By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, December 2020
Elwes has a show up now at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, Mayfair W1.
Damian Elwes’ father and grandfather were artists. “They both left me their brushes,” he says. But Elwes, a young Brit, went to Harvard, resolved to write plays. Graffiti was the game-changer. “The paintings on the walls of New York City were alive and metamorphosing every day,” he says. “This was 1984.”
After Harvard, the director, Sidney Lumet, hired him to work on a
movie. “My job was crowd control,” Elwes says. One shoot was in Penn Station “I cleared everybody out. And there was Keith Haring, working on black posters with white chalk. I told him that what he was doing looked a lot more interesting than what I was doing.” He and Haring talked graffiti. “He was very approachable and magnanimous,” Elwes says. But Haring insisted that Elwes make a painting before they spoke again.
Elwes soon got another assignment. Lumet’s town house was to be replaced by a skyscraper, so he was out of the place and wanted Elwes to make sure his belongings were safely out too. Done deal. “Next day I realized I had the keys to a double brownstone on West 56th Street,” he says. “I’m so lucky! This is where I can do a painting. As a Brit I was too uncomfortable to go out on the street and paint graffiti, so I painted every day in that building.”
The building was huge, its flat roof was soon covered with Elwes graffiti and highly visible. Word got around and Robert Fraser, a leading London dealer, who was in New York putting together the first UK show about New York graffiti art, was told about this Brit practicioner. The gallerist was skeptical. “There’s no English graffiti artists. There’s no graffiti art in England!”. But he did send his assistant, Gerard Faggionato, to check it out, and he gave the work a thumbs up. “Robert loved my paintings,” Elwes says. A couple of months later Elwes was in the UK for the opening at a major Edinburgh gallery, the Fruitmarket.
Elwes then went down to London and met Jean-Michel Basquiat, at his retrospective at the ICA, in which Robert Fraser had a hand. Fraser offered Elwes a graffiti art show on Cork Street, but Elwes was already moving on from this. “I want to tell stories. You can’t tell stories with a spray can,” he told Fraser. “I’m going to go to Paris to learn to paint with a brush”.
Elwes spoke marginal French but hit the Paris pavement running. “On my first day I went to Picasso’s Bateau Lavoir studio,” he says. “And there was nothing there, it was gone. Next day I went to where Matisse had had a studio on the Quai St Michel. That building is still there, but I couldn’t get in past the concierge.” But at the Pompidou Center he chanced upon Picasso and Matisse paintings of their studios alongside each other. “I sat in front of those paintings for several hours. I was crying because I was realizing at that moment how much I loved painting. I loved line, form and color. I guess I was thinking about my grandfather and father being painters and that I was now painting. It was not something that I had really wanted to do. It had just happened.”
Next day he went to the Gustave Moreau Museum which is in the former double studio of the Symbolist who had taught Matisse. Elwes sat on a spiral staircase to sketch the space. The Picasso and Matisse studio canvases were still on his mind, and he knew that Picasso once said that the way artists place their things tells you as much about those artists as their paintings do. “I had a breakthrough,” he says. “I realized what I had to do. I decided to knock on the door of every artist studio that I could find and ask: Can I make a drawing of your studio?”
Elwes had his project but knew no artists in Paris. No problem,
“I walked all over Paris,” he says. “You can’t imagine how much I walked.” He found his first studio in an otherwise empty building, locating it by the smell of the linseed oil, and it developed from there. “I would knock on the door and ask to make a drawing of their studio. They would look at me suspiciously ... Okay, fine! If you just sit very quietly in the corner. At the end of the day, the artist would take a look. He’d say ‘quite good! You know, if you like my mess you’ll love my friend’s mess.’” So on to the next. “And these little paintings were telling stories about each of those artists.”
