Sillman with canvases propped along the walls She returned to her map, studying it intently, then pleaded with a security guard to lead the way. No luck.

By then, Ms. Subkoff was famished. She had participated in the Performa Biennial the night before and had eaten nothing more than a slice of toast since morning. Making her way to the museum cafe, she confided that the past several years have tested her.

She ended her two-year marriage to Urs Fisher, the Swiss sculptor, in 2015. Still smarting, she refuses now to even say his name. “I was pregnant in the midst of that, and it helped me stay positive,” she said.

She gave birth to her daughter, Grace George Fischer, the same year and wasted no time documenting that experience in a flurry of Instagram posts.

“I call my daughter Grace because I want her to go through her life with the grace that lets you stay open, lets you make fewer judgments and become who you are,” she said, pausing from her late lunch of soup, leafy greens and a towering sandwich.

Her eyes welled up. “That to me is the best weapon against abuse, against the toxic culture we’re in.”

It’s her work that sustains her, and the sense that she has found her place. She is still chary of labels but calls herself an artist. Wandering back toward the MoMA entrance, now thronged with late-day visitors, Ms. Subkoff said, “All these years later I’m just coming out of the closet.

“It’s scary,” she said, her voice trailing. “I feel vulnerable.”

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