Close Encounters

Not an Open Book: Stella Waitzkin and the Pathos of Discarded Things

A detail from Stella Waitzkin: These Books Are Paintings. © Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust. Photo by Jennifer Baumgardner.

IN THIS ERA of compulsory eyeball luring, saying no to self-promotion looks courageous to me. Perhaps this is why a deceased, somewhat-obscure modern artist named Stella Waitzkin so captured my curiosity recently. Her enduring subject was refusal—of feminine roles, the art business, throwaway culture. Her welcome mat read “GO AWAY.” She made art every day for more than forty years. She was loved, and she didn’t need to be liked.

Stella Rosenblatt (1920–2003) was born in New York City the same year women got the vote. Her Austrian immigrant father founded Globe Lighting, which manufactured the fixtures that illuminated Manhattan’s developing skyline. At twenty, bored at work as a telephone operator at the family business, she met a sweet talking sales rep, Abe Waitzkin, who charmed her by nodding sagely as she talked about her favorite writers. He gave her his word he’d get them far away from her father and Globe Lighting. But Abe was a salesman; his word was just a tool to close a deal.

Throughout the 1940s and into the ’50s, Stella raised sons Fred and Bill in the suburbs while Abe flourished at Globe (top salesman and he’d married the boss’s daughter!). Stella studied painting with Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning and, in 1960, moved to Greenwich Village with the boys (sans Abe). She was forty, a numerologically auspicious age for a new beginning. Living in jazz and art bohemia suited Stella: drinks at the Cedar Tavern, dating trumpet great Tony Fruscella, fabricating penises for bestie Yayoi Kusama’s phallus-covered sculptures, painting, creating performance art. Eventually, she seized on polyester resin as her medium, mixing the noxious chemicals in her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel.

For more than four decades, Stella Waitzkin made art every day, but “making it” in the artworld was never a goal. Instead, she and Kusama aligned with the anti establishment NO!art movement, itself a critique of the art darlings of the day, the abstract expressionists and pop artists. As a protest performance against the war in Vietnam, Stella buried cast resin eggs in eighty sites. She said the map locating these graves was locked in a safe deposit box “to be opened when there was peace.”

Although her community was artists, she didn’t fluff the scene. Instead, she spent a lot of time resuscitating objects she found on the streets, in dumpsters, and at flea markets. In 1973, she made a resin cast of an old, found book. After that, she made thousands more, lining the walls of room 403 at the Chelsea and filling the house she bought on Martha’s Vineyard. The books were “containers of my energy,” as Stella put it in the catalogue for the group show Still Working (1994).

Enter: CRAIG

I encountered the Stella Waitzkin oeuvre on February 6, courtesy of a press release about These Books Are Paintings, a show at Chelsea’s Slag Gallery. As it happened, Charis and I had been discussing books as icons of beauty, nostalgia, and décor. While reading “material” keeps migrating to our phones, empty book-shaped objects proliferate: color-coordinated books purchased by the foot, for instance, or the rows of empty bindings on the shelves at Warby Parker stores. Meanwhile, the two of us were drowning in real books—excessed from libraries, remaindered by publishers, “rejected for review” in LIBER and stacked in piles at our own space at Dottir Press until we can abandon them to Washington Square Park gleaners.

The next day was unseasonably glorious—fifty degrees, sunny—and our perverse New York radiator was dehydrating my brain into fruit leather, so Charis and I agreed a walk to Chelsea made sense. Craig Hensala, the curator of this show, introduced himself. He’d met Stella in 1996 on tour with Still Working: Underknown Artists of Age in America (he installed the show in Portland). They hit it off. When Hensala moved to New York a few months later, he became her part-time studio assistant and friend. “I spent as much time socializing with her as working,” he said. “But we always talked about art—her art, projects I was working on, art we were seeing together. In that way we were always working.”

