Westbeth Artist Community
The Little Known World of Westbeth Artist Community
By Alex Starace
While the community is off the general public’s radar, artists of all types – painters, poets, actors and dancers – greatly covet admission into New York’s Westbeth Artists’ Community, since it provides inexpensive housing and studio space for those who are accepted.
The complex of thirteen buildings, which takes up a city block at the intersection of Bethune and Washington in the West Village, has a long history. Constructed in 1898 by Bell Laboratories as a research center, it was once the largest research complex in the United States, where many things we now take for granted were developed, including talking movies, television (both black-and-white and color), phonographs and the first-ever commercial television broadcasts. However, by 1966, Bell closed the facility. Soon thereafter, a plan was hatched to convert the buildings into low-income artists’ residences.
At the time, the idea of adaptive reuse of an industrial space was revolutionary. Architects Richard Meier and Tod Williams performed the renovation, which was funded by the NEA and the J.M. Kaplan Foundation. After the changeover was complete, rent was kept low because the complex was (and still is) owned by a non-profit foundation.
Some forty-odd years later, the roster of artists who lived and worked in the complex is truly remarkable: actor Vin Diesel, photographer Diane Arbus, visual artist Hans Haacke, saxophonist Billy Harper and poet Ed Sanders, to name a few. Additionally, the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe and the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance have ties with Westbeth.
South Florida Opulence was lucky enough to gain access to the studios of three members of the community. One of them, Greg Kessler, uses the technique of painting-over and destroying his work, so as to re-imagine and re-fashion his canvases. What results is a mélange of the mythological, cartoonish and abstract: New York social- and street-life presented in a comedic, yet gritty tone. His paintings were recently featured in a curated group show in Westbeth, as well as at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.
Stephen Hall, on the other hand, paints figurative portraits of individuals wearing ethnic garb. Each subject is overlain with brightly-colored designs, while standing in front of a contrasting, green-screen-like 2-D patterned background. The outcome is an intersection of figuration, pattern and meaning. His work has appeared in music videos by the B-52s, Lenny Kravitz and Robin Hitchcock, as well as in movies such as Wall Street 2 and School of Rock. His most recent solo exhibition was at AGallery in New York.
Lastly, William Anthony captures the elemental aspects of the 21st century condition by evoking both Henry Darger and Beavis and Butthead in the deceptively simple, self-contained worlds he conjures. He recently had a show at the Christopher Henry Gallery in the Lower East Side, where the absurdity, excitement and crassness of life came to the fore, making one wonder why no one else had seen the world this way … and demonstrating that Westbeth brings out the best in its artists.
photo credit for westbeth story Troy Wharton www.reelscape.com
New York’s robust art-and-culture scene has all sorts of little secrets. One of them is the Westbeth Artists’ Community.