It’s one thing to contemplate an artist’s work on the walls of a gallery or in a good museum, or perhaps read a great article in a leading art magazine, but the perspective one receives is obviously limited and never totally complete until you have the opportunity to converse directly with the artist while in their studio.
This dilemma is even more complicated, as most artists are private people, and as they gain fame their time to host studio appointments becomes severely limited. Unless you are a good friend, a family relative, an art critic or curator, or a well-known active collector with unlimited financial resources, your chances of meeting with an eminent artist on his home turf are unlikely. The next best thing may be the occasion to view an informative documentary or interview, where you get the essence of the artist and the “creative nest” with which the artist has surrounded himself.
I am grateful that I have had extraordinary opportunities over the past several decades to observe exceptional artists where they work, which came my way as a dealer in contemporary art on West Broadway in Manhattan and Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, and later as a curator for numerous museum shows and as a critic and editor-in-chief of The Art Economist. These experiences were particularly valuable and memorable as they led to connecting with some of the most famous artists living in America, including Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, which offered me insightful perspectives and professional work habits.
When I first met Hunt Slonem over thirty years ago, he lived and worked in a modest walk-up studio on Houston street in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. As I approached his studio door with a knock and a shout, I unintentionally initiated what seemed to be a buzzing primitive call to the wild with a harmonic chorus of exotic birds squawking to announce an impending guest. Inside, near the entrance, a veritable jungle of giant cages housed dozens of exotic birds, a long-time passion and preoccupation for Hunt, whose inhabitants all seem to squawk in harmonic unison as you pass by.
I soon discovered that the artist lived and worked with the subjects of his paintings, fair-weather feathered friends that were the models for his expansive artistic investigations into winged creatures of the earth.
Hunt has moved his studio several times in the last few decades, but still holds on to his original digs on Houston Street, where he routinely returns each night after a challenging day in his studio.
Interior corridor, Hunt Slonem Studio, Brooklyn, New York. The studio originally was a turn-of-the-century factory building connected to the whaling industry, which later was used for manufacturing furniture. Photograph by Ariana Fatima Muessel.
“Hunt Slonem is the kind of artist whose life becomes his art…”
Slonem’s current studio is a bona fide museum of curiosities, supported by a massive 30,000 sq. ft. space filled to the brim with marvelous paintings accented by thousands of delightful objects from the turn of the century and positioned next to vintage furniture, often reupholstered with one of the artist’s designed favorite fabric repeat prints or perhaps a dazzling pattern of flying butterflies in an aerodynamic formation custom printed on wallpaper.
This amazing studio is simply packed to the ceiling a with visual unending energy that is simply unforgettable. A quote from renowned collector Beth DeWoody published in the artist’s latest book is insightful and accurate: “Hunt Slonem is the kind of artist whose life becomes his art. Walking into his studio is like entering a magical world of a Victorian-era mansion in the middle of a rainforest.” As you wander down a long, wide corridor that must be nearly the length of a football field, you might stop to examine a fine table overflowing with 18th century formal top hats and their original cases (think Abraham Lincoln!), and when the light shines past a stately view of the Statue of Liberty, ricochets off the adjacent East River and hits a factory shelf chock-full of wondrous vividly-hued glass containers, it adds a constant colorful sparkle to the floors, which are covered with classic rugs that sometimes feature a Slonem original design.
It’s easy to get lost here, if not physically then certainly emotionally sidetracked by yet another surprising presentation of handsome, unusual items, all hand-collected by the maestro.
There is a large table displaying new hardcover books all about Hunt Slonem and his adventuresome quest of acquiring properties that he then decorates to the nines. Another section is filled with his new series of laser-cut, painted sculptures of birds, bunnies and monkeys.
You can judge a lot about an artist when you consider their studios. There always is a “visual aroma” of a professional studio environment that often is an unforgettable encounter.
Each studio has its own level of momentum. Sometimes tranquil, but most often a bit frantic with deliveries and shipping crisscrossing, assistants running in all directions, and deadlines and professional commitments met without a moment to spare. Even a quick visit with a notable artist offers convincing evidence of success. One tip-off is the size of a working space and the number of paintings that are wrapped and clearly meant to be shipped to exciting destinations around the world. Hunt has multiple openings every single month for years into the future, not only in the United States, but in museums and galleries around the world, which amplifies the ongoing drive in his personal nest.
The other evidence of a remarkable character are the objects scattered around the studio, which have a built-in intriguing aesthetic that may manifest into collections of collections later on that are enjoyable and stimulating to the artist. Dale Chihuly is the only other artist that I know who preferred from the get-go to surround himself with hundreds of things that he loves, such as Bakelite radios, vintage plastic cameras, chalkware, and dozens of other categories that are documented in my latest book “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Harry Abrams, Inc.). English artist Peter Blake loves to surround himself with vintage advertisements and English knickknacks, which were an incentive for his historic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover. Damien Hirst is a noted collector and the richest artist in Great Britain and loves to collect artworks and objects that often end up in his artworks.
Hunt fits the mold of a highly respected and successful artist who somehow finds time to continue building his collections, which often appear in his studio as inspiration or at one of the half-dozen properties that he owns in the United States, from plantations in Louisiana to the former governor’s mansion in upstate New York to a jaw-dropping 150,000 sq. ft. former Armory in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Armory is jam-packed with amazing furnishings after 500 truckloads arrived from the Brooklyn studio, and is the focus of his latest blockbuster book, “Gatekeeper: World of Folly” (Assouline Press).
(1) Hunt Slonem, Untitled, 2019, Oil on wood, 32.5 x 27.5 in. Courtesy Hunt Slonem Studio.
(2) Hunt Slonem, Untitled, 2018, Oil and acrylic with diamond dust on canvas, 72 x 84 in. Courtesy Hunt Slonem Studio.
Hunt Slonem is on a roll. He has achieved overwhelming critical acclaim, his work is in hundreds of museum collections, including the Metropolitan and Whitney, and he continues to receive invitations to exhibit and lecture around the planet. What’s so remarkable to me is the level of perpetual vitality and genuine enthusiasm he displays in all his activities and the idiosyncratic signature that is evident in all of his work, no matter what the topic. While you might not get the opportunity to meet this natural treasure in person, you certainly can stay in touch by joining his newsletter or checking out one of the many exhibitions scheduled for this summer.
– June 1: Kiev Picture Gallery, Kiev Ukraine
– June 1: Gallery Red, Mallorca, Spain
– June 29: Jessica Hagen Fine Art, Newport, RI
– July 4: Odessa Museum of Eastern and Western Art
– July 18: Diehl Gallery, Jackson, WY
– August 1: Gallery Red, Ibiza, Spain
– August 9: Quidley & Co, Nantucket, MA
For more information about the artist: www.huntslonem.com
Table of top hats and their cases, Hunt Slonem collection, Hunt Slonem Studio, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Bruce Helander.
Hunt Slonem, Untitled, 2015, Ed. 1/10, Acrylic on aluminum, 19 x 6 x 6.5 in. Courtesy Hunt Slonem Studio.
Hunt Slonem, Untitled, 2019, Oil on wood, 32.5 x 27.5 in. Courtesy Hunt Slonem Studio.
Hunt Slonem, Untitled, 2018, Oil and acrylic with diamond dust on canvas, 72 x 84 in. , Courtesy Hunt Slonem Studio.
Hunt Slonem Studio, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Ariana Fatima Muessel.
Portrait of Hunt Slonem in his studio, on his bunny couch in front of his Bunny Wall, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Brandon Schulman.
—Bruce Helander is an artist who writes on art. He is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of
Fame, a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and a former
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of
Design. He first wrote on the artist in 2008 in his award-winning book, “Learning to See” and
later in “Hunt Slonem – Bunnies” (Glitterati Press).