Claudia Aronow

I always feel slightly out of my element interviewing painters but my conversation with artist Claudia Aronow came easily. I met Claudia briefly when she was owner of ‘The Dining Trade’, a store that specialized in antique dining tables and accessories. During a recent interview with designer Marci Masterson I noticed an intriguing work of art on Marci’s apartment wall and contacted Claudia only to discover that she had remerged as a professional artist. She paints mainly curves, lots of them, but she knows what she’s doing and I find all her work totally wonderful. During our conversation she revealed that she was a bit hesitant about being interviewed since she is not someone who is comfortable in the public eye but in the end we chatted about everything from her art, her stint in the antiques business to her childhood in Florida with her father, Don Aronow the boat racer and builder of the renowned “Cigarette” boat and most importantly her two sons: clothing designer, Adam Kimmel and fashion photographer, Alexei Hay who, says Claudia, are a huge inspiration, ‘They keep me going. I want them to be proud of me.’

The one thing I did notice about your work is this theme of circles that weaves through it … is that correct?

I would say curves do.

So what is it about curves that you like so much?

[Long pause] I could go on philosophically and talk about circles—they have no beginnings and no ends …
Looking across the seating area which includes vintage Thonet chairs, upholstered chairs from Ikea and a coffee table in the shape of an artist's palette Niall Smith Antiques.
Indirect northern light, perfect for painting, fills the studio loft.
Hanging on the rear wall is one of a series of paintings inspired by the spring foliage.
Towering cast iron Corinthian columns support the loft's fourteen-foot ceilings. Paintings in progress hang on the wall behind.
A partial view of the work area.
I’m not an art critic.

Well … there are many cultures that use [the symbol of ] the circle. It’s a very appealing shape. I’ve been doodling circles since I was a little girl. And when you sit and you’re listening to something, the circles come out. It was something that felt familiar. I studied academically, doing portraits but I was in Paris and I got these enormous pastels. I’ve been studying forever and ever and then we got this house in Long Island. There was a two-car garage and it was the perfect place to start. It actually had a plastic skylight in it.

I had somebody come in and spray paint the whole place white and I had a studio.

When was this?

In 1991 or 1992. Before this I was doing book bindings … everything [I did] was very small, very intricate, very delicate. Then I realized I didn’t want to be working so tiny and now I had this garage. I wanted to go big so I got myself some very large paper and tacked it on the wall. And I started doing these great big seascapes. Then I was fooling around with the pastels and I realized that when I brushed them a certain way, I made these great circles and I thought, Wow, they are really beautiful! It became like an obsession with me. Suddenly I had this thing that I could slant it on a certain angle, I could get a shadow, I could get a line … the problem with pastels is that they break. So it became almost like book binding because every couple of strokes I had to tape it but the tape itself would make an interesting line. I did this for two years and then I developed a cough.
Claudia busy at her computer. A model of her father, Don Aronow's Cigarette boat is on the top shelf. Hanging on the wall are works in progress
Claudia's studio office also houses the CDs she listens to while painting.
Family mementos and an early ad campaign by son Alexei for Armani and Gucc.
Photos of friends and family.
Photos of the loft in its original purchase condition.
Oh … the pastel dust?

When you’re working large and creating a lot of pastel dust, you’re breathing it in. I called the woman who wrote Artist Beware and she said, fortunately you’re not working in such toxic colors but I should be wearing a mask. But it was getting really uncomfortable and I thought, I’m just not ready to die for my art. I figured out how to do it in oil paint.

You’ve been doing these curves for a long time!

They’ve changed. They’ve morphed. For a while they became more like stones, you could probably say.

Do you think it’s necessary for an abstract artist to have a formal training?

I think you have to know how to draw. You need it less for the conceptual art that is being made today. But even so … I’m doing a lot of shadows and I know about light, I know about the color that shadows are. There’s a value in the training.
The original pressed tin ceiling is a reminder of the Soho's building history.
Another corner of the work area. An ebonized Biedermeir portrait chair is from Niall Smith.
Claudia's worktable is filled with an assortment of art supplies.
Oil paints are neatly laid out on the worktable.
Tools of the trade.
Books are almost dead. But there is a kind of resurgence. My 20-year old doesn’t read off a Kindle, he has to have a book. The overall direction is going to be high tech but there will be this backlash of craft and handmade things and reading books …

And what’s going to happen with photography? They’re not making film and the paper is disappearing.

It’s a real problem for my brother [photographer Roger Ballen] but he actually did say that he finally bought a digital camera that was extraordinary and that the print quality was almost as good …

Almost … almost.

That intangible quality is going to be lost. I don’t have an answer. We’re just too old, what can I tell you?!

