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Stella WaitzkinAmerican, (1920–2003)
Stella Waitzkin was a nationally recognized sculptor and painter, whose work for more than five decades ranged from early painting and glass and metal sculpture, to performance and film, and (from 1973 onwards) to the exploration of book as sculpture, and later the library as installation, all the while continuing to paint. An abstract expressionist, she studied with Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning, and with art historian Meyer Shapiro. Stella lived in the Chelsea Hotel, in New York, from 1969 through her last years, actively participating in the Chelsea Hotel and Downtown artists’ communities. Over the years, she had residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Ossabaw, the Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Rutgers Center for Innovative Paper and Print (now the Brodsky Center, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia). Additionally, she was able to work in Martha’s Vineyard, where, from 1990 to her later years, she maintained a house and studio.
Stella was known primarily for her book sculptures and for their assemblage into library walls and installations. In terms of the materials used, she was a pioneer in the use of cast polyester resin. She applied a painterly coloration to the translucency and opaqueness and other properties of the resin to achieve what she called a “three-dimensional volume color” – the colors not on the surface but emanating from within the matrices of the work. Stella’s resin books and libraries reflect the synthesis of form and content, of the visual and the literary, and of the personal and the cultural. “These books are the containers of my energy,” she wrote in the early nineties, referring, in part, to the visceral nature of the ties between the artist and the work and to the lifetime of memories that her libraries convey.
Creating a Storied Environment
Apart from the books, she did a series of resin clocks, birds, fruit, and human faces that she frequently incorporated into her libraries. At her Chelsea Hotel apartment/studio where she lived for three and a half decades, she created a floor-to-ceiling continuously changing environment of her books, libraries, and other artwork. Manipulating color, space, and form, and drawing from the stories and related narrative associations of the book, she created a hauntingly beautiful universe of color-laden, stone-like books that she populated with storied faces and figures and ghostly creatures that appeared to emerge from the pages and covers of her books. The bookwork and the libraries are distinctive in terms of their narrative content, color, opaqueness, and form.
Solo Exhibitions – One Waitzkin Work (“Details”) Considered a “Tour de Force”
Stella had twelve solo exhibitions during her lifetime, beginning in 1974, with her “Rare Books” show at the James Yu Gallery, in New York City. These shows included a ten-year retrospective at the Everson Museum in 1983, and, importantly, inclusion in the “Still Working: Underknown Artists of Age in America” three-year traveling exhibition that was curated by Stuart Shedletsky, from 1994 through 1996. This latter show exhibited the work of older, underknown artists who at the time were at the height of their creativity, and the monumental “Details” that she submitted for this show was considered to be a tour de force and one of the highlights of the exhibition. Shortly afterwards, Stella was awarded the Lee Krasner Award for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of her “long and distinguished career as one of America’s foremost artists.” This recognition, though substantial, had been a long time coming.
An Artist of the Book
An artist of the book, Stella regularly showed her work with book artists, who had come to the fore in the early seventies, and was considered by Richard Minsky, book artist, book arts historian, and founder of the Center for Book Arts, in New York, to be a pioneer and an influence in this new genre, her work seminal to the history of the book arts. Journalist Guy Trebay, writing in the Village Voice (January 10, 1977), referred to her as the “doyenne of New York’s book artists.” Gordon Brown, critic for Arts Magazine, wrote that “Stella Waitzkin is one who has established the book as fine art.”
Shortly after Stella’s death, in 2003, the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust invited art critic Arthur C. Danto to visit her studio at the Chelsea (November 2004) and what followed was the kind of review that is rarely seen: “What I was entirely unprepared for,” wrote Danto, “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.” Danto concluded by expressing his hope that “the atmosphere of her room could be kept as an integral whole.” Two decades earlier, Ronald Kuchta, then Director of the Everson Museum of Art, in Syracuse, had expressed a similar suggestion – that her Chelsea Hotel Studio be preserved for all to see.
The “Details of a Lost Library” site at Kohler
The interest of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Stella’s work, funded by The Kohler Foundation, has led to the realization of the pleas of both Kuchta and Danto in that a new three-wall installation at Kohler now serves as a re-creation of Stella’s Chelsea Hotel environment. The installation is entitled “Details of a Lost Library.” The re-creation of Stella’s living space includes the monumental “The Wreck of the UPS,” as well as the acquisition, in 2016, of more than one hundred additional large-scale artworks. With these significant acquisitions, Kohler holds the largest collection of Stella’s artwork. In effect, a room-size “library” replicating the Chelsea Hotel artist’s environment has been created (“Details”). Part of Kohler’s artist-built environments series – a major interest of Kohler - it is now housed in the new (since mid-2021) satellite museum facility, the Kohler Art Preserve. Importantly, Kohler’s website lists and presents imagery of the component artworks of “The Wreck.”
Additional Public Collections
Apart from Kohler collection, Stella’s works are in numerous public collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Walker Art Center, the Everson Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jewish Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Rutgers University Libraries. They are also in corporate collections, including Davis, Polk, and Wardwell, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and the Altria Group, Inc. In this regard, the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust has worked hard to promote and distribute Stella’s work, and its Stella Waitzkin website is a primary source of imagery and collection location data, among other information.
[Source: Lynn S. Mullins, Developer of The Papers of Stella Waitzkin, and Retired Director, The John Cotton Dana Library, Rutgers University Libraries, Campus at Newark]
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