by Joe Heaps Nelson
“Every beautiful woman should just bask in the glory of what she has. Humility is for when you’re dead.”
So says the lovely Natalie White, who is every bit as bold as she is beautiful. “White Hot Muse,” she has been called by the New York tabloids, and having provided inspiration to a number of prominent artists, now Natalie is the focus of a exhibition, “Who Shot Natalie White,” at Rox Gallery in Manhattan.
The show created controversy before it even opened. Some neighbors, presumably offended by the exuberant nudity, called the cops. When officers from the 7th Precinct arrived, Natalie showed them her perfectly charming and very thoroughly documented breasts, and then, accompanied by gallery director Emerald Fitzgerald, took them on a topless tour of the gallery. This incident led to such wonderful headlines as “Natalie White's Boobs Convince Cops Not to Shut Down LES Art Show,” (AnimalNewYork); “Doing Her Breast! Topless Tour Sways Cops,” (N.Y.Post); “NYPD Investigates Boobs on the LES, But he Bust Is A Bust,” (Gothamist); etc., etc., and gave curator Gregory de la Haba the opportunity to harrumph and deliver some good quotes.
The opening on Tuesday the 16th was an absolute zoo. In addition to the usual New York art opening crowd, the two floors of the gallery were packed with fashionistas, models, photographers, artists, various manifestations of the Funky Ol' Lower East Side, and the cops again. There was a fight on the sidewalk; friends couldn't find one another. At its peak, it was tough to take in the art.
“I’m not a model, I’m a muse,” she’ll tell you, and I understand what she means; in her collaborations with various art and fashion luminaries, Natalie takes an active role in the creative process, and sometimes she just takes over. I was lucky enough to have some work included in the show, and I count myself even luckier to have had the opportunity to work with Natalie, for it's more than a pleasure, it is a joy. She is warm, spontaneous, down to earth, and gloriously uninhibited. This interview was conducted on the evening of March 19, when the show was nearly a month away; as I was beginning the transcription, I received this text message from Spencer Tunick: “If I could bottle Natalie’s personality and sprinkle it over Manhattan, we would have a truly naked city.”
Joe Heaps Nelson: Tell me how you came to start working with Peter Beard?
Natalie White: I met him at Bungalow 8. He came up and asked me to be his muse, and I had no idea who he even was, and I said, are you crazy? What does that even mean?
Heaps: And you were 17? No, you were almost 17! So Peter Beard approached you in this nightclub, and what was your first impression of this guy?
White: I thought he was crazy, and I thought what the heck is a muse? And then I guess I became one. I didn’t know anything about the art world at all. I didn’t know who he was. You know, I always kind of wanted to do something that was different, and then I guess I did something that was really different. I asked him, do you have a business card, and he said no, all right, so do you have a cell phone number, and he said I never had a cell phone in my life. So he wrote his name and number on a napkin. I put it in my purse and took it home. The next morning I googled him and I was like, Whoa! Either this guy is lying, or he’s that guy! And he was that guy! And my life was not the same afterwards. So I called the number, and we did a shoot every day for the next 15 days. Around New York City, inside, outside, with all these super famous models.
Heaps: Was that art, or was it fashion?
White: It’s never fashion. Fashion modeling is boring. Who would ever want to do fashion modeling? I guess if you have no choice, why not, but you always have the choice, right?
Heaps: So you were young, and gorgeous, and through Peter Beard you met other artists who wanted to photograph you?
White: I met Michael Dweck right around the same time as Peter, and we did the mermaid shoot right around that time.
Olivier Zahm I met in Paris. I tricked him into photographing me, which was very naughty of me. I admired Purple Magazine for a long time, and I always wanted to work with Olivier Zahm. I saw him at a nightclub and I ran up to him and said Olivier, do you remember me, Natalie White, we met through Peter Beard! You said we should have a photo shoot together! That never actually happened at all, but he was convinced. I told him the story, and he’s really glad that I did it. I made up a story that we met at the Montana, the club in Paris, and we set up this photo shoot but I had to go back to New York. I totally made that up because I wanted to work with Olivier, and he bought it. So we shot for another magazine other than Purple, but he liked the photos so much that he kept them for Purple.
