Last fall, at a public hearing for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the owner of the cast iron building at 131-135 Duane Street in Manhattan presented plans for a two-story rooftop addition. The façade of the landmarked building can’t be altered, but the renovation plans presented by the landlord called for the removal of the entire interior. “You have to be able to stand in the cellar and see the sky,” sculptor Donna Dennis, NA, who has lived in the building since 1973, told me. This is the legal definition of demolition that a landlord in New York may use to evict a rent-stabilized tenant like her.
Dennis became one of the former warehouse’s first residents as part of a wave of artists occupying Tribeca in the 1970s. After accepting a buyout offer for her loft, she’ll be one of the last tenants to leave before renovation begins later this year. An organizer and advocate for the Loft Law to protect residents of former commercial spaces, she has spent decades fighting to keep her home and studio on Duane Street. As in nearby SoHo and NoHo, the live-work quarters of artists in Tribeca have faced pressure from gentrification for decades. But unlike those neighborhoods—zoned for manufacturing and undergoing a rezoning study that many believe will lead to further displacement—Tribeca is already zoned for corporate headquarters, large hotels, entertainment, and retail. Dennis and her neighbors have cooperated with volunteer organizations such as the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants and the New York City Loft Tenants to resist landlords hoping to capitalize on the commercial and cultural value built by the artists. Dennis remembers testifying in a tenant suit against a former landlord in 1982. At the time, she was constructing her Masonite and metal installation Subway with Silver Girders (1981–82). When she arrived at the courthouse, she said, “I had sawdust in my eyelashes.” The judge ruled in favor of the building’s tenants, she recalled, then concluded the hearing “because Donna Dennis has to go to the Venice Biennale.”
For Dennis, architecture is a feminist concern. Virginia Woolf taught her that the movement of the mind requires spatial articulation: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,” the author wrote in A Room of One’s Own. In the 36-by-75-foot envelope of her loft, Dennis has constructed large-scale installations, including monumental sculptures and public art commissions for the city of New York. This is where she built Coney Night Maze (1996–2013), a labyrinthine fantasy inspired by the underside of a rollercoaster. The construction of wood planks and I-beams, sheathed by layers of chain-link fencing, ran 27 feet in length and rose 14 feet in a darkened space when it was installed at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York. Its winding corridors, glimpsed from the perimeter and illuminated by bare bulbs, intimated the unfathomable or the unconscious. This architectural evocation of psychological states has been a concern of Dennis’s throughout her career. Her towers, tunnels, bridges, and lit interiors reveal the workings of the mind: its habits of association, solitude, and dreaming. “I see the life of a building as being analogous to the life of a person,” she wrote for Domus magazine in 1980. “The same basic structure, but altered, enriched over the years.” In its surface incident and accretions, her third-floor loft elaborates the themes she explores in her work: passageways, temporary shelter, the residue of memory in the built environment.
To enter Dennis’s loft, you pass through a shell of scaffolding and into a bare, industrial foyer. The doors of the elevator, which has been out of service for two years, are closed. A blocked entrance is the sort of detail that often catches Dennis’s eye, because it suggests a hidden interior life. Behind such a door might be a tunnel into the earth, or a vast echoing chamber.
Light streams into the studio through tall windows that face the cast-iron buildings to the south. There are clamp lights and wires rigging homemade fixtures from the ceiling. Her work tables are covered with papers, brushes, and pencils. On the floor are rolls of fencing left over from Coney Night Maze, along with piles of wood, boxes, bags, and stacks of old newspapers. “I know where everything is,” she said. “I might see a spoon lying under the couch. Later, when I need it, I know where to find it.”
On one table, balanced on a pile of books, is a maquette she made as a study for Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer (2018). Its black plastic frets approximate the girders of a giant ore dock on a miniature scale. Installed at Lesley Heller Gallery last year, Ship and Dock filled the room. Built on the dock’s raised platform were two small sheds, one with an interior light left on as a sign of an animating, private perception. Against the far wall of the gallery and visible through the girders, the video projection of the horizon cycled from night to day over four-and-a-half minutes, accompanied by the sounds of water and the clamor of rigging. Inspired by the artist’s visits to Lake Superior, the work, like many of her installations, transformed a structure she saw in the world into an oneiric dialogue between figure and ground.
