Friday, October 25, 2013

The Art Set: Devastation and Creation

Bright Lights are leaving the Chelsea Hotel.
The Art Set: Devastation and Creation
by Charlie Scheips

The other night I went down to the Chelsea Hotel to have dinner with artist Michele Zalopany. What a shock I had seeing the Chelsea in its current state of construction/destruction. It made me very sad.

I first went to the Chelsea in 1982 to have dinner with composer Virgil Thomson and his intimate friend — the artist and art critic Maurice Grosser. The Kansas City, Missouri native Virgil, and Huntsville, Alabama-born Maurice, had met and become lovers after they met at Harvard in the 1920s.

Virgil and Maurice in Paris in 1930.
They were part of an amazing group then at Harvard that went on to shape cultural life in America for decades to come including MOMA founding director Alfred H. Barr, New York City Ballet’s Lincoln Kirstein, the Wadsworth Atheneum’s visionary director A. Everett “Chick” Austin, architect Philip Johnson to name but a few. By the time I met them, Maurice, then in his 80s, was living on Morton Street in the Village with his decades younger lover Paul Sanfacon.

Virgil moved into the Chelsea just after returning from Paris when the Second World War began in 1939. He had just given up his longtime Paris apartment on the Quai Voltaire when I first met him. It was a memorable dinner that began with drinks in Virgil’s art-filled living room with many paintings by Maurice as well as their many other artist friends including Christian Bérard, Pavel Tchelitchew, Marcel Duchamp, Florine Stettheimer, Eugene Berman and his brother who was known as Leonid.
Virgil Thomson's dining room with Maurice Grosser paintings.
A Hans Arp sculpture lived on the mantle piece. After drinks, we went into the dining room that by day operated as Virgil’s office. Both Maurice and Virgil were passionate cooks even though Virgil’s kitchen at the Chelsea had originally been two small closets! These two spaces were so small that Virgil would use his American Rococo Bedstead (that had once been architectural critic Henry Russell Hitchcock’s parent’s bed) as a staging site for the various courses of the many memorable dinners Virgil gave there during the 50 years he occupied the apartment.

I recall we had scallops lightly breaded with vermouth as the main course that night—it was all delicious but I was more concerned about making a good impression than concentrating on the meal. For the next seven years I became very good friends with Virgil and got to know that apartment very well. Maurice died in 1986 from complications from the HIV/AIDS virus although that fact was still too much of a taboo to be acknowledged at the time. He certainly must have been one of the virus’s oldest early victims.
Art no longer dominates the Chelsea's great staircase.
Virgil often took me to lunch downstairs at the Chelsea’s El Quixote restaurant. But it was going to dinner that was my favorite time to meet with Virgil. I can still remember walking into the Hotel’s art-crammed lobby filled with cigarette smoke and motley crew of residents and visitors lounging around.

More often than not, the Chelsea’s longtime manager Stanley Bard would be behind the front desk keeping a watchful eye on the goings on. You got into the habit of pressing both of the two elevator’s buttons as it sometimes took forever to get the ninth floor where Virgil lived. He told me he was only the second tenant of the apartment even though the hotel was built in 1884. The mahogany French doors of the apartment’s entrance were noticeably better maintained than others at the Hotel.
Composer James Sellars, Charlie Scheips, Virgil Thomson, Bob Harberts, and Gary Knoble at the Chelsea in 1987.
Once Virgil, or another friend answered the doorbell, you entered into another world—and the ghosts of all the illustrious personalities that had gathered there over the years were easily sensed. Figures such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, John Houseman (who’s first job in the theater was directing the first production of the Thomson/Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934) were regulars there.

