Here, seven visual iconoclasts of the art world captured exclusively in their spaces doing what they do: creating brave (and damned imaginative) new worlds for the rest of us to view.
PROFESSIONAL: Born in Hartford, Conn., Donald Baechler attended Cooper Union in New York City in 1977-78, moving to Germany to attend Staatliche Hochschule fuer Bildende Künste Städelschule the following year, after finding Manhattan too homogenized for his taste. In 1980, he returned, however, to the city where he became one of the “it-boys” of the budding new downtown art scene. Today, Baecheler’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou-National Modern Art Museum of Paris, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum, to name a few.
PERSONAL: When I arrived at his immense studio, I entered a world of colors, images and objects. Books were stacked on the floor next to kitsch-retro objects, rolling carts filled with photos and magazines. Brushes and paint cans were scattered about, an eclectic hodgepodge of tools and references. His paintings lined the walls, large-scale ice cream cones, flowers, soccer balls, skulls…triggering some sense of nostalgia, laced with humor, invoking memories of child art. Memories, made of form and line, partnered with common symbols, and humor. I was there for a few minutes, taking it all in, when Donald arrived and introduced himself. He was kind, generous, modest and engaging. His energy was infectious, and, as intriguing as his work.
PROFESSIONAL: Born in Bellefort, Pa., Inka Essenhigh began her studies at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, before coming to New York City and attending the School of Visual Arts, earning her MFA in 1994. Essenhigh began making a name in the late ‘90s, attracting the attention of galleries such as Victoria Miro, the Deitch Projects and Mary Boone. Her influences are numerous: cartoon art, mythology, nature and everyday life–all of which are clearly represented in her work, a distorted, poetic, slick, surrealist view of Americana culture. Essenhigh has exhibited in galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Royal Academy of Art in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Gallery, London.
PERSONAL: Essenhigh’s studio is located on the Lower East Side within an old schoolhouse converted into artists’ spaces. She greeted me downstairs, and led me up a stairway into her studio space on the top floor. The studio seemed far removed from the streets below. There were vaulted ceilings, crowned with high wooden beams. Large paintings reclined on walls—beautiful, ethereal landscapes, complementing the distinctive space. It was easy to see how Essenhigh’s surroundings have affected her work: poetic dreamscapes blended with erotic, ambiguous undertones. An urgency for life has translated to her canvases.
PROFESSIONAL: Born in Budapest, Hungary, Kika Karadi arrived to New York at the age of 11. The following year, she and her mother moved to Miami where the young Karadi attended the New World School of the Arts. Later, while studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she became the youngest recipient of the Morris Louis Grant for Painting, and in 1997, she received her B.F.A. Since 2005, Karadi has lived and worked in New York City, showing in galleries throughout the U.S. and Europe, including the Expanded Painting Section of Prague Biennale, and the 51st Venice Biennale, at the Museo Storico Navale. Her museum exhibitions include those at Artium-Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo, in Spain, and Centre Pasquart-Kunsthaus Centre d’Art, Switzerland.
PERSONAL: This shoot was done in the evening. The ominous Gothamic buildings surrounding Karadi’s studio somehow reflected the dynamics of her world. Darkly abstract paintings in black and white, with varying shades of gray, covered white walls–dominant themes in Karadi’s work. Young and vibrant, her appearance defied whatever conceptions I may have had about an artist working with such haunting, richly-stylized, monochromatic paintings. Her work—influenced by 1930s-40s horror films—has a powerful, mysterious presence, a juxtaposition of light and dark, combining to create form and structure. Her style is expressionist, Spartan, calling to mind Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis.”
PROFESSIONAL: Born in Adibjan, Ivory Coast, Ouattara Watts became fascinated with art at a young age, eventually leaving starter school to pursue his passion. In the late ‘70s at the age of 19 he moved to Paris, drawn by its rich art history, studying at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It was several years before he showed in a gallery. In 1988, though, he met the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a friendship was born. That same year, at Basquiat’s invitation, Watts came to New York City, and within a year had a show at L.A.’s Marilyn Butler Gallery. Today his work is exhibited internationally, including at the Gagosian, Leo Koenig and Mike Weiss galleries, all in New York, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C.