Dennis relies on her red Winsor & Newton notebooks, which line several shelves in her studio. She started keeping a journal in the late 1960s. “I was in kind of a major romantic thing with the poet Ted Berrigan,” she told me, “and Ted kept a journal.” An aspiring painter, she carried the notebook to sketch what she saw. Berrigan and the other poets around St. Mark’s loved artists, she recalled. They were always interested in what was going on in painter George Schneeman’s studio. Schneeman, they said, is the greatest artist of all time! They never asked what was going on in her studio. “After a while,” she said, “I developed this work block. I thought it was me. When the statistics started to come out about how many women were in the Whitney Biennial, I thought, maybe it isn’t me. It’s the system.”
She started a consciousness-raising group with her friend Denise Green, attended mostly by the girlfriends of the poets. They didn’t really speak with one another at readings, but all of a sudden they were talking and dancing with one another at parties. “It drove the guys nuts,” she says. “Ted Berrigan said, I want to be a fly on the wall at one of your meetings.”
But this was precisely the point. This was what Woolf was talking about. The male poets had already claimed the wall—and the green lawns and the entrances to libraries and the public squares with their monuments and tall commanding statues. As she developed her feminist point of view, Dennis began looking for ways to move off the canvas and into the room. Her early “Hotels” (1972–73) and “Tourist Cabins” (1976)—flat façades or compressed enclosures—reference the road trips she took with her family as a girl in Ohio and the flimsy comfort of temporary shelters.
As her structures grew in complexity and scale—Deep Station (1981–85), for example, filled the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum with the towering columns of an empty subway station—Dennis took the ad hoc, improvisational approach she has used to construct her loft. Above the bed, you can see where she stopped painting the ceiling when she couldn’t reach any further. In the studio, the tiles of the floor are scored with the impressions of her tools. Between the bedroom and studio stands the wall she built when a boyfriend moved in. A shelf in the bedroom was made from a remnant of her old sleeping loft. The eagle will shape its nest with its body, she told me, and she has done this too.
Dennis used her buyout payment to purchase a house upstate on twenty-nine acres with a barn where she’ll work. She said she will miss the windows. She used to look out at night and see the north tower of the World Trade Center, its red light blinking. Soon she will have a view of the open sky. This was Woolf’s promise—“which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Is that in my opinion a good book or a bad?” So the mind becomes a lit interior, an outpost in the dark.
BEARING WITNESS | Article by Ann Manser | Photos by Evan Krape
Peter Williams’ long and acclaimed career as an artist and an educator — recognized recently with his induction into the prestigious National Academy of Design — almost ended before it began.
One night in the early 1970s, as an undergraduate art student at the University of New Mexico, a car in which Williams was a passenger plunged off a cliff from a steep, twisting road. He would spend most of the next year in the hospital, unable for months to use his hands or to see, while slowly recovering from injuries that included the amputation of his right leg.
Now a professor of painting at the University of Delaware, Williams went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and to teach for 17 years at Wayne State University, where he was described as a mainstay of the Detroit arts community.
He joined UD’s Department of Art and Design as a full professor in 2004 and continues to teach painting and, occasionally, drawing classes.
His own work has won numerous awards over the years and has always included themes of cultural identity and representations of African Americans. He has often inserted black characters and race-based imagery into his work, he said.
“I’ve always believed in the idea of bearing witness to the times in which you live,” Williams said recently. “I’ve always been involved with the underdog and with global diversity, but up until about five years ago, I had been all over the place in my art.”
That changed, he said, with the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement and other social-media-inspired attention being paid to the deaths of African Americans in police custody. At the same time, a growing awareness of racist incidents and policies, past and present, motivated him to do research into lesser-known aspects of American history, including lynching.