According to Hensala, though her work has shown widely elsewhere, the last solo show of Stella’s in New York City—“where she lived and worked, not to mention the center of the art world”—was in 2005. He made this show to “reinvigorate discussion” of Stella’s work within New York art circles, a plan that pulled Charis and me into Stella’s orbit, along with critics like The New Yorker’s Johanna Fateman. With this show, Hensala emphasized that a large-scale assemblage like The Wreck of the UPS was in fact hundreds of standalone works, each precise and complete, just as a library is made of individual works. “I tell stories by combining painting and sculpture,” Stella wrote in the catalogue for Still Working. “The works called ‘Details of a Lost Library’ are collections of short stories and essays, novels, encyclopedias, and dictionaries—all without words.”

Inside the small front gallery at Slag, dozens of jewel-like, translucent books perched on simple shelves. Some were displayed upright and spine-out in traditional book-on-shelf posture, others in a jaunty tumble of glowing waxen tomes. Many held objects in suspended animation—a cracked-up Virgin Mary statue for instance—inserted in the resin as it cured, which made me think of witches, curses, fairy tales. A resin bird perched on one pile of books. Faces pushed out from covers like ghosts in a gothic tale. The effect was oddly emotional. The “books” were sculptures (i.e. fabricated three dimensional objects), but with their swirls and streaks of embedded pigment, they evoked both the abstract expressionist painting of Stella’s training and the truth of the title: these books are paintings.

Before we left, Hensala murmured something that struck me: Stella’s son Fred wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer about her grandson, who was a chess prodigy. I made a note to google.

Enter: RITA

Curious to learn more about Stella, I put out feelers to the curator Elissa Auther to see what she knew of Stella Waitzkin. She connected me with Rita Barros, a photographer who has lived at the Chelsea Hotel since 1984 (room 1008, where Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey). Rita overlapped with Stella for twenty years and had participated in the art opening inaugurating the acquisition of The Wreck of the UPS and other works by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Since Rita teaches at NYU, blocks from our office, she said she’d stop by for a chat.

The Chelsea Hotel was sold in 2011, a move which transformed it from a haven for artists (Nicola L., Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Édith Piaf, the list goes on) into “a business with people with no sense of humor,” Rita said, but before that, “there was a general sense that you could kind of do whatever you wanted within the limits of having neighbors. There was a beautiful sense of openness.”

Rita, a chic no-nonsense Portuguese expat, is one of a few of the original residents who fought to stay even though the new owners have turned it into “just another building in New York.” She photographed the emptying out of the apartments, including Stella’s (then occupied by Stella’s granddaughter Katya), to document the “before and after, the removal and emptiness.”

Today, Rita and her remaining neighbors live among the rotating cast of tourists who book the hotel rooms. “The sense of possibility is gone,” Rita said, “but, you know, life goes on.”

Enter: KATYA

I got a hold of Stella’s granddaughter Katya, now thirty-eight and living in California. We spoke on the phone, and the picture Katya painted of Stella was a cross between Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the Jewish grandmother in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Stella “created magical worlds,” “appeared to be psychic,” and always cut a striking silhouette in “interesting, baggy clothes” and “voluminous hats.” Her favorite number was three, symbolizing art.

When Stella died, Katya moved into the Chelsea Hotel and undertook a sort of excavation of the nooks and crannies and drawers, which hadn’t been touched in many years. “Her kitchen cabinet was full of all kinds of beautiful, mismatched pottery pieces and half-broken china sets. I remember getting towards the back and pulling out teacups full of art, sculptures nested in these vessels, just mixed in with all the dishware that she used every day.” As for the libraries Stella created, Katya said real books might be mixed in, or sculptures from other artists—just “surprising things.” Art mixed in with everything else was “completely normal in her world.”

“We would often talk about the purpose of art,” Katya said. “Was it created for the artist or the audience—what is the relationship? Her commitment to her art was profound. She loved working the pigment and making art. But it wasn’t about legacy, the work was ephemeral—her books break down, they rot, they fall. The polyester resin is cloudy, it collects dust, it dulls over time, and takes on a muddier, less vibrant effect.”