After Maurice’s death Virgil seemed to lose his stamina and frequently dinner was prepared by neighbors the composer Gerald Busby and his partner Sam Byers. Other times we went out to dinner in the neighborhood after drinks—Virgil loved a southern restaurant called Cajun on 9th Avenue as well as Moran’s on 10th Avenue which he called his “Irish place.”
The original 1934 cover of the souvenir program. Virgil Thomson signed the original program for me in 1987.
Four Saints's creators and first producer Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thompson, and A. Everett Austin, Jr. Conductor Alexander Smallens, choreographer Frederick Ashton, scenarist Maurice Grosser, and director John Houseman.
Cellophane sets by Florine Stettheimer and an all-black cast; a year before Porgy and Bess.
In 1987, I brought David Hockney with me to the Chelsea to see Virgil one evening. Virgil had been opposed to me going to Los Angeles to work as David’s assistant which I later learned was over a tiff they had in the 1960s when David passed on doing the sets and costumes for Virgil’s opera Lord Byron that featured a libretto by actor and poet Jack Larson.

Also with us was Jerry Sohn who took photographs that evening that I now cherish. We ate at Moran’s that night and Virgil recommended we have lobsters washed down by Black Velvets—a mixture of stout and champagne that the rotund Virgil thought the perfect drink to cut the buttery lobster meat. By dinner’s end Virgil put the one-sided feud to rest by telling David how much he had loved Hockney’s set and costumes from the Metropolitan Opera’s triple bill Parade.
David Hockney and Virgil Thomson in the dining room of his Chelsea apartment. Photo: Jerry Sohn.
Thomas Graf and Charlie Scheips in Virgil Thomson's bedroom. Photo: Jerry Sohn.
Charlie Scheips and Virgil Thomson.
Playing Virgil's piano at the Chelsea Hotel.
After dinner, while we were driving Virgil home in a taxi, Jerry asked Virgil if he had known Marcel Duchamp. “Did I know him!” Virgil snapped—“we played bridge every Sunday for decades.” Then, after a brief pause, Virgil pronounced: “Marcel wasn’t as talented as his older brothers Pablo (Picasso) and Georges (Braque) so he made a virtue of not painting.”

I happened to be in New York visiting from Los Angeles the week that Virgil stopped eating and drinking and was preparing to die. I asked his then secretary Jay Sullivan if Virgil wanted to see me. The answer was no. He spent those last days on a long modern couch in the living room so that he could be surrounded by the pictures of all his friends that he had loved—the bedroom avoided as a deathbed. It was said that the ever practical Virgil had planned his exit to be timed to insure his placement on the front page of the Sunday New York Times—it was. He was 92.
Thomson biographer Anthony Tommasini, and current New York Times music critic, sitting on the couch I inherited from VT. 1987 VT in situ.
After his death, I was called by the lawyer for the estate and was told that Virgil had left instructions that I was among a group of friends that should be given “special items” from the estate. It thought it was a trick question—I said, “well, I could always take the Duchamp drawing of Florine Stettheimer.” I learned that they planned to sell everything in Virgil’s estate as soon as possible. Sotheby’s had been contacted and there was no plan to photograph the apartment before it was dismantled.

I was horrified. I by chance ran into photographer Eric Boman one night while in New York. He offered to photograph it. Then I contacted John Russell and Rosamond Bernier Russell and arranged for them to visit the apartment. The result was John writing a wonderful tribute to Virgil in House & Garden with photographs by Eric. I never officially got any “special items” from the lawyer (stupid me) but since no one else seemed to want it I said I would take the couch where so many illustrious figures had exchanged bon mots with the famously witty Thomson. In addition to his wonderful music Virgil was one of the greatest music critics of the 20th century and described his writing style as “sassy but classy.”
1986 portrait of Virgil Thomson by Maurice Grosser. The original flyer for Four Saints premiere in Hartford.
Jay also saved some things he thought I would like including a marvelous 1929 drawing of Morocco by the neo Romantic artist Kristians Tonny that Virgil had never gotten around to frame. Other items included his monogrammed Charvet boxer shorts and his amber cigarette holder. When the auction took place on October 11, 1990 I bought a few other things including a marvelous Inna Garsoian painting from 1946. But it was a bittersweet experience. After the sale, Gary Knoble, at whose house in Hartford I had first met Virgil, and I went over to the bar at the Four Seasons and drank a martini to toast our friend Virgil.

