Larry Krone owns his apartment, a modest walk-up on the lower East Side that doubles as both home and artist’s studio space. Ownership, be it in the Trump Tower or a rehabbed tenement, is something special in realty-mad Manhattan. So after more than a dozen years in this city, Krone appears to have made it.
To top things off, the University City native was one of only five contemporary artists invited to participate in a current exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s satellite branch on Park Avenue. Heady stuff, the Whitney. A New York Times review is a probability rather than a possibility.
So on an early April evening, amid the kitschy retro decor of Krone’s pad and over the sounds of Elvis’ 1968 comeback TV special, I ask the 32-year-old whether he can still recall the dreary days, the starving artist afternoons — the low points that must surely be lapsing into faded memories by now.
“Low points?” he says with a laugh that might best be described as a maniacal giggle. “They happen all the time. Every day.”
The smile remains frozen on Krone’s face. It’s a smile that implies: “Hey, the low points are just part of the deal. Sometimes the phone rings, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s life in the big city, pal. That’s life in New York.”
It’s a life that still holds allure for visual artists from across the country and around the globe, about half a century after New York City supplanted Paris as art’s epicenter. And St. Louisans are among those seduced by the critical mass of artists, curators, writers and dealers.
There’s Krone, the veteran now firmly ensconced in the city’s ever-present hustle and bustle; Katherine Bernhardt, quickly drawing attention only a few years removed from grad school; Kit Keith and Ted Barron, a married couple giving the Big Apple a second shot; Eric Spehn, still finding his feet in a new and frenetic environment; and Jerald Ieans, a rising young star who manages to split his time between the comfort of hometown St. Louis and the energy of the city that never sleeps.
These St. Louisans consider themselves New York artists. They’re fish swimming among similar species in a grossly overstocked lake, one where no one really cares what high school you attended, and where museums and galleries are as plentiful as Walgreens stores and corner taverns.
This is the world’s art capital. And for now, at least, it’s home.
Krone came here on a trial basis – basically to have fun. No career stuff. His teachers had always taken his artwork more seriously than he had. And, besides, it was just too difficult to get started in this city. But things are different these days:
“Now I never really want to leave,” he says.
He’s felt that way since 1994. His NYU schooling ended a year before, and Krone found himself in a juried group show in a small gallery. Nothing major, but this was his work, on exhibit. Then a group show at the prestigious Drawing Center lead to some acclaim.
“People still remember that,” Krone says.
By the late ’90s he had forged a style of his own, one that combined elements of performance and fabric art, of found object sculpture and country music appreciation. In 1997, he returned home when the Forum for Contemporary Art presented his “To All the Girls I Loved Before,” a live performance and exhibit that had the balding artist literally creating lovelorn songs from his shedding hair.
Odd? Not for a guy who fashions dolls from human teeth and whose compositions range from whiskey bottle sculptures to country ballads. With his earnest quirkiness, Krone has made a name for himself. Good press. Some sales. Still, he’s unrepresented here – a recent gallery affiliation ended when the space shuttered shortly before a Krone solo exhibit – and his next show will once again be back in St. Louis, at William Shearburn Fine Art in May.
Then again, there’s the Whitney appearance, and that’s a pretty big deal for Krone – not to mention his family.
“My sister will be the major part of the performance piece,” he says.
In fact, Janet “Sissy” Kennedy and her guitarist husband, Randy “Buck” Kennedy, have been strong supporters and accomplices of Krone. They live in the New York area, a fact that the artist doesn’t take for granted.
“My whole family has been incredibly supportive,” he says; his parents encouraged him to rent a studio space in New York after his graduation. (It helped that they paid the bill.) They’ve also purchased his work over the years, helping to supplement an income that mostly comes from installation work at local galleries and other handyman-type jobs.
“There’s not a whole lot of money in this career,” he says with that laugh popping through again. “And times have been really lean since September 11. But in St. Louis, it’s kind of hard to get a good critical appreciation of your work, so I’m glad to be here.”
He looks around his small apartment, eyeing the seamless, cluttered landscape of living room, kitchen, bedroom and work space. The ukulele that once belonged to his grandfather – and which is a major part of Krone’s musical pieces – rests on the kitchen table. A multilayered costume, stitched together for “Sissy” to wear in the Whitney performance, hangs nearby as a work in progress. Krone’s northern migration hasn’t resulted in the loosening of family ties one bit.
“I love to go back to the old neighborhood (Ames Place in University City),” he said earlier during a stroll through nearby Tompkins Square Park. “It’s nice to get the quiet and the green trees.
“But, still, this really feels like where I need to be.”
From exams to exhibits
Like Krone, Clayton native Katherine Bernhardt came to New York for schooling: graduate work at the School of Visual Arts. But she knew immediately that this is where she wanted to stay and start a career.
And, at 27, she’s riding a wave of interest in her art: a glowing, full-page review in the Village Voice of her two-gallery exhibit in December; participation in last month’s Momenta Art exhibit and benefit for emerging artists, where Bernhardt’s work went into a silent auction alongside that of such luminaries as Robert Gober and Joseph Kosuth; selection for the recent Dubrow Biennial, a showcase for young artists whose work has been recognized and purchased by noted collector Norman Dubrow.
On a roll, to say the least.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Bernhardt says. She’s sitting in the back office of her Chelsea home base, Team Gallery, going over some recent slides with gallery owner Jose Freire. She dons the requisite laid-back manner and paint-splattered sneakers of the emerging artist.
Again like Krone, Bernhardt has found life as a New York artist a life of trade-offs and sacrifices.