A soulful piece from the Slag Gallery show, curated by Craig Hensala. When assembled, Stella Waitzkin referred to the glimmeringly faded books as “Details of a Lost Library.” Snapshot by Jennifer Baumgardner.

Stella talked to Katya about what it was like to grow up in a time where she was expected either to be a homemaker or have a career that was “appropriate for a woman.” She had wanted to be an actress, but she was pushed toward secretarial school. Still, “she always thought of herself as an artist,” said Katya. “And I thought of her as somebody who had the strength to do what she wanted, even when that wasn’t accepted by the society around her.”

Enter: FRED

I admired, if that’s the right word, that Stella didn’t sacrifice herself on the altar of nuclear family. Katya offered to connect me with her father, who had a slightly different perspective. She suggested I read The Last Marlin, his memoir about growing up in the slow-moving apocalypse of a marriage between people who shared no interests, values, or respect. Here’s a typical scene chez Waitzkin:

Mother spent her days painting dark canvases in her studio . . . 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.

I visited Fred at his office in the West 20s. It doubles as the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust and is peppered with cast resin books. Fred, a fit eighty-year-old New Yorker, is so frequently mistaken for Larry David that the New York Post ran a story about it. Larry David is my hero, but Fred, in a very Larry David way, finds the comparison annoying, so I asked him about his mother.

My mother was an eccentric person, tremendously different from my father, whom I adored. That was the juxtaposition that was powerful for me, that she was so different than he was. Anyway, I tended to have a patriarchal attitude towards her at twenty years old, which is absurd when I think of it now. I was always telling my mother what she should do, what she shouldn’t do. She had a drug addict boyfriend [Tony Fruscella], which was difficult for me to deal with. It was complicated.

Everybody that saw her work—and there were many luminaries among them—thought she was a great artist. But she was very self-destructive about her publicity. She pulled out of shows because she thought it was being held on the wrong day and she had a bad intuition about it. She drove gallery owners crazy, but [promotion] wasn’t the primary motivation for her. That was always the work.

My mom was the kind of person that could tell you a story on the spot, and it was just riveting. She could write, but it wasn’t really her medium. She probably would’ve liked to have written. This was the writing that she did—these books. At the Chelsea Hotel, her friends were poets—Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg. They were always around, smoking grass, hanging out, talking. It was natural, all the books. It just made sense.

Years later, I see how the music she loved is the music I love, the art that she made, the books she introduced me to, how it all shaped me, how she was a major influence on my writing. When my father died, I was devastated. It was so much more devastating than when my mother died. But now, when I reflect on my parents, I think much more about my mother. So how could you figure that?

ONE OF MY responsibilities when I was the executive director of Feminist Press was to make speeches that might inspire financial donations to the press. I’d speak sincerely about the uniquely intimate technology that is a book and how books were my first friends; how, say, Deenie from the Judy Blume novel was as real to me as my own sisters; how books were portable portals to other worlds; how reading a novel or memoir was the most efficient way to understand a life very different than your own; how reading was one of life’s enduring pleasures. How the iconic rectangular block was a shapeshifter, appearing solid, but once opened, a mille-feuille—each layer a surprise.

Stella’s vast libraries made me think about the special quality of her books, whose secrets remain mysteries. Sometimes pages or covers or bits of spine from the actual books clung to the casts she made, remains that were enshrined in the translucent, colorful sculptures in the shapes of actual books that had existed—memorials, portraits, and sarcophagi all at once.

When I went to the Slag show, I knew nothing of Stella Waitzkin or her impact, in part because she hadn’t been part of my feminist and art history education. And yet the ensuing months were filled with evidence of her life tucked away in my own, like art found in a teacup. My alma mater had Stella’s books in their permanent collection, for instance. Post-divorce, she lived with her kids at 27 West 9th, the same block as the LIBER office. Katya went to PS3, the same elementary school my son later attended. Charis and I had gone back to see the show more than once, too, and each time we marveled that we were drawn in further. “It’s like the books are making friends with us,” Charis said. Stella was, too.

Sign-up to receive our occasional newsletter, updates, and offers!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.