Heaps: One crazy story is the time you posed, and made a big sensation, on the bull.
White: Oh, the infamous Wall Street bull! Peter Beard and I were at Cipriani, taking shots, and Arturo, the sculptor of the bull, came up to us and said, hey, you should shoot on my bull some time, and we were like, all right let’s do it now!
Heaps: So you just went out and got naked and jumped on top?
White: Yep. Pretty much. I started with this really tight Hervé Léger dress, and I just… took it off. My friend’s husband hoisted me up on top of the bull. It’s so funny because he thought I was naked, but I was wearing a skin colored thong. It was really cold too. It was super cold! I think it was March. I was up on the bull and I started out straddling the horns, and the neck. And Peter said crawl on top of it, so I crawled and it was actually dangerous to crawl on top of this huge sculpture. It’s not like I had a net!
Heaps: Stopping traffic.
White: Yeah, I remember my friend Anita, this bus stopped right beside us, and everybody started taking pictures with their cell phones, and my friend Anita started hitting the bus with my fur coat because she was trying to cover up their photos, I was like, well, I’m already here naked, if they’re gonna take photos, why not?
Heaps: And then the stock market shot right up! And how did you start working with my friend Spencer?
White: Spencer contacted me on Facebook, and I was like, who is this person? Just like, over and over again, I don’t know who these people are. He said he wanted to work with me and I’m like, yo, let’s do it! I looked up Spencer, and Spencer (Tunick) is one of the most prolific and important artists of our time, as far as political artists, I mean, there is nobody! And I had seen his photos before, and I loved them, I just didn’t know that it was him that did it. He contacted me because he had seen the Olivier Zahm photos, and he liked them. We started working together. I remember we met, and then we went to this Joseph Arthur painting show. He said to me, you should do a performance art piece with Joe, and before I knew it, my dress was off, and Joe was doing a live performance, painting me in a show.
Heaps: So you’ve been muse to some important photographers, and what about painters?
White: Darius Yektai I worked with a lot. He did a whole show of me at Leila Heller’s gallery here in New York.
I also had a friend of mine from Ohio who commissioned a Will Cotton that I collaborated on, we did the twin Natalies. I think forever I have had this idea that I’m a dual personality, so that’s why I’m obsessed with the 2 of me, which kind of has to do with the 2 of me that I’m doing in the show right now.
Heaps: It’s a giant Cotton Candy painting.
White: 9 feet wide by 7 feet tall! Yeah, I’m feeding myself cotton candy.
Heaps: And that was your idea!
White: Yeah, but Will did it in such an amazing way. Will is one of the greatest painters of our time I believe. He painted it so beautifully. It’s one of the most amazing paintings I have ever seen.
Heaps: So, Natalie, we’ve been talking about how you were a muse for all these guys, and at some point you started making your own work, so you made the transition from muse to becoming an artist yourself.
White: But I’m also my own muse! I figured, I was free, and willing, and available, so why not use me?
Heaps: Tell me about your work, which you are about to show at Emerald Fitzgerald’s Rox Gallery.
White: A couple years ago, I was sitting with my friend John Barlow, and we were talking about the difference between men and women. I said, women don’t need men! He said, what makes you think that? I said, women can get off on the thought of themselves. It was this profound moment where we had this epiphany, wait, women don’t need men around to turn themselves on!
Heaps: Hang on, I have a friend named Gerry Price, and admittedly he is a true deviant, but he used to say, I am probably the only guy you know who jerks off to the thought of myself jerking off.
White: There you go! Directly after that, I went to a nightclub that night, and somebody told me to go fuck myself, and I said if I could fuck myself, do you think I would be here? No, I would be at home, fucking myself! So, it’s like this epiphany mixed with this realization that if we could fuck ourselves, we wouldn’t leave home! We would have Gatorade and chicken sent to us one time a day, and we would just stay at home!
This is going to sound so narcissistic, but the only let down I’ve had in my life is the fact that I cannot make love to a direct replica of myself.
Heaps: Well, don’t worry, the art world is full of narcissists and egomaniacs.
White: I’m the nicest narcissist you’ll ever meet! I really love myself, but I love other people too. I’m not the type of narcissist who says, I love me, and I’m only going to pay attention to me, no! I love you too, but I love me!
Heaps: You know, some people might say it is narcissistic to have naked pictures of yourself all around your apartment.
White: For me it’s not about the naked pictures, it’s about visiting my friends who took the photos, and it’s about reconnecting to that time that we took the photos. It’s not about me being naked, I can look at myself in the mirror naked. I like to visit my friends constantly.
Heaps: So the new photographs are large format Polaroids, self portraits, and each one is a double exposure with 2 Natalies. How do you feel about the way they came out?
White: I was really shocked that they came out so well! I’m really happy with them. I look at them and I’m actually in awe that I did that. Maybe I gave in to the fact that everybody was telling me, oh, this photo is only good because Peter Beard did it, oh, this photo is only good because Michael Dweck did it, I was constantly hearing that. I didn’t believe that, but I was constantly hearing it. So I think when I did this, it was a reaffirmation that, actually, the work that I do is that good. But, I’m in shock. I feel like I didn’t even do that. I feel like it was something else. I feel like I’m looking at them and thinking, these are really amazing photographs, if anybody else did them, I would think that they were great.
Heaps: It’s also a game of chance, because each Polaroid you only have one shot at it. It’s its own negative. And it’s an expensive process, too.
White: You know what? That’s kind of how I live my life. I don’t plan it out, I just do it by chance, and that’s how I wanted to do my Polaroids. I didn’t sit down and calculate where I was going to be, because I know that the best art is mistakes. It’s not what you try to do, it’s the mistake you make that makes the great art.
Heaps: The thing that impressed me also was, you had to have this awareness of where you were in the previous shot in order to make it work, and you made it work every time.
White: It was all by chance, nothing was calculated that made me think, oh, I should do this or I should do that because of the way that I posed before.
Heaps: If you’re doing double exposures, you gotta know where to be to make it look like you’re embracing yourself.
White: I had an idea where I was before, I didn’t have it calculated to the pinpoint. There was me and then there was me. Maybe subconsciously I really wanted to make love to my former self.
Heaps: So the show that’s coming up at Rox Gallery is about you, and you’re working with Gregory de la Haba as the curator. The idea is that it will include work by some of the best photographers and painters out there, and also your own work. What’s your whole idea about the feeling of the show?
White: You know, my feeling is that if there’s an artist out there who wants to do a drawing or a painting of me, and wants to just randomly come in the gallery and hang it up, that’s what I want the show to be like.
Heaps: So any old guy can come in and hang up his art?
White: You know what? Any old guy might be the next Picasso, you never know.
I have an idea for a performance piece that I want to do someday, the Art of Conversation. Because I feel like we’ve totally gotten away from having conversations, with email and text messages, and people are not having conversations any more. So what I want to do is sit in the middle of a gallery on a couch, where people can just come up and have a conversation with me. The words can then become the art. I feel like we’re in an instant information world where people don’t want to speak to each other, they just want to text message or email, or google something to find out the information. They don’t want to speak to anybody. I feel like what we’re missing right now is conversation.
Heaps: That reminds me of the thing Marina Abramovic did at the MoMA, and although that wasn’t necessarily about conversation, it was a one on one thing, about being across the table from someone and encountering that person.
White: I feel like conversation has a huge deficit right now in our world. That’s how you get to know somebody. If you send a text message to somebody they don’t get to see the way, the tone you use, so there are so many misunderstandings. There aren’t misunderstandings when you’re having a conversation.
Heaps: Are you going to do it naked?
White: Maybe. If I do it naked, I’ll probably call it the Art of Awkward Conversation! (laughter) Right?
Heaps: When you told me you interviewed Spencer naked, I thought you meant that he was naked too.
White: No, Spencer (Tunick) doesn’t get naked. He just allows everybody else to get naked.
Heaps: He got naked that one time, and he didn’t like it.
White: I love Spencer. I think his work will stand the test of time, and in 100 years, it will still be important.
Heaps: I think so too. I think he’s one of the greatest artists in the world.
White: So do I. I think he’s completely undervalued and underestimated and everything.
Heaps: Well, the thing is, when you’ve been around a long time, you’re that guy, and everybody is looking for the hot new product.
White: I feel like that’s the hot new product all the time, are you kidding me? Thousands of naked people!
Heaps: It’s great for him, because Spencer can live his life, and go around and do his stuff, and he doesn’t worry about it.
White: No, and I’m not worried about it, but I feel like his art is so important, because the ultimate freedom is to be naked.
Heaps: My mother told me she thinks Spencer is doing his part for world peace.
White: Yup. He makes people feel good. He makes them comfortable in their own skin.
Heaps: Speaking of comfort, this is the first interview I have done in bed.
White: I used to think I was super lucky, and I know that I am incredibly lucky to have worked with all these really amazing artists and I tend to think why do they want to work with me, but they all want to work with me.
I’m not the muse of artists because I’m rich. I’m not the muse of artists because I grew up in a well to do family. I’m not the muse of artists because I’m an heiress. I’m not well connected. I knew nobody! I guess I just fell into it because they liked me, not because I could buy their artwork. Because I couldn’t.
Heaps: You’re a West Virginia mountain flower.
White: Take me home, country road! To the place I belong, West Virginia!
Heaps: Mountaineers are always free!
White: Yup. That’s something that I will always be able to know, that it’s not because of anything other than, well I guess people could say it’s because I was hot. But they can’t say it’s because I was important, or because my family was important.
Heaps: Nobody handed it to you.
White: Right, and I’m glad they didn’t. I think it would have been much more boring. I grew up super poor.
Heaps: Was it a coal mining town?
White: Everywhere is a coal mining town in West Virginia. My great grandfather was a coal miner, all of my friends were coal miners. My father was incredibly intelligent, and I think that’s probably what pushed me to grasp this intellectual world.
Heaps: How’d you end up in the big city? Just went?
White: I told my parents if they didn’t see me around the house, it’s because I was in New York. (laughter) And I just went from there. There’s no stopping somebody like me. And I’ve had a lot of inner conflicts about stuff like that, because I was brought up really religious. I possibly have this inner psyche that says, should I be doing this? And I’m like, I’m already doing it. If it feels right, you should do it, right?
Heaps: You’re asking me?
White: Yeah, even though I do have this inner conflict, I’ve always gone the opposite of it. Should I do this? Of course I should. Ad lib! Ad live. Everyone should always Ad live.
“Who Shot Natalie White” is at Rox Gallery, 86 Delancey Street, New York, through May 12.
Artists featured in the show are:
Noel Arikian, Joseph Arthur, Peter Beard, Anna Bloda, Eneas Capalbo, Will Cotton, Michael DiDonna, Michael Dweck, Andrew Einhorn, Jan Frank, Paul Forsman, Elliot Goldstein, Anthony Haden Guest, Jeffrey Hagerman, Michael Hoerner, Ryan Keeley, Sean Lennon, Raphael Mazzucco, Joe Heaps Nelson, Max Snow, Spencer Tunick, Elizabeth Waugh, Darius Yektai, Olivier Zahm and Natalie White.
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Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.