“I love meeting people here, the other artists, getting involved in projects and going to art shows and the museums,” she says. “Most of my fr iends are visual artists, and there’s a lot of energy.
“If I were still in St. Louis or Chicago (she attended the Art Institute there), I’m not sure if anything would have happened with my work. There’s just so much here.”
Then there’s the downside.
“That obviously would have to be the whole money thing,” she says. “The cost of studio space, just the simple cost of everyday living.”
Her studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn appears in danger of redevelopment as expensive residential lofts. She’s on the prowl for a replacement, holding out hope on a grant that would result in a nice space in nearby Tribeca.
Bernhardt, who grew up in tree-lined Claverach Park in Clayton, also misses the quiet green spaces and clean air of home. Probably never more so than on Sept. 11, when she watched the horrors unfold from her apartment building rooftop just a few miles from the Trade Center attacks.
She vividly remembers people running and walking up the street covered in debris. The eerie silence broken by the wail of sirens. For the next week or so, she barely left home. But she didn’t let the attack affect her feelings for New York – or her work.
“There’s nothing in my work that has anything to do with destruction or terror,” she says. Then she breaks into a smile.
“My work’s all about pretty girls and bright colors,” she says. “I don’t think I let it affect me at all.”
There and back again
For painter Kit Keith and photographer Ted Barron, life as a New York artist is a return engagement. The married couple spent more than a decade living in Brooklyn before returning to their St. Louis roots four years ago.
Barron and Keith, who was pregnant at the time, figured they would take a few years to regroup, lean on family for support, and then head back for another go.
And that’s where they now find themselves. Only this time around the space is a bit more cramped, as rising prices have forced them to combine their studio and living space, a loft-style apartment in an industrial factory that still manufactures sewing machines on the floors below. What hasn’t changed, Keith says, is the everyday stress and noise of city living.
That being said, she still loves it.
“The same things I complain about are the same things that make me happy,” says Keith, 39. “Taking the subway, the bus, fighting through the people. That can be a pain. But I also really enjoy it at times.”
As for career, things are definitely much more difficult in the grossly overstocked lake. In those two years back in St. Louis, Keith and Barron had a dual exhibit at Mossa Center, then Keith had successful, critically acclaimed shows at Gallery 210 and William Shearburn. Back in New York, she’s found representation at a Brooklyn gallery but has yet to have an exhibit.
“The support at home was great, and I’d have to say that I was just as stimulated and motivated in St. Louis as I am here,” Keith says. “I don’t think you have to be here to make it as an artist. This is just where Ted and I want to be, where we want to live.”
On that point, she’s correct. One of St. Louis’ most successful artists of the past decade, Tom Friedman, managed to forge a major reputation when his temporary home base was Chicago, not New York. But Keith realizes that just the right break in her adopted hometown could be a career-making opportunity. Until then, she’ll continue to paint when she finds time between her occasional free-lance advertising work and her parenting duties.
“I’m working consistently, but hey, I’m a mom,” she laughs. “But I finally feel I have the confidence to be a successful artist here.”
Best of both worlds
You might say that painter Gerald Ieans has had that confidence for quite a while. St. Louis gallery owner Jim Schmidt gave the Parkway Central graduate his first show at age 22. In 1994, at the age of 24, Ieans became the youngest artist to solo at the Art Museum.
Within a year, he began to lay the groundwork for a move to New York. He found a summer sublet in Brooklyn, a part-time job at Sotheby’s. A couple of group shows only added to the confidence. Ieans then decided to try London for a bit. Then some hopscotching between New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
These days? The peripatetic Ieans, now 31, has slowed down a bit to plant one foot in New York and the other back home. The best of both worlds. For energizing and networking, Ieans heads north, where he is without studio space but is looking. For tranquillity and room to work, he settles in on the ninth floor of the A.D. Brown building downtown – home to two massive, light-drenched work areas lined with his latest abstract paintings.
Let’s just say things are going swell for Ieans. He received high marks as part of last year’s “Freestyle” exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Peter Plagens of Newsweek called Ieans “that rarest of all artists: a good, young, no-nonsense abstract painter.” The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl said Ieans’ pieces “are some of the strongest new paintings I’ve seen this year.” To add fawning to flattery, Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr selected Ieans for a piece on 12 emerging artists in a recent issue of Art Forum magazine.
Despite the early and current success, Ieans’ career hasn’t always been so charmed.
“I remember early on in New York, I would go to openings and stop by galleries and make a lot of contacts,” he says on a recent afternoon in his St. Louis studio. “These people tell you they’ll call, but then they never would. I really got to a point where I just wanted to give up, to stop making the work. I was pretty low.”
But he kept at it. And now he’s at a point where he has New Yorkers flying down to see his work in the Midwest.
“But there are some things you just can’t replace about being up there,” Ieans explains. “The constant energy and exposure, the conversations that you have with people at dinner. Just the environment you ‘re in.” It’s an environment still being felt out by one of Ieans old Parkway Central classmates, Eric Spehn.
Like Ieans, Spehn received an early boost from Schmidt and his gallery. Two years ago, the painter moved to New York when his Swiss-born girlf riend took a job there. But the move had always been in Spehn’s career plan.
So now he’s another one of the new kids on the block, painting in a cramped second bedroom in his Brooklyn apartment, still adapting to the everyday hurdles and pains that come with life in a megalopolis. “The constant activity and motion,” Spehn says.
But after a gestation period, as well as complete change in his method of painting, Spehn says he’s ready to show his work to some interested art reps sometime this summer.
He’s ready, he thinks, to start being a New York City artist.
© 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch