I am a serious abstract painter who for twenty years was a soul mate, including fifteen years as an interested and supportive curator, as well as a close friend, of one of your former students, the late Stella Waitzkin of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Stella studied with you at your school in Provincetown. I wanted to tell you our story. Here it is:
I first was introduced to Stella Waitzkin’s work when I was working part time in the Robeson Center Gallery, now called the Paul Robeson Galleries, at Rutgers University and was a young artist living in Hoboken, New Jersey. And after seeing just one small example of her work, The Filmmaker, I was anxious to meet her and to see her studio, and did so just a few weeks after the New York Public Library’s Center for Book Arts anniversary exhibition closed. The Filmmaker was poignant without being sentimental, expressive while also introverted in its tone. I had been told about Stella’s personal life prior to the visit. Jane Freeman, a New York painter I knew at the time , had told me that Stella’s son, Billy, had died just about a year earlier and that Stella was still mourning her deep loss. Jane knew Fred Waitzkin, Stella’s other son. The art world in New York is small. Stella’s environment was a cross between the Victorian and the religious or spiritual. I thought the environment was an evocative memorial to Billy and wondered when it had been started. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to make her remember his death during our initial meeting. Not that she ever forgot his early death. I would find out twenty years later that the title of her environment was the Waitzkin Memorial Library.
I noticed immediately that Stella at 64 didn’t wear black, the color of choice for artists in New York. Neither did I. Or at least not very often. Her clothes were colorful, loose and baggy and stained with polyester resin splotches. She sat in contrast to her ornate living room environment of floor to ceiling library shelves of death masks, books and clocks–all cast in resin and essentially rooted in Abstract Expressionism. Stella’s work looked like it was created with ease, created without any struggle, though I knew that most likely wasn’t true. I have always been intrigued by the abstract expressionist artists of her generation who recorded their interior selves and had been doing that since Ab Ex’s hey day fifty eight years ago when Stella began to paint her self portraits, quietly beautiful works. I deeply responded to the elusiveness of one’s inner being made plastic and concrete through the painting process. While Stella had since chosen the metaphor of a book as a container for her soulful recordings, the floor to ceiling book shelves of her living room were mysterious and nostalgic. The books were created with a light touch and an ethereal quality. Stella was a poet of visual language. Her living room had the powerful force of a spiritual place. It reminded me of my belief that the visual arts had taken the place of organized religion. Sitting on Stella’s couch, gazing at her overcrowded environment, was the spiritual substitute for me of being in church and sitting quietly on a pew looking at the painting of Jesus Christ on the altar. When I was growing up in the Congregational church I had always wanted to replace the painting of Christ with one of my own–abstract yet soulful. I was deeply happy to meet Stella Waitzkin, as she had achieved my early goal of creating significant, spiritual yet mournful works. I didn’t know at the time that she would become a significant artist friend who was like family. That she would be someone I loved as much as I loved her life’s creation.
That first day, Stella treated me with graciousness and served an array of snacks. A thin person at 30 on a tight budget, I ate voraciously the snacks that Stella set out on her bench in front of her couch. This was very different than making molds and casts of fossil turtles. I had found my several years in the fossil world to be inspiring but this was even more inspiring than paleontology. I was excited meeting a visionary and accomplished artist living out her convictions in a small apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. I looked forward to organizing more exhibitions and when I could to including her work. She had thirty odd years of work from which to choose and I knew that her works would inspire our gallery audience, both students on campus and the Newark and Greater New York community. While this appointment was for my first show I ever organized, I was confident that I would have more exhibitions to do after such a formidable beginning. Books as Sculpture would be a success. I didn’t know at the time that for almost twenty years I would receive ongoing spiritual solace by sitting in front of Stella’s installations . While I also receive spiritual solace from my own painting, I don’t receive that depth of emotion from much artwork outside of my own studio yet I deeply respect a myriad of artists here now and from art history. I’ve been seriously looking for forty years.
Over the twenty years I knew Stella I learned that Stella the person and Stella the artist were two distinct things. Stella did not in any way act like a spiritual being though I found her works to be more profound than a minister’s teachings. She was not a philosopher though I thought her works were visual philosophy . Her installations achieved an impersonal stature transforming her personal response to her chosen medium into cultural artifacts of our time now as well as our past. Her emotional, defensive posturing toward her family or other more successful artists was left out of her sculpture, allowing me to forget the frailties Stella had as an individual. For nineteen years I had a deep spiritual experience when sitting on her couch transfixed by her installations but when talking to her about my personal psychology I often felt the judgmental attitude of an authoritarian towards someone younger and consequently I felt insecure and less confident than I should have as a woman of my accomplishments for days after seeing her. She made me aware of the thirty odd years between us when she issued opinions about my emotional self, touching upon exposed nerves. When talking about my painting and her sculpture, we were usually on a loving and more nurturing ground . Did Stella’s perceptions stem from the fact that she was older than my own mother? Your former student, Mr. Hofmann? A friend of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning? An artist who had been working decades longer than I had? Or was Stella without the usual doubts and insecurities universal to most artists I knew? I often over the years became hurt by Stella’s comments and made even more insecure than usual because I felt that Stella was insightful and a seer. Was I just different in the way I treated my friends having been raised as a reserved protestant with New England and Scottish roots rather than a bohemian Jewish artist 33 years my elder? Stella has told me that in the Chelsea, the installations compete with Stella herself, overpowering her as a force, sometimes making her visitors forget she’s there and more importantly allowing me to forgive her for her judgmental comments that I perceived as dismissive. Stella knew she made bold comments and often apologized to me by saying that she didn’t edit what she said. But then again I didn’t like her comments describing her reasons for having used the book as a poignant metaphor for consciousness either. I didn’t think words were lies as she did. People have lied at times though. Her commentary seemed so much more ironic and superficial than the actual artwork. Was Stella embarrassed to be such a spiritual and sincere artist? Her defenses never really clouded my understanding of her work.
How did you, Mr. Hofmann, contribute to her idiosyncratic oeuvre? She mentioned studying with you that first visit and said that you always muttered nebba when you looked at her work. But she never told me that one class you ripped a painting in half and also turned it upside down. Her daughter in law Bonnie told me that story. So now I am able to understand why Stella turned my paintings upside down the one visit she made to my Jersey City studio. I was always the visitor to the Chelsea Hotel . Her visit to Jersey City irked and puzzled me as I had been painting seriously for some time and had previously had gallery representation at the Susan Schreiber Gallery in Soho but today a year after her death I realize that I too have been touched by your teaching. And when I would proudly show my 4 x 5 transparencies to Stella she would look at them upside down and sometimes backwards, grinning and smiling, much to my discomfort. Stella seemed elated and ecstatic during the studio visit–I now think remembering her Provincetown days at your school. When she passionately turned over work after work, she had the force of a tornado quickly making silent judgements about my painting, rushing about from painting to painting.
I saw your 1990 exhibition at the Whitney Museum and love looking at the two paintings on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art every other week when I am in the Museum. The Rizzoli monograph proudly sits in my Ab Ex book collection and I gaze at the plates when I take a break from organizing slides of my painting. I don’t know what you would think of my juxtapositions. Stella liked them. I’ve been trying to subvert and alter the male dominated Ab Ex school by enlarging the whole with feminine and domestic culture.
I’ll send slides in my next letter. Or maybe just color xeroxes. I hope my story wasn’t too much. Do you remember Stella? Enclosed is a snapshot.