You don’t have an answer and I don’t have an answer. And this stuff is exciting …
A view to the north.
More paintings. The plywood floors are a durable and economical surface for the wear and tear of Claudia's painting studio.
Prototypes of chairs are by Claudia's son, the designer Adam Kimmel.
More painting storage. The dining and worktable bases are from a kitchen supply store on the Bowery.
What do you think of conceptual art and performance art?

I think some it is good. A lot of is not. For me, the most important thing is if it works visually first. And then if there’s an explanation that goes along with it and enhances it, that’s great. But for me, it needs to work visually without an explanation before anything else.

I have to tell you, I didn’t get the whole Marina Abramovic show. I went there thinking I have to see this because it’s such a big deal and I walked in and she’s sitting there not moving and all these people sitting around her staring … it was almost as if they thought it was religious experience and I thought, this is a joke. I want to go and see some real art.

You see for me she’s one of the one’s that does work. What a statement to make in the Museum of Modern Art! She’s in your face. I think she’s amazing actually.

Well, I guess I’m being naïve. I still like paintings.

People are always saying painting is dead but look at Lucien Freud. But I don’t know … look at books … are books dead?
Claudia holding up one of her paintings.
Another recent work.
Left: an early dry pastel, right: an oil in black and white.
Flat files are filled with paper and artwork.
It is exciting but it’s a little scary the way things are going. People don’t read as much. Everything’s a sound bite.

Do you think people don’t read as much or that they read lots of little things?

I think they read lots of little things. The way people read and the way people are writing for people to read is becoming shorter and shorter. It almost has to be conversational to appeal to people.

I read a lot but sometimes I feel like I’m neglecting the book I’m reading because there’s so much stuff I’m bombarded with. And then I’m addicted to the computer too. And it’s great—I mean you can stream movies anytime you want!

So how do you carve out the time to paint?

Now that I’ve completed my move, I’m here starting work every day at one o’clock.
An early oil by Claudia is a takeoff of 'Odalisque' by Ingres.
A selection of Cladia's watercolors.
Books, hand-bound by Claudia.
An all-time favorite watercolor by Claudia's two-year old granddaughter.
So it’s discipline?

Totally discipline. And that was one of the things I found with moving out of the studio because living in the studio I found I was on my computer, I was doing the wash, anything and everything that had to do with anything but painting. Any excuse not to paint.

Didn’t that make you more and more anxious?

Yes, absolutely. So now when I come here I start work.

So you start work at one. When do you leave?

It depends what I have to do in the evening. Sometimes I leave at four and sometimes I leave at eight. Here’s the thing. I watch artist Philip Pearlstein and I envy him. He’s so structured. He has a model in the morning and one in the afternoon and one in the evening. They show up and he has to work. It’s not a matter of, “What should I paint?” It’s there and he does it.
A plaster bust by Claudia stands atop the south facing windowsill.
Small objects and mementos fill a sleeping area windowsill.
The sleeping area. A cashmere blanket from I Pezzi di Pinti, designed by Catherine Collins covers the bed.
A view from the bed.
But it’s figurative work—it’s not open-ended.

Sometimes I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel and it’s torture. It’s torture. And I think about the Abstract Expressionists and they were tortured people. Philip is a happy guy! He has a nice life! I’m actually thinking about that now …

So what will you do?

I’m doing a group of pictures that has a little bit of both. I conceptualize it first. I do my drawings—I always do a drawing to start. I’m doing the background first, loosely. But what I’m doing on top is more craft. It’s already been established. The drawing is done. And I just have to figure out the colors and get that right. So it’s almost like painting realistically. I know what I’m going to be doing … if I want to do it.

What I find intriguing, looking into your background, your dad [Don Aronow] was the really well-known as the designer of the Cigarette Boat.

He did. He had several other companies before that. He built houses in New Jersey and he retired to Florida when he was only 34. He retired with his three kids and my mother was on the cover of Suburban Life magazine. He was an interesting story … he fell into this group that was designing boats.
The sink base in the bathroom came from the Bowery.
Claudia's efficient and minimal studio kitchen serves her well for her many dinner parties.
Brushed stainless kitchen cabinets were built on the Bowery.
Kitchen gadgets and the requisite Nespresso maker stand atop the kitchen counter.
Exercise equipment is tucked behind painting storage.
The tool shed.
What was it like growing up in Florida?

It was a cultural wasteland. Unimaginable. I hated it.

Tell me … how many times have you been married?

Do you really want to talk about this?

It’s all I want to talk about … [laughs]

Okay. I’ve been married three times. Five, nine and fourteen years.

Oh well, you increased each time. Who inspires you now?

My kids. I have to tell you that my kids are a huge inspiration. They keep me going. I want them to be proud of me.

• Sian Ballen • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch