Stella Waitzkin at the Chelsea Hotel
Discovering Stella Waitzkin
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Not long ago I was invited to look at the work of Stella Waitzkin - an artist I had never heard of, who lived and had recently died in the Chelsea Hotel. Such invitations, typically accompanied by a sheet or two of slides, arrive not infrequently in the normal course of things for most art critics, and it is fairly rare that they elicit much interest. There is always more to look at than one has time to see, and in any case there is little one can do for most of the unknown, or little known artists on whose behalf the invitations are sent. But Waitzkin’s work was sufficiently out of the ordinary to arouse my curiosity, and the Chelsea Hotel itself is on the route I take to the Chelsea galleries two or three times a month. So I accepted the invitation, thinking quite well of myself for doing so, and feeling that at the very least a peek into that legendary hotel’s inner precincts was certain to be interesting, whatever the work should finally look like. What I was entirely unprepared for was that the art would be more than interesting – it proved to be astonishing, and unlike anything I had experienced in several decades of studio visits. My visit to Stella’s apartment was the kind of adventure that is the promise of an art world like ours, in which unimagined wonders are an abiding possibility at every turn.
I was led into a room lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. There were a few pieces of worn furniture and a number of paintings hung on the walls, or placed here or there on the bookshelves, along with some curios, a clock or two, and some mounted fish. The space had a musty smell of old rooms everywhere, and everything looked like it could use at least a dusting. Beyond a low bookshelf that partitioned the room into two sections, I saw, through tall unwashed windows, an ironwork balcony over 23rd Street, the overall impression was of Miss Haversham’s room in a movie version of Great Expectations. The books themselves had the somewhat ghostly look of Edgar Allen Poe’s “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” They had the heft and hue of antique tomes – old dictionaries, bibles, albums of recipes or annuals of yellowed journals bound together. One might have expected a stuffed raven on one of the upper shelves! What first dawned on me was the thought that the whole room was a piece of installation art, as if Stella Waitzkin had created a work that served the secondary purpose of giving her a place to live. I imagined that it had been assembled book by book, object by object, acquiring, over time, the patina of age and use. One could imagine a recluse surrounded by singly acquired treasures, sitting alone under a dim lamp, poring over faded snapshots.
Charles Russell, who had charge of Stella’s artistic estate, pointed out something that went well beyond this provisional interpretation. The books were almost literally the ghosts of books, which had been cast in translucent resin. Even if one attempted to break into them, there was nothing to read. According to Fred Waitzkin, Stella’s son, the artist called her room “Details of a Lost Library,” a poetic title, which alludes, I believe, to the “lost wax” technique of casting statues. It was, so to speak, a library of lost words and images, since casts had been made of the books themselves, that left behind only their shapes and colors. The mummified books are in fact Stella’s most singular works. In his remarkable memoir of his parents’ lives, Fred Waitzkin recalls that his mother had said to the poet Allen Ginsberg that “Words are lies,” and it was as if these books, emptied of their words, could no longer impart the toxin of their falsehood. One did not have the sense that the artist was a crank – one felt that in some way she found some symbolic way of securing the possibility of a higher truth, through art, than words could communicate. I thought of a technical term in the metaphysical lexicon of the philosopher Hegel that fit her achievement to perfection: aufheben. It means, all at the same time, to preserve, to negate, and to transcend. The books were embalmed, but rendered unusable, and turned into art. And instead of having herself been a quaint relic of past times, Stella was a rough-house and independent character who worked till the end, surrounded by perhaps the best paintings she had ever made.
Stella Waitzkin was not an outsider artist. She had been part of the world of the Cedar Bar, an intimate of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and above all, Willem de Kooning. She found meaning in an aesthetic of squalor, and it in some way built into her Lost Library a monument to the artistic mission of the bohemian ethic of the Chelsea Hotel where she ended her long life, amid the spirits of edgy existence that found shelter in its strangely hospitable spaces. The works will of course find places for themselves elsewhere, in museums and private collections. In a sense, her vision is captured in each of the eviscerated books she has replaced with resin, but my own wish is that the atmosphere of that room on the fourth floor of Chelsea Hotel could be kept as an integral whole, kept for the ages, as a monument to its time and its occupant, a testament and, a gift, as great art always is, to the world.