“I became aware that the world hadn’t changed that much,” he said, explaining why his work has become more focused on systemic racism. “African Americans are still being brutalized and killed.”
In his use of narrative and story-telling in his art, Williams invented a superhero called “The N-Word” who saves the lives of African Americans as they engage with police. His recent work has also become much more directly connected to such social-justice issues as mass incarceration.
“Thinking about the history of this country, learning more about it, made me crazy and angry,” he said. “I wondered: How could people know about these things and still let them go on?”
Williams said that, even though galleries sometimes “don’t know what to do with” his work and some urge him to tone down his depictions of racial cruelty, he hopes that most people are intrigued and moved by the powerful images he is painting.
His work features bold colors and cartoonish caricatures that challenge viewers to think more deeply about the dark themes they represent.
"I know that it can be painful for people to see, but I do think many people are enthusiastic because no one else is doing work that’s so blunt,” he said.
More about Peter Williams
Williams was inducted in November as a National Academician in the National Academy of Design, considered one of the highest honors in American art and architecture.
National Academicians are chosen by their peers and serve as ambassadors for the arts in America. Williams’ art will be included in the National Academy Museum's collection of more than 7,700 works spanning nearly 200 years.
His work is often featured in exhibitions, including the prestigious EXPO Chicago 2018, held Sept. 19-22, and his first solo show in Los Angeles, “River of Styx,” which opened in October and ran through Dec. 15 in the Luis De Jesus Gallery.
Williams will be part of the upcoming exhibition “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from Feb. 9 to April 22.
Another recent exhibition, at the CUE Art Foundation in Manhattan, drew critical acclaim. “Peter Williams: With So Little to be Sure Of” was reviewed in the online arts magazine Hyperallergic by noted critic John Yau in March 2018.
“Williams uses caricature to invite viewers — whatever their political persuasion — to reflect upon how they see people of a race different from their own, as well as underscore the intolerance, distrust, and fear running throughout our everyday lives,” Yau wrote.
Williams has won numerous awards, including the Whitney Biennial in 2002, Djerassi Resident Artists Program in 2018, Joan Mitchell Award in 2004 and 2007, a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1985-87 and the Wynn Newhouse Award in 2012.
His work is included in such permanent collections as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Whitney Museum of American Art, Delaware Art Museum and Howard University.
It’s all there in Proust—all mankind!” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once told an interviewer. Breyer explained, “Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages.”
Those comments came to my mind this summer while I was at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, standing in front of The Fulbright Triptych, a sprawling, astonishingly detailed painting that the Brooklyn-based artist Simon Dinnerstein worked on unceasingly between 1971 and 1974. Like In Search of Lost Time, it is a sui generis masterpiece, a world onto itself—and one that has earned a devoted following even though it has spent much of its life in storage.
The work’s subject sounds simple enough: a view of the artist’s studio outside of Kassel, Germany, where he was living in the early 1970s with his wife, Renee, and studying printmaking on a Fulbright grant. The tools of his trade sit on a large black table beneath windows that look out onto modest homes, a tranquil, Ferdinand Hodler-like landscape behind them.
But Dinnerstein painted each element of the room—its roughed-up floor, its drab pegboard walls—with such humble care that the work stands as a kind of monument to close looking. It exemplifies how making, and even viewing, art can be a meditative act.
The 14-foot-wide and roughly 6-and-a-half-foot-tall work is, among many other things, a self-portrait and a family portrait. Dinnerstein appears in one side panel, stone-faced, with a big beard, about 30 years old, while Renee appears in the other, also deadpan, holding their young daughter, Simone, who was born in Brooklyn while her father was midway through work on the piece.
