The Accidental Rule Breaker
Bob Recine is more artist than artisan. A sculptor, designer and hairdresser, he’s worked with visual artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Vanessa Beescroft and Bjarne Melgaard. His book, The Alchemy of Beauty, encapsulates his art, detailing the journey his creations take, from sketchpad to head, combining found objects and unexpected styling tools.
interview maxine leonard
Images courtesy of bob recine
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City. My parents are both immigrants from Rome – they came after World War II. I grew up on the Lower East Side, by Canal Street, in the Chinatown area.
You knew Andy Warhol when you were a young musician. How did you meet him?
At that time, you have to realise there were only a few nightclubs that people went to – and he went to all of them. It really wasn’t that abstract to run into Andy in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was a guy about town. You always saw him when you went out at night, so eventually we got to know each other.
Back then you were in a band?
I was in a lot of little bands in the punk days as a teenager growing up in that era. I was a musician from a very young age. I’m a classically trained percussionist, starting at five years old. My father came to this country as a musician, so I do come from a family of musicians.
After meeting the famed hairdresser, Jean Louis David, you left New York City for Paris. What did this involve when you arrived here in Europe?
I met Jean Louis David at a chance meeting, going to see Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel. Jean Louis was opening his first salon in New York. It was the most extravagant and exclusive shop of its time, as was Mr David – so naturally he would open a business here. He thought that I was interesting and I became a hairdresser. I went to Paris and discovered gold there – I discovered that the art of hairdressing truly can be an art. I had never been to Europe before, so my introduction to Paris was to be as a brainchild hairdresser from New York – and, I have to say, it’s been a wonderful, beautiful, magic journey ever since.
Coming from New York, with it being grimy and punk, the aesthetic in Paris must have been the complete inverse.
Well it was… But that was what was so alluring to me: the kind of beautifully historic marble palaces, and the overall eccentricity of France – its ideas and concepts of beauty, love and imagination. I fell in love with Paris, and with the art of what hair was.
I went to Paris and discovered gold there – I discovered that the art of hairdressing truly can be an art
And how long did you spend there?
Nearly three years, coming back to New York only once a year or so, as I was getting into this whole new way of life. I’d been weaned on the punk rock days of New York where it was death before dishonour. I found a whole new brightness to creation and design that I wanted to be part of.
Vogue labelled you the first ‘punk’ hairdresser. Have you always set out to break the rules?
I think punk is absolutely an attitude. If a person has a punk attitude, it always plays with one’s mind. I never had any intention of breaking anyone’s rules. [Laughs]
You strike me as someone who does?
That’s what people say, but that’s not my intention. I really don’t go out of my way to break the rules just because they’re the rules. That’s the only way that I can answer that. I would imagine that it’s different for every person.
We used the word ‘punk’ when we were writing our manifesto – and I hesitate to use it sometimes because it’s not really about the aesthetic, it’s more the sentiment – and initially this was misunderstood.
Exactly, and I think anybody who has a punk attitude recognises that right away. We live in an age of information now, where people are afraid to use words because they instantly classify someone – and the internet has this insatiable penchant for classification. I also think that people are very confused by multi-talents, as well as things that feel indefinable to them. I like the idea of saying ‘punk’. But I think it’s a title that is given – and not professed.
Was there a conflict for you creatively in Paris? Did you challenge the technicality of hair? And how did the French teach you the craft on your journey?
The beauty that I found in Paris was that they were far more attuned to all of the different natures of beauty. In New York, those natures were underground, whereas in Paris, they completely embraced the idea of when I started to put a shoe or some other kind of object on the hair, or, for example, when I used forks to curl hair instead of a regular curling iron. That was my wondrous fascination with Paris: it was a place for me to feel comfortable enough to explore these different concepts in beauty, through which I could really alchemise beauty. So that ended up being a real magnet with regard to what Paris had to offer me in the very beginning while I was discovering hair to be art. Hair is a magic substance – it’s an excretion of the body, of the human being, and an extension of that person’s complete being.
And when you talk about using forks to curl the hair, was this the start of you really experimenting with the idea of hair as a fabric and challenging using mixed media? Editorially speaking, given the convention, was this always part of your DNA as an artist?
The only thing that was in my DNA, let’s say, was that I wasn’t very conventional. I feel that, just as with everything else, I have many interests, and I’ve done many different kinds of things with design, sculpture and anything that most people consider ‘machinery’. I’ve always considered myself a builder. And a builder always has secrets in how he does things and what they mean. This is what people pay attention to: the process of creation, and the motive behind creating.
Magic is a word that crops up in your vocabulary quite a lot – what does it represent to you?
Magic is a singular thing for each individual – and that’s the beauty and power of this incredible word. For me, magic is a reality because it’s giving yourself to something.
Who do you think has been the most positive influence on your career?
They’re all from such a kaleidoscope of places. I have muses in science, in music and in art. That said, the people who are closest to me are the ones who probably carry the most influence over my life – in the sense that they make me feel cared for and nurtured and truly part of a blessed system fostering my creativity.
Your work is mixed media, combining the practice of hair as you manipulate the construction of it, using components that wouldn’t necessarily belong on the head. How open was the beauty industry to this as an approach when you started?
The idea of the objects on the head – it’s really who I am as a person. I don’t limit myself at any point in time. It’s where the magic of geometry, affinities, relations and communications happen. I am very open and attuned to that. I don’t mean to say things politically or otherwise. I just say things that are concerned with the alchemy of beauty.
The industry is a dichotomy to me and, as artists, we are always boxed in by others so that we might be placed and understood. I struggle with it – I don’t understand why we can’t explore different things. There is a need for definition. Is it frustrating to be called a hairdresser?
The notion of ‘category’ is something I’ve never been interested in – not in any respect. I don’t like classification. What I do is evolution: I have to be able to bring a certain freshness not only to what I do, but also to myself. It comes through me.
I think punk is absolutely an attitude. If a person has a punk attitude, it always plays with one’s mind. I never had any intention of breaking anyone’s rules
Do you have a studio where you create your work?
Yes, right around the corner from where I live.
How important are escapism and fantasy to you?
I wouldn’t know how to gauge the level of their importance in my life, seeing as they are so fully integrated with my reality. Everybody has a different definition of what fantasy is and how it plays out within their own life. I don’t think I live in some arcane place inside my head – instead I try to have the luxury of bringing both together.
I don’t consider myself a person who strives for fantasy. I hope that I’m a person who lives in my own fantasy.
I’m curious about the processes of creation when I look at your work. How reactive are these creations when you are on set? I’m imagining a million cases and a big box of tricks. Do you have that luxury of being reactive?
It’s both. I like to collaborate, as I know our business is nothing but collaboration – it’s an alchemy of all personalities involved. I am constantly making pre-made works, but I also carry pre-made parts in case I need to assemble an idea on a whim. For me, it is all reactive and instinctual.
Your work to me has hidden meanings and it seems quite mysterious. How important is it for you that your work is understood?
Every human being wants to feel understood. I have to understand it first – the only way I can believe in something is if I myself understand it. So really, I don’t rely on much apart from my own instinct. I’m the most qualified person to understand what is going on in my own work – which is why I still don’t think that people actually understand what they are looking at. I look at a child and there’s something that happens to their senses in a very pure and unaffected way – those are the chords that I like to strike. Appealing to the emotional side of things immediately puts people in a really beautiful place where they are forced to think differently.
I don’t think there is beauty without emotion. I think beauty is purely driven through emotion.
That’s the mystery. I think that beauty is still too early to actually really understand what it is, or if that’s even possible. That’s the mystery and power of beauty.
We don’t sell anything in a way – and it’s not to do with just not advertising because we do collaborate with brands. But what I want Beauty Papers to continue to offer – if I don’t get arrested or go bankrupt – is to provide no answers and conclude nothing. I believe there are no conclusions. Beauty is individual and how we relate to it personally. It is far deeper than we perhaps understand.
I’m in complete agreement with what you are saying. Beauty is this very ambiguous light – something that is elusive to us, and we want to corral it into what we can understand. I leave that to everyone else. I can only try to share the brightness, the power, and those imbued qualities that beauty instils in me.
Our industry has changed. The voice of the dream maker has been slowly reduced and the space to create is now limited. How do you continue to grow and create in a business that is slowly censoring work and turning its back on creativity?
I’m not focused on what people might consider ‘the business’. Maybe because I’ve worked hard so as to afford myself the luxury of my own existence. In this way, I’m still able to be in a place where I believe in what I do for my own reasons – and not theirs. I feel that this is what magic has empowered me with – the ability to understand what this business is, but still know that I am not the business.
Do you believe that editorial should have a social responsibility?
I think that everyone and everything should have a social responsibility, as we live in a society.
But do you think the need to be responsible has become greater in the world we live in today?
I would hope that, in a world that is over-informed and drunk on information, it becomes clear that it’s more important to be an individual. Set your own planets around yourself, and then your own rules of morality. I believe that the concept of morality – it is a very obvious thing in this existence. There’s a good way to treat people and a bad way to treat people. That is beyond language, beyond skin colour, beyond everything.
Do you compromise?
Living is a compromise! So, yes. If anybody ever says “no, I don’t compromise” in his life, don’t believe him. If you are breathing, you are compromising.
How do you strike a balance between art and commerce in your work?
That’s where the word ‘professionalism’ comes in. I think that commerce is money-orientated – it’s made to order. That’s what a person pays for: your professionalism. That’s where I could become ‘the best hairdresser in the world’ because they are paying for it. They are paying for the professionalism that comes along with someone who has devoted his whole life to something and has vast experience. That’s what art and commerce are to me – it’s very easy.
