Stella Waitzkin 1920 - 2003
BY BONNIE WAITZKIN
Stella Rosenblatt (Waitzkin) was born in 1920 in New York City to Austrian immigrant parents. Her father, Isidor, came to the United States at 14, penniless, and lived frugally to send for his many relatives, including Sadie, whom he married. He worked his way to owner of a profitable lighting fixture company, providing his two daughters and one son with a privileged upbringing, which Stella would come to view as shallow. She was a rebellious child and rejected the religious and social values of her parents. She briefly attended Alfred College but found her voice as an actress studying method acting with Bill Hickey.
In 1942, while working as a switchboard operator in her father’s Brooklyn company Globe Lighting, she met and married Abe Waitzkin, a charismatic and successful lighting salesman. They raised two sons, Fred and Billy, living first in Cambridge, Mass., and then moving to Great Neck, on Long Island. In the 1950s, Stella began studying painting with Hans Hofmann and life drawing with Willem de Kooning. She painted morning to night in a studio behind her Great Neck House, large dark abstract expressionistic canvasses, and fell into an iconoclastic scene of beat poets, jazz musicians and other artists in Greenwich Village. In 1959, when Fred was 16 and Billy 12, Stella rejected the conventionality and materialism of her suburban home life and moved first to Riverdale and then, after Fred graduated high school, to 27 West 9th Street, close to her friends at the Cedar Bar. She worked in a brightly-lit cold-water studio on 14th Street overlooking Klein’s department store and had a love affair with a jazz trumpet player Tony Fruscella.
A decade later she moved into an apartment in the famous Hotel Chelsea, where she explored expressing social justice themes in sculpture, performance and films, and began making books without words, cast resin books with faces and colors which mirrored her abstract paintings. She created an environment of sculptures including “Details of a Lost Library” and the “Wreck of the UPS,” filling walls of bookshelves with resin books and objects while listening to John Coltrane and Billie Holliday and melting glass bottles in a kiln on the kitchen table. Her apartment, Room 403, became a salon scene where poets and painters gathered. The toxic smells of the curing resin floated up through the hotel rooms to the dismay of Chelsea manager Stanley Bard who famously supported many artists and writers, including Stella, who insisted that her rent never be raised. However, she allowed Stanley to donate sculptures to museums as compensation for her low rent. The essay reprinted on this website’s Chelsea Hotel page describes the impression this unique environment made on the American art critic Arthur Danto. Stella’s oldest son Fred made a video of the apartment, which is also presented on the Chelsea Hotel page.
Stella Waitzkin was a passionate and committed artist, working every minute of every day on her sculpture, paintings, and drawings. The apartment at the Chelsea Hotel became crowded with her art as did her Music Street house on Martha’s Vineyard. Stella spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard working outdoors where the fumes from her curing sculptures would not disturb her neighbors. In her later years, Stella bought and sold objects to cast for her polyester resin sculptures at the weekly Chilmark flea market, where she told fortunes based on horoscopes, sometimes accompanied by her granddaughter Katya.
Four years after Waitzkin’s death in 2003, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center became home to a three-wall section of the 403 Hotel Chelsea environment, including the wall-size “Wreck of the UPS.” Another similarly sized work, “Details of a Lost Library” is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While alive, Stella had a cantankerous relationship with gallery owners and museum curators and frequently pulled out of shows at the last minute. However, her work has become known posthumously in the current art world more open to women artists.
On this website you can see many of her sculptures. The paintings and works on paper remain in the collection of her family.
Rebuke, Paradox and Genius in the Art of Stella Waitzkin
BY FRED WAITZKIN
I fell in love with fishing at thirteen in 1952, when my artist mother, Stella Waitzkin, handed me a copy of Life Magazine featuring Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Before I was half way through that genius novel, I knew I wanted to spend stretches of my life hunting the ocean for giant game fish. But also, while witnessing the death struggle between a larger-than-life blue marlin and an old man, I became intoxicated by the rhythm of Hemingway’s short sentences and some strange fusion took place deep inside me–great writing and fishing became bonded.
That same year, I began struggling to write little stories, which my mother scribbled on in India ink, offering lush near illegible phrases and insights, and I got my first boat and began fishing for eels in the Long Island Sound. Whenever I took off on one of these afternoon fishing adventures with one of my buddies or occasionally with my salesman dad, whom my mother abhorred, Stella made a distasteful face to say, “Fishing? Why fishing, Fred? Fishing is so banal.”
Meanwhile Mother spent her days painting dark canvases in her studio, usually beginning with recognizable forms and faces that devolved into storms of passion and madness. But in one large abstract canvas, a red devil emerged from the chaos. “Who is that?” I asked pointing to the Satan. “It’s your father,” she said, walking away without another word. My salesman father, whom I worshipped.
For Stella anything even vaguely normal, salesmanship, fishing, baseball, religion, was pitifully banal or worse.
Over the decades of our stormy love, It probably never occurred to Stella that she’d initiated my life as a fisherman, or if it had, she would have brushed it aside as trivial. My mom operated in a world of near inscrutable paradox. The discrete elements of life and art never interested her so much as the fusion that might take place when contrary elements were introduced to one another like a meeting of the most unlikely lovers. That’s when life, when ART excited her. I recall standing with her on a bluff on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas, looking out at the gorgeous Gulf Stream. I was dreaming of marlin. “That’s art,” she said to me pointing at a fetid pile of garbage, a broken rusting car, rotting conch shells, old cartons, that had been heaped on the beach in front of the cobalt blue water. I didn’t get it. Garbage? Art? She turned away from me shaking her head and repeating, “That’s art,” meaning the sky, the blue deep water, the broken car and conch shells in relation to the sea–juxtaposition. I couldn’t see it then. It took me years to see it.
Back in those Great Neck days mother blasted the jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk through the rooms of our house. This bedlam she called music drove me crazy. But she laughed at my taste and turned up the sound until the walls were shaking. “Some day I’d get it,” she offered. These smug remarks from Stella infuriated me, along with her abstractions, which my dad despised. But Stella was right. By the time I was 18 years old, I was in love with Monk, Coltrane, and many other progressive jazz greats.
When I was a boy growing up in Great Neck, and very much in the sway of my lighting salesman father, whom I adored, Stella was taking the train into the city to study painting with the renowned abstract painter and teacher, Hans Hoffman. One might imagine Stella would have taken the guidance of perhaps the greatest teacher of modern art as gospel, but apparently not. Hoffman admired her roiling textures and dark soul, but repeatedly, when a recognizable image would appear at the edge of her abstraction, the great master would exclaim, “Vas ist Das?” For him Stella was making a blunder, ruining the purity of a vision. But Stella stifled a laugh at his critique and went her own way, even with the great Hoffman. The paradox of marlin and poetry, the pristine ocean and garbage, abstraction with traces of realism, yin and yang, intrigued her throughout her personal and artistic life.
After her divorce from Abe, Stella moved into New York City, quickly forging personal relationships with some of the greatest American painters: Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Malcolm Morley, Larry Rivers, Louise Nevelson, among others. One evening she invited de Kooning for dinner. He came with drips and smears of dried paint on his pants. Observing the immortal painter through my father’s eyes, I decided de Kooning was a loser, a bum.
By the 60’s Mother was doing more sculpture than painting, sometimes melting glass into unusual forms in a kiln but soon discovering a passion for casting painterly books from polyester resin, books without words. Occasionally she showed her work in galleries, but often she spurned the politics of the art world and offended admirers, gallery owners and art critics. Several times Mother had been offered solo exhibitions in galleries, and she would comment acidly of the director, “He’s a bullshit artist. What is he trying to get from me?” I recall one time she was scheduled to have a one-man show at the prestigious Lee Witkin Gallery on West Broadway. This was a huge opportunity for Stella–surely her exhibition would receive notices in all of the top magazines and newspapers. But two weeks before the opening she called an incredulous Witkin to tell him that the opening date for the show was not advantageous to her in terms of numerology. She demanded he re-schedule. Witkin was enraged and never spoke with her again. But Stella didn’t care. She believed Lee Witkin was trying to take advantage of her in some dark manner.
Making art meant the world to my mom. But making it in the art world meant very little.
Later on, Mother bought a house on Music Street on Martha’s Vineyard with uncanny architectural twists and turns, mysterious stairways, interior nooks and secret crannies, like an off-beat ocean-going yacht. Over the years mother filled her Music Street house with art and rebuke and also with the jazz that she loved. In front of her door there was a mat with the words, “Go Away.” Often Stella didn’t want to see anyone including me. By then Stella was full time making sculptures of books without words from polyester resin. She worked long hours and often brought her sculptures indoors and placed them at the foot of her bed so that when she woke in the morning she could see them with fresh eyes. The fumes from her resin sculptures were toxic but she didn’t care. For her, art had become everything she cared about in life.
In the fall I came to the island for two or three weeks, staying in a Chilmark house owned by my wife’s parents. I was usually working on a magazine article but mainly I came to visit my mother. In the evening I’d come by the Music Street house for dinner, and usually when she heard my knock on the door she screamed at me to go away. She was mostly living as a hermit then, living with jazz and the smells of damp resin mixing with the aroma of beef stew or chicken soup simmering on the stove. “Go away, Freddy,” she shrieked, but I’d always force myself into her her kitchen that was crammed with art and found objects. Her entire place was a bedlam of sculpture and old books and wood, garbage, anything that she might make into art. Stella put everything imaginable inside her books without words, religious icons, baby shoes, faces of animals. She once embedded a dead bird in one of her sculptures. I’d edge myself through the art and junk to where she was standing beside the stove, give her a big hug. While she pushed me away I kissed her chubby cheeks until she began to relax, soften and giggle…. Loving Stella was always a battle.