That was a two year project. When it was done, Elwes moved to Los Angeles, set up a studio, married, and embarked on a wholly different endeavor. For seven years, he and his wife, Lewanne, lived in Colombia making vast paintings of the threatened rainforest. They returned to LA in 2000 when Colombia got too dangerous. “I talked myself out of a FARC kidnapping” he says. “When we got back to Los Angeles, the first thing I did was buy a computer. Because we didn’t have computers, telephones, TVs or anything there.” His early obsession resurfaced. “The first thing I googled was Picasso’s Bateau Lavoir studio,” he says.
Nine small photographs appeared on the screen. Elwes began to draw from them, trying to reconstruct a studio destroyed before his initial foray to Paris. “But I couldn’t make sense of what the studio looked like,” he says. “Then I saw the hand of one of the Demoiselles d’Avignon in one of the photographs. I looked at the others, and there was the arm of the opposite demoiselle in another photo. I printed up “Les Demoiselles d”Avignon,” and suddenly I could attach all the photographs together like a jigsaw puzzle and see what it looked like. That was the breakthrough painting. I wanted to be a fly on the wall and see what was going on in the studio of my heros.”
That was how it began. Elwes says he has now painted at least 200 artist studios, including those of Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Frida Kahlo. “I’m probably the only person apart from Picasso who has set foot in all of his studios,” he says, “and painted in some of them.” He takes all his research with him, and sometimes he has been the one to tell the current occupants of a space about the famous artist who once worked there. “I told one woman in Paris that her living room was where Picasso invented Cubism and another woman that her office was where Matisse developed Fauvism. Last year, I located Lichtenstein’s sixties studio in New York City, and the student living there had no idea of the Pop art that was created in his bedroom,” he says. Sometimes Damian works from photographs and occasionally, as with Hilma af Klint, some imaginative reconstruction is required.
That painting of Hilma’s studio is on display at Elwes’ exhibition at Unit London at Hanover Square. The painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio on Crosby Street, New York, looks as if the artist had just dunked his brushes and left. Another canvas depicts the studio of Alex Katz. “Jerry Saltz helped with that. So did Betty Tompkins,” Elwes says. “She told me to tell the studio assistant that Betty sent you.” Other canvases show the workspaces of Nicholas Party, Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico, Rose Wylie, the littered studio of Lucian Freud, with a hound dog in the window, and Cy Twombly’s home in Gaeta.
Twombly’s space is full of details such as a newspaper open to the page of Saddam Hussein’s capture. “Cy’s son, Alessandro, is a dear friend,” Elwes says. “Cy was very interested in the Middle East. I had done a painting before using five little Polaroids that Cy had taken of his last studio. That studio was in his house. He had a big commercial space nearby, but then, as he got older, he started working again in a little room under his house. I’m going to go back there and make some more paintings this year for sure.”
Contemporary artists frequently reference the past, all too often dispiritingly. It is the gift of Damian Elwes to make paintings that deliver the working life of the art world with warmth and intimacy. - AHG
It seems like pure luck through the lens of what we are experiencing right now that I would spend the summer of 2019 visiting the studios of Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler, Haring, Katz, Rothko, Hesse, Kusama, Basquiat and Kelly in New York City, Twombly’s studio in Gaeta, and the studios of Rose Wylie and Lucian Freud in London. Since then, I have been busy painting all of those places, trying to describe moments in time when those artists were at their most inventive.
It is a project which began many years ago. Instead of going to art school, I went to Paris to learn to paint. I didn’t know anyone and had no studio there, but I had read Matisse’s advice to young artists, that they go to museums and copy favorite artworks. On one of the first days in Paris, I visited Gustav Moreau’s studio where Matisse had learned to paint. I was making a drawing of that space when I realized exactly what I would do in Paris. Over the next two years, I walked all over that city and made paintings of every artist studio that I could find.
I want these paintings to offer hope in these troubled times. There is loss and grief all around us and many feel trapped in their homes. My paintings peer into private spaces where artists have used their creativity and imagination to change the way we perceive the world. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
view all articles from this author