In 1991 artist Philip Taafe, who also bought many items at Virgil’s auction, moved into Virgil’s apartment—eventually taking the additional space of the original apartment’s floor plan that Virgil had been too cheap to keep. Even though Philip has invited me to visit, I have never returned there.
Under the scaffolding — Virgil's plaque.
Michele Zalopany moved into the Chelsea in 1989. I lived there briefly in 1995 but soon decided it wasn’t my idea of a permanent home. I have spent many a great evening there since at various friends apartments where it was common to rub shoulders with everyone from Ned Rorem, Robert Altman, poet/artist (and still a resident) René Ricard and many other colorful personalities of varying fame and/or notoriety. Getting out of the taxi I couldn’t believe my eyes! The building is covered in scaffolding—several of the Hotel’s neon sign are burned out. The lobby has been stripped of its artwork, as has the grand central staircase that use to advertise the Chelsea’s bohemian spirit.
Michele Zalopany at the Chelsea.
Michele's dog Daisy.
We had to take a small freight elevator upstairs. Inside Michele was preparing dinner and had on her worktable a series of watercolors that she is painting for a group show that will take place at The Garage gallery in Honolulu opening November 7. Michele grew up in Detroit and is of native Hawaiian descent. She also teaches at New York’s School of Visual Arts. To see more of her work, go to: www.michelezalopany.com.
Michele's work table at the Chelsea.
Two of Michele Zalopany's large-scale pastels on canvas.
Michele Zalopany's Mu'u Mu'us and A Kimono, 2013 Michele Zalopany's Hawai'ian Artifacts, 2013
I wondered that night going home if it was perhaps was my last visit to the Chelsea. It will never be the same that is for sure.
End of an Era!
While the Chelsea’s bohemian world has been ruined, sometime devastation doesn’t always lead to destruction. I was thrilled to discover recently that Jamie Creel and Christopher Gow (www.creelandgow.com) are having a trunk show of some of the most amazing pieces of contemporary ceramic art that I have ever seen. I have always been a lover of Palissy ware—the 19th French ceramics that feature realistic three-dimensional depictions of snakes, fish, lizards and the like. Thanks to Jamie and Christopher, from November 5-7 they are presenting for sale work from South Africa’s Ardmore Ceramic Art.
Fée Halsted and Ardmore Artists.
Founded more than 25 years ago by Fée Halstead, these extraordinary works are by a collective of ceramic artists, many of whom are HIV positive. These one-of-a-kind masterpieces range from small individual pieces to major show stoppers. They are collaboratively made by throwers and sculptors, who shape the pottery, and talented painters who meticulously decorate these vivid celebrations of fancifully figured animals, human beings, and the lush abundance of other flora and fauna drawn from the Africa’s fertile landscape.

Of course it's wonderful that Halstead has given these artists a venue to create such spectacular pieces—but the fact that they spring forth with life from the dark shadow that AIDS has cast over Africa makes them all the more extraordinary.
Ardmore Elephant Vase. Ardmore Zebra Tureen.
Ardmore Monkey Head.
Ardmore Monkey Planter.
Ardmore Sable Tureen.
Ardmore Sable Vase.
Ardmore Zebra Rider.
Ardmore Great Trek Urn.
Swiss-born jewelry designer Cora Sheibani.
During the showing of the Ardmore work, Creel & Gow are also presenting the work of Swiss-born jewelry designer Cora Sheibani. In the little more than a year since they opened, Jamie and Christopher have certainly made their jam-packed shop on 70th Street a destination for any connoisseur of unique art and artifacts from around the world.

Perhaps the new owner of the Chelsea Hotel should make a shopping trip there sometime soon. While they’ll never recapture the vibrant life that the Chelsea embodied for decades maybe a change from the hypoallergenic bland aesthetic of “contemporary luxury” could be ditched in favor of a more life-affirming décor.

The motto of Ardmore Ceramic Art is drawn from an African expression meaning “We are because of others.” Seems like a message more New Yorkers should take heed of. It seems less selfish than the prevalent “wanting it all.”

Virgil used to sign his letters “Everything Everbest” — we can only hope.
A selection of Cora Sheibani's work.