Dozens of little images and texts that line the walls of the scene are the work’s coup de grâce. They include Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of the beguiling Comtesse d’Haussonville from circa 1845, a classic black-and-white Larry Clark photo of a couple making out in the back of a car, an ancient Assyrian stone relief, and Jan van Eyck’s mysterious Baudoin de Lannoy (from around 1437) peering out from behind a quotidian houseplant. Still more artifacts include charming children’s drawings (one depicting the Dinnerstein family) and a famous snippet of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Altogether, they show Dinnerstein studying and celebrating his influences—everything that made him the artist and person he had become. He assembled his own personal museum in a single artwork, and it teems with connections between pictures, panels, and epochs. The longer I looked at it, the richer and stranger it seemed.
Dinnerstein, now 75, told me in a phone interview last year that he hadn’t made a painting in years back when he began work on The Fulbright Triptych, and recalled the moment when inspiration came to him in his German studio. “I don’t know why, but I moved back and sat back about 8 feet,” he said. “I looked at the scene and it was quite striking and quite appealing. I saw it as a painting.”
“In retrospect, one wonders how you could actually do this,” he said of his ambitious project, which involved meticulously copying so many famed works from across the ages, experimenting with disparate styles and techniques. “I had moments of doubt, but I really was so obsessed with working it out that I was OCD—a candidate for a mental hospital.”
Chance had delivered Dinnerstein to that moment. He had originally hoped to win a Fulbright scholarship to Spain, to study with the painter Antonio López García, but instead was awarded support to travel to his second choice, Germany. “We had some really, really genuine mixed feelings about going,” he said, in light of his Jewish heritage. But he and his wife “took a deep breath and decided to go” in 1971.
At the time, the city of Kassel was still recovering from the devastation of World War II. “If the Allies had planes with bombs left over, they dropped them on Kassel,” Dinnerstein said. The triptych can be regarded as a testament to how culture and identity endure through trauma, and how histories and civilizations can be reconstructed through art.
After returning to New York in 1974, Dinnerstein kept at work on the painting, and one day the Manhattan dealer George W. Staempfli saw it and offered to pay him a stipend toward its completion. “It was like the gods sent a messenger, and so I had to do it,” the artist said, sounding wistful. “Every month this money came. I had a job working one evening a week, and every other day all I did was work on this painting.”
It finally debuted at the Staempfli Gallery in 1975, and earned a rave from John Russell in the New York Times, who proposed that a museum should buy it. But it wasn’t until 1982 that it was acquired by the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University, where it has sometimes been off view for stretches.
In 2011, though, that changed, with the German Consulate General in New York hosting the triptych in a Dinnerstein exhibition that also featured some of his later works—psychologically loaded paintings and drawings with doses of Magical Realism. In another rave, Roberta Smith lamented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had not bought the work. That same year, he published The Suspension of Time, an anthology of essays on the work, and the painting has since traveled to shows in Columbia, Missouri, and Elmira, New York, where I saw it. It’s now on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through January 6, before heading across the country for a show of Dinnerstein’s art at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, which opens February 22.
In mind of the newfound attention for his three-panel painting, Dinnerstein cited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and continued, “For the last, I would say, seven years, this has been a second act.”
He sounded excited and fulfilled. Still, the work he completed 45 years ago in some ways eludes him, as it has eluded so many others. He spent countless hours making it, and he’s seen it in every show that it has ever been in. “Even after all of that, I can’t take this painting in,” he said. “It’s beyond what I can take in.”
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Donna Dennis, NA, an internationally exhibited artist known for her architectural installations, created “Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer” in 2018.
With its two perched houses and a sky that changes from dawn to star-filled night, it is about time, the transformation of energy, the final journey and our collective journey into the unknown. “Have you ever wanted to walk inside a painting, sit down and experience the work from the inside?...This mixed media assemblage…takes up an entire room and carries psychological power…This is a durational work because beyond the dock the projection of sky above the horizon changes gradually from day to night to day, from painterly sky blues to dark night with brush-stroked stars as a ship changes from white against the night sky to black against the daytime skies in the distance. Thus the elements of engineering and technology that exist here in a three-dimensional space, also includes the fourth dimension of time. And, though that horizon changes, it’s always night for the viewer with the stars shining behind us.” from “Passage” by Annabel Lee, art critical, June, 2018.