PERSONAL: Watts’ large-format paintings require enormous space, leading him to move his studio to Brooklyn, N.Y. From the moment you exit the subway you notice varying styles of graffiti spread throughout his neighborhood. It’s fitting, given his work has graffiti qualities: mixed African themes, musical high notes, alarming symbols and curious abstractions. When meeting Watts for the first time, I was taken aback by his jovial and gracious nature. Warm and inviting, curious and considerate, he greeted me as an old friend. I was struck by the scale of his paintings: gargantuan, often as broad as 15 square feet. Boldly-painted colors and symbols, evidence of a non-stereotypical multiculturalism, born out of Africa, nurtured in Paris, and all grown up in New York. A visual feast for the eyes, and mind.
PROFESSIONAL: Pat Steir was born in Newark, N.J. In 1956, she attended the Pratt Institute in New York, transferring to the Boston University College of Fine Arts in 1958, ultimately returning to Pratt and receiving her BFA in 1962. In 1964, Steir was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art and had her first solo show that year. The ‘70s brought high praise for the artists, who exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums worldwide. Her romantic, poetic, Asian-inspired waterfall series—which began in the ‘80s (and continues to intrigue her today)—was a turning point in her career, solidifying her as one of the grand dames of the art world, with work in major public collections such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Graham Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
PERSONAL: I met Steir at her sprawl of a Chelsea studio. She is a diminutive, elegant woman who made me feel at home within minutes. Her dramatically-scaled paintings were in “mid-state,” she said. They were nonetheless towering, raw-colored canvases, waiting to be brought in full. Steir danced amongst the radiant paintings with the spirit of a girl, her true age expressed through youthful movement. Her mystical paintings command respect, while remaining lyrical, intimate, human. I was humbled by our meeting, one that resonated with me well beyond our impromptu séance.
Born in New York City and raised in Hewlett, L.I., Ross Bleckner began his studies at New York University, earning his B.A. in 1971 before attaining his M.F.A. at the California Institute of the Arts in 1973. Bleckner returned to the city the following year, into an emerging art community, befriending young artists such as Julian Schnabel, Barbara Kruger, and David Salle. Four years later he teamed up with the up-and-coming Mary Boone Gallery, eventually becoming the youngest artist to have a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim. Today he’s considered an icon in the art world, a modern master (however decorative his work can appear), who has shown at the Whitney, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Musee d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. His retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1995 was something of an art and social-coaster world event.
PERSONAL: Bleckner is the consummate New Yorker. Cool and down to earth, he met me at the door of his studio in his signature black T-shirt and jeans. Every wall and table in his lofty studio was covered with beautiful, radiant paintings. His studio was once Pat Steir’s workspace, a magical space, rich with history and a lovely view on the Hudson River. The quintessential professional, Blecker lost himself in his work, gorgeous paintings of flowers and form, romantic and tender—ultimately forgetting I was there.
PROFESSIONAL: Born in Melrose, Mass., Will Cotton began his studies at Cooper Union in New York City, transferring to the Beaux Arts in France, in 1985. After a semester, he returned to New York and Cooper Union, earning his B.F.A. Cotton’s earlier work concentrated on Americana pop-culture icons and commercial excess, painting subjects like the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Trix rabbit, and the Nestlé Quik Bunny. Today he paints photorealistic candy lands, seductive and sugary worlds, presenting a lighthearted, untroubled, nostalgic view of childhood memories, combined with sexy innuendo. His paintings have shown throughout Europe and the U.S., including Mary Boone Gallery (who represents him today), Jablonka Galerie, Köln, Germany; Paris’ Galerie Daniel Templon, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Musée Marmottan Monet, also in Paris. He now lives and works in downtown Manhattan.
PERSONAL: Cotton’s studio is located in Lower Manhattan within an old building with no shortage of character. One flight up a vertical span of wood-plank stairs, Cotton greeted me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. His space has a lived-in quality, comfortable and unassuming. There were paintings of all sizes on walls and easels, and an antique dress form clothed in a silvery dress (resembling a cupcake wrapper). Giant Styrofoam pastries lay on tables and what appeared to be a well-used kitchen in one corner of the loft. He moved around the studio working on various pieces, his attention to detail unmistakable. On one wall hung a large painting of a splendidly tricked-out Katy Perry. She was riding a cloud of cotton candy, wearing the cupcake wrapper dress, elegant and dreamy, perfumed and sweet. Beside Perry’s painting was a portrait of a woman with ice cream cones in her hair, and a man with cupcakes for hair. Funny, sexy, sweet and stylized, the fabulous boulangerie of Will Cotton’s mind.
Photography and Text by Robert Lakow