After her delicious dinner I might show her an article of mine that had just appeared in the New York Times Magazine. She’d look vaguely interested but was mostly dismissive. Stella shook her head to say, this isn’t the real writing, Fred. When are you going to do the real writing? Journalism meant little to Stella. Fiction and poetry was what really counted if you were a serious writer.
Stella’s rejections hurt, to be sure, often sent me reeling, but she taught me so much. Stella taught me about color and juxtaposition, uncanny juxtaposition, to search for the loving elements in an essentially evil protagonist or to find evil predisposition in an admirable fellow—that’s when a story becomes interesting. Stella was derisive about saints and curious about sinners. She taught me to reach very high, to do better than I could even imagine… Sadly, Stella never lived to see much of my best work, the novels she’d been pushing me to write.
During the last year of her life the Music Street house was so crammed with art and garbage that it was near impossible to walk through the rooms. Stella counseled me sternly that when she passed she wanted me to pile her sculptures and paintings into my fishing boat, the Ebb Tide, take the art out to sea and throw it over the side—throw her life’s work into the fishing waters that I loved. She ordered me to do this many times. This would be the ultimate irony, the piece de resistance of a paradoxical life vision.
But I didn’t listen.
At the time of her death in 2003, Stella Waitzkin was admired by artists who knew her work but certainly not a prominent figure in the art world. In the ensuing sixteen years, Charles Russell, a dedicated admirer of Stella and an accomplished art writer, and myself, operated an art trust with the sole mandate to help Stella’s art gain the exposure it deserved. The trust has been more successful than we could reasonably have imagined.
Since her death Mom’s work has been acquired and periodically exhibited by seventy-five public museums across the country. Her work is in the collections of some of the great art museums in the world including MOMA, The Jewish Museum, the Smithsonian and and The National Gallery where her sculpture is presently being exhibited. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has hundreds of individual works that they periodically exhibit in a very large installation space mirroring Mom’s living room in the Chelsea Hotel where she lived in New York for many years. On Martha’s Vineyard Stella has had a retrospective exhibition at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and has shown many times at Tanya Agostino’s marvelous A Gallery. This summer Stella’s work will be featured in an exhibition in the Janco Dada Museum in Ein Hod, Israel
Sixteen years ago my brilliant difficult iconoclast mother ordered me to dump her life’s work into the sea. Would she be pleased that I hadn’t done it? Would she be pleased with her considerable posthumous success?
I’m really not sure.
BY CHARLES RUSSELL
All visual works of art are silent. But Stella Waitzkin’s closed, impenetrable books impose a heavy silence upon us. Humanity’s cumulative knowledge–our ceaseless effort to make sense of existence through our words–seems trapped within her sumptuous, emotional libraries. But perhaps it’s merely suspended, a latent wisdom speaking to us in another voice–the voice of art.
Waitzkin began as an abstract expressionist. She studied painting with Hans Hofmann and life drawing with Willem de Kooning. In the 1960s and early 1970s, she expanded beyond painting to work first in sculpture, then performance art and film. Her early sculptures were made out of melted glass, but soon she discovered her signature medium, polyester resin.
After the sixties, her primary subject was the book. She cast old, leather-bound books as single objects and as elements of larger installations, including free-standing shelves, small book cases, or entire “library” walls. These constructions are composed almost entirely of cast resin tomes yet, on occasion, she included actual books. Often, she inserted other cast objects within her libraries: clocks, birds, fruit, human faces.
These are beautiful art works, colorful, translucent, luminous. The artist would suspend color within the resin and was especially sensitive to the visual play of hue, light, and shadow within each sculpture and installation. In them, we realize that Waitzkin never strayed far from her origins as an expressionist painter. Indeed, throughout her life she continued to paint, creating intensely expressive works on paper that extended the themes and imagery of her sculpture.
Stella Waitzkin’s sculpted libraries and individual books are powerful art works, both spiritually and emotionally affecting. There is an over-arching aura of mystery about them; yet they assert an intense physicality. Her use of leather-bound books for her molds calls up a distant past; her cast faces resemble cameos of another era. But we feel most immediately the embodied passion of the artist’s life, her deep understanding of human longing and loss, of personal desire and achievement.
Stella Waitzkin exhibited widely in Europe and America and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Her works are in many public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, The Jewish Museum, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and The Newark Museum, as well as the collections of Phillip Morris, Becton Dickinson, Dow Jones, and J.P. Morgan Chase.
Charles Russell is a Trustee of the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust and Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark.
BY LAURA D. ROOSEVELT
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