Along the way you have worked with many of the great photographers including Avedon, Newton and Penn, who has been instrumental on your journey? And why?
Everybody is instrumental, everyone has an effect on a person. These were amazing photographers who were amazing beings. In the end, you can only do and create things in this world from the person that you are. I can say that I draw inspiration from a lot of people – that I get that from children, from people I meet on the street – but these guys were obviously an influence on my life one way or another, for sure.
You’ve challenged the very idea of hair, creating a window installation for Lady Gaga, constructing a room made entirely out of hair titled ‘Gaga’s Boudoir’. What did you reflect on when creating the space and why?
I received no direction from anyone other than to make Gaga’s Boudoir. So I made a room of hair, a great project.
It looked incredible! How long did it take to make?
We worked on it for about six weeks, I think. It was a very interesting challenge to confront, which required special help, which I always look for in choosing assistants.
Did you collaborate with Lady Gaga on the project?
LG was the theme for the month. Barneys at the time was doing months-long themes and one was Lady Gaga for which many artists collaborated. Mine was the main window, the boudoir, made of hair. Gaga loves hair and understands that when people speak of her, there’s an understanding of that magic fabric, which is associated with her – and also that it is a transformable sacred material.
Appealing to the emotional side of things immediately puts people in a really beautiful place where they are forced to think differently
In the past, vanity was defined as something ultimately inconsequential. But now this is not the case as, with more wealth and technology, vanity impacts on almost everything. What’s your opinion of the changing face of beauty in today’s society?
I think there are a lot of wonderful, beautiful things going on – and I also think that there’s a lot of plagiarism. [Laughs] I think that’s such a wide unanswerable question. I don’t view technology as an ‘all’. Rather I view and use it as a tool. I don’t like to be consumed or dictated to by anything – and that includes technology. I tend not to have a perspective on a technologically orientated vanity, as it’s very far apart from the aspect that I like to deal with.
‘The Alchemy of Beauty’ was a book you published in 2012 showcasing some of your most renowned works. What inspired you to do it?
I think if you have passion for anything, you do it. That includes many things, and having worked with magazines and photography my whole life, why wouldn’t I want to have created a book? The book is something I am very proud of, and I had many of my heroes work on it with me. It’s just another step in the road.
You have had published work as a photographer – what prompted you to explore this medium?
Photography is a medium that I understand as I’ve worked with so many photographers in my life. It’s just one more tool in the box. I’m not interested in being a photographer – and I’m not. To be a ‘photographer’, it is a consumption of life. For me, it’s simply something I’ve been around and know how to use… So why wouldn’t I be interested in taking a picture here and there?
More hair and make-up artists are starting to take their own pictures – why do you think this is?
If you work in a medium like make-up artistry, the results are normally the photography or the duplication of that image of beauty. And I think that if you have any insight into what you do, that’s a part of the art.
You collaborated with Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, showcasing work that was exhibited in Paris, experimenting with mixed media. How did the perspective differ from being on set working in a fashion context?
Collaboration says it all. I had a wonderful alchemy with Bjarne and we did an amazing project on so many levels. Working with Bjarne is like working with Mario Sorrenti. You have similar ideas and concepts of imagination. I don’t work any differently with Bjarne than I would with Mario, you know.
When you’re doing those projects, like the one with Bjarne, do you continue to freelance or do you take the time out to focus on the project?
Normally, I like to continue to do both because one feeds the other – whatever the job takes for me to achieve my goal. If it means stopping for a month or two, it’s whatever the work calls for.
You worked with the artist Louise Bourgeois – what was that experience like?
Louise Bourgeois was a very insightful person and became attracted to me because I made a sculpture of her hair, which she always prided herself on and understood. The first time I touched her and had an experience of her, it was an interesting understanding that we were, in fact, making things. It was fun to be in her presence and to have had that magic experience with someone who has a serious and instinctive conviction – and I do believe that sparked a little friendship in us.
How important is humour to you?
[Laughs] Humour is everything. It’s a part of beauty. I think that humour is one of the few things that is underrated, and great food for the soul.
Beauty Papers launched because we were frustrated. We wanted to create a platform where artists could play, provoke, confuse and inspire. I’m looking for some advice, Bob – I need all the help I can get!
Advice is something we have to pick and choose for ourselves. The only advice that I can give you is the advice you have just given me. Where you find frustration, you also tend to find a way to fight your way out of it. I have a tendency to put that in a different format so that I can find my own solution – and I think you’ve just solved yours. If you’re frustrated, you’re doing the right thing, which is to fight it. And, in that fight, you always find the next step. So thank you, Max, for that next step! Always follow thyself.