The closest thing to a religious experience for me is to visit an artist’s studio. Like darkened old cathedrals, I find them intimidating places full of the thoughts and processes, the daydreams and demons that inform each artist’s work. They are sacred sites, somewhere I feel honoured to be admitted to. I understand the inherently private nature of a work space – me walking in to an artist’s studio is akin to someone else reading my writing journals. I hate the thought of anyone reading my work before I’m ready to show it, but oh how I love glimpsing new studio works mid creation, or the discarded pile of sketches and half-finished work cast aside in frustration! I love the library of completed works that tell a tale of artistic journey. And I love the smell. It doesn’t matter what medium an artist works in, there’s something about the smell of a work space that I find intoxicating.
There is a wonderful energy I feel every time I visit a studio, irrespective of whether I’m standing in a living workroom or the preserved space of an artist who has passed. I’ve felt it in Brett Whiteley’s Surry Hills studio, throughout the Norman Lindsay homestead in the Blue Mountains, and at the Musee Rodin in Paris. I feel it when I’m at my friend Linde’s studio in Sydney, and am already tingling with anticipation knowing I’m soon to visit the newly restored Margaret Olley home in Murwillumbah. Without question though, the most enthralling was one that wasn’t open to the public, and now no longer even exists.
Abstract painter Michael Goldberg’s Lower East Side studio in New York City was hidden behind a shady looking entrance on Bowery directly opposite the New Museum of Contemporary Art. 222 Bowery is a building suffused with cultural significance. Though Michael had died two years prior to my visit it remained the home of his widow, the painter Lynn Umlauf, and was the head office of what had become Michael Goldberg’s estate.
My memories are of a multilevel loft, crammed full of books and artwork and things. The lower floor was dominated by Michael’s studio. Vast tables, moveable walls and scaffolding filled the work area, necessary equipment for handling Michael’s enormous canvases. Drops of paint speckled the floor, some from the studio’s previous tenant Mark Rothko. Paintings in the process of being stretched over frames or packaged for transport sat waiting to reach new homes. Upstairs, via a precarious staircase and racks full of canvases, was the couple’s bedroom, and further again the most beautiful space of all – Lynn’s studio.
A floor to ceiling Palladian window allowed just enough light to cast shadows, and made for a space as moody and mysterious as Lynn herself was to me. I never met her, had only heard stories, and standing in her space made me feel like an interloper. You could tell a lot about a person from that room.
The Goldberg studio was a place of layers, both structurally and in the placement of the accumulated objects that come with living. Every corner held poignancy. More than that it was a time capsule of a marriage that had ended with Michael’s sudden death yet seemed somehow only a temporary suspension, as though Michael would be back soon and they’d pick up from where they’d left off. I shouldn’t have been there, but I’m so glad I was.
Sadly the building that housed not just Goldberg and Rothko, but also William S Burroughs, and is still home to poet John Giorno, sculptor Lynda Benglis and Umlauf, has been slated for redevelopment and all that history is set to become cultural ether. It would be such an awful shame to see it turn to dust.
Photos by Carrie McCarthy