WELCOME DOLLHOUSE to the Gloria Vanderbilt

to the
Inside her private art studio, Gloria Vanderbilt fashions a teeming
universe—of paintings and objects that, like their creator, are
dreamy, provocative, and full of inner strength. The artist invited T&C to take
a rare look at the working life of an American icon.
By M I C H A E L L I N D S AY - H O G G
with me when I visited her in her
studio. She was wearing a light blue
painter’s smock over black slacks
and a black sweater, with Chinese
slippers on her feet. The smock had
some dabs of paint on it. She was
wearing no makeup, and, although
some years past her first youth, she looked as pretty
as the serious girl who might
have sung in the school choir,
with intelligence as present in
her face as softness and clarity.
The reason I’d brought a
pad and pen was to take notes
as I talked to Gloria about her
painting. But after a few scribbles—“Wheeler School in Providence,” “Art Students League,
charcoal drawings from live
models”—I gave up, because
I realized that wouldn’t really
get the job done. After all, I’ve
known her for 55 years, since I was a 16-year-old
(when my mother introduced me to Gloria and
her husband, Sidney Lumet), and then in many
different, and delightful, ways, as our paths
connected and crisscrossed throughout the years.
Vanderbilt: a name signifying great wealth. Gloria: signifying celebrity, at first of an unwelcome
kind, when she was the subject of a tabloid sensation
custody case at age 10, and then for her fabled beauty,
marriages, and romances. But if that’s the only way
you think of Gloria Vanderbilt, you’ve got her dead
wrong. When I look at her work, my friendship with
her is out of the equation, and my eye is always objective: She is a great and original artist and painter.
Over time Gloria’s work has gone in many different directions, has sustained, and continues to
surprise. She works in different media (oil, acrylic,
egg tempera), and her palette has always been
bright with varieties of pink, red,
lavender, yellow. It is vibrant,
vivid, but has only been in the
service of an idea, a composition,
a feeling, an emotion, and is never
after just prettiness. And in her
work there is nothing of sentimentality, even when the subject
is tender: a contented couple with
two children in the background,
or a mother with a child, or a
woman in a hat. They and hundreds more have a kind of power
to them, with a sense not of melancholy but of what the passage of time means, of
how the present will one day be a memory.
If Gloria were a dilettante, seeing her work would
be like looking into a kaleidoscope, with the loose bits
of colored glass arranging themselves in predictably
changing, pretty, and boring combinations. But in her
hands, old and expected patterns can be wrenched,
and any prettiness will have a sense of torque to it
and even, maybe, a frisson of something violent.
Photographs by J O N AT H A N B E C K E R
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Gloria Vanderbilt, in her own Fortuny
dress, relaxes in her Manhattan
apartment. The portrait at right
is of her mother, Gloria Morgan
Vanderbilt. Opposite: Vanderbilt’s Doll
House, a work in progress.
Styled by Jade Hobson
Vanderbilt painted Father and Son:
Wyatt and Carter Cooper in 1965.
Opposite, from top: The artist created a
hall of mirrors in her apartment—
an appropriate effect for a woman of
myriad parts; a silk dressing gown hangs
on a closet door in Vanderbilt’s bedroom,
next to Pictures on a Bedroom Wall, 1975.
In some early works of Cézanne, before he’d rearranged apples and
Mont Sainte-Victoire, the paint was laid on thick and rough, the
brushstrokes harsh, and the scenes were of violation, sexual and emotional—the figures twisted, very untranquil, reaching, grabbing, with
one character wishing not to be denied, the other wishing to flee. In
some of Gloria’s work, although her paint is more delicately applied,
many of these elements are also present.
One of her paintings is of a little girl (herself?) witnessing the death
of an adult (her grandmother?) in a bed. The child—in white, on a dark
green background, shot, like silk, with black—is stabbing an arm out,
as if wishing for something to stop, to be other: “No, don’t go!” And in
the upper center is an extraordinary figure in turmoil under the sheets,
seeming to be in the throes of a passion—a passion to hold on, not to
surrender, a character in a frenzy you could read as erotic if you didn’t
know the issue at hand. The working title was Deathbed Scene, which
Gloria changed to the more open-ended Transition. But you still know
that there is a kind of violence to what is going on, whether mortal or
sexual. (I’ve often read, and found, that there is a connection between
the two.) Like any great artist, Gloria is both innocent, in that she can
always be surprised, and sophisticated, so that she understands the inescapable hazards of interpretation—which is something central to being
alive: “Is this what is going on, or is it that?”
I said to Gloria that some of her work seemed masculine. By that I
meant it has what are thought of as qualities associated with manliness:
boldness, something direct and muscular, if of a sinewy kind. From the
mouth of this most feminine of people came a little laugh, half mirth
and half scoff, and she said, “Oh, darling, I think women can do bold and
direct too. Don’t you?” We smiled at each other. Her point was made.
In her hands, any
prettiness will have a sense of torque
to it and even, maybe, a frisson
of something violent.
than once I went to visit him in his studio in London. It was a jumble,
a mess, with paint flung off many brushes onto walls already thickly
impastoed with many earlier signs of frustration. Ankle deep it was,
with rags, newspapers, photographs, squeezed-dry tubes of paint, and
mutilated, rejected canvases. And great works of art, on their way.
In contrast, Gloria’s studio in the East 50s is pristine, almost nunlike.
Everything is in its place—some paints on the table beside her easel,
­others neatly arranged on a shelf. In a small adjoining room she works
on her Dream Boxes, with the mélange of things she needs to create
them at hand. It was in this modest studio that she was forced to live for
two years after she was swindled by her psychiatrist, the inaptly named
Christ L. Zois, and her lawyer, Thomas A. Andrews. The latter was disbarred in 1992 and died soon afterward, just before a judge ordered his
estate to pay $1.4 million to Gloria. Zois was ordered to pay a judgment
of $97,300. (He lost his license to practice in New York in 1995 but still
lives in a manner that could be described as extremely comfortable.)
Made broke by the affair—and receiving, she says, not a penny of the
judgment—Gloria sold her much-loved family house in Southampton
and her apartment in New York City. So she lived here, survived, and
went on painting, until fortune smiled on her again. She now lives in
an apartment in the same building as her studio, full of her paintings,
objects, mementos, a lifetime of things, monitored by an intelligence
and sense of proportion, and a mind full of curiosity.
One of the funny things about art is that where you see it affects
your perception. If it’s in MoMA, or at the Whitney, or in a Gagosian gallery, you think this might be something valuable, in both senses.
Larry Gagosian has become such an influential and powerful dealer that
you can imagine a potential buyer asking, “A million dollars for that?
GETAWAY CLAUSE “Crime Does Pay—But Not Very Much”
is the subtitle of a new study on the economics of bank robbery.
It concludes that the average stooge nets around $20,000 per
heist and will be arrested within 18 months. Both numbers increase
substantially when the banks’ executives are factored in.
JA N UA R Y 2 0 1 3 | 67
Vanderbilt’s Transition (2006).
Opposite: Vanderbilt with
her Mother and Child with Balloons
(1956) and Pink (1965).
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The carved head
placed atop a stack of
books that Vanderbilt
covered is a found
object. The photograph
is of her half-sister
Cathleen Vanderbilt
de Arostegui, taken
by Nickolas Muray.
Opposite, clockwise from
top left: Details from
four of Vanderbilt’s
otherworldly Dream
Boxes: New Year’s
Eve (2001), Yes (2008),
Forever After (2001),
and Destiny (2010).
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Is it worth it?” and a shaven-headed, nattily dressed gallery
operative blinking behind his Morgenthal ­Frederics round
glasses, answering, “Sure it is. It’s a Gagosian,” as if the place
it’s seen is as important as the artist. For her part, Gloria
sells some paintings, but others she holds on to. “Gloria
continues to paint fiercely and passionately,” Christopher J.
Madkour, the executive director of the Huntsville Museum
of Art, in Alabama, and a longtime supporter of Gloria’s
work, told me. “There are some works that are so emotionally connected to her that they will never be sold or leave
her studio. They are her family, and like a mother she protects them with all her heart—which is very big.” Even
so, Gloria has been the focus of one-woman shows since
1952 (including an influential one at the Hammer Galleries in 1969), and Madkour mounted exhibitions of her
work when he was directing the Southern Vermont Arts
Center, in Manchester, including a sell-out 2007 show that
featured 30 of Gloria’s paintings. She maintains an online
gallery at gloriavanderbiltfineart.com and had a huge retrospective last fall at the New York Design Center. Still,
I do not think enough of her work—with its gloves-off
uniqueness—has been seen.
When Gloria paints, what I imagine is that there is an
empty canvas, with tubes of paint carefully laid out on the
table beside her, and a selection of brushes. And then she
starts. There’s an image in her head that she wants to construct and explain. Or perhaps there’s nothing yet except the
impulse to put her brush into a color on her palette and paint
a stroke of red or a black line, which may turn into the sense
of a face, and the idea will come from the brush. She knows
there will always be something, and it doesn’t matter what
track it comes in on. And the paint will be the idea, and she’ll
be led by the paint and then lead it, like a dance in which
one will know the steps and the other will follow, and then
they’ll switch, masculine and feminine trading, then combining into one entity. I’ve never seen her paint. It’s an intimacy
JA N UA R Y 2 0 1 3 | 71
I’d like, but only if she didn’t know I was there.
Painting, of course, is something you usually
want to do alone, because you are more revealed
in the doing than when it’s finished. I paint myself
and know the concentration involved, trying
to free the great engine of imagination and then
harness it, before it gets away from you, or, if
you’re feeling particularly strong, letting it and
ending up somewhere you never dreamed of.
Which takes us back to the Dream Boxes—
objects Gloria has been making for years. In a
Plexiglas box with a sliding panel (in case she
ever wants to change something), there will usually be a doll—or a plaster head, with memento
mori—on the floor of the box, and, attached to
the sides, dice, a smaller doll, string, dried flowers,
or other objects.
“Don’t you think dolls are sort of creepy?” I asked her.
“Oh, of course. That’s part of the point.”
“Where do you get the dolls, the things?”
“In thrift shops, wherever I can find them.”
I asked her if she painted or made objects when
72 | T OW N & C O U N T R Y
she entered into a relationship. She paused for a
good long moment. I wondered if she’d heard me.
She had. She was thinking of what has been important to her. “When I start a love affair, I just sort of
throw myself into it. No, I don’t paint then.”
I remembered that to be the case from when we
were together. I drank Negronis then and she did
too, taking pleasure in the mixture of gin, Campari,
and red vermouth.
With a head full of memory and experience, and
with a kind of sensitivity that is alert to the highest
or deepest notes of human connection, there is still
something very uncluttered about Gloria Vanderbilt.
And whatever she has gained from the Vanderbilt
name and from beauty, she has been knocked around
and suffered because of them as well. It shows in her
work, which should go more into the world, be seen
by more, be released, like her own pure heart.
After one Christmas, a holiday that has bad
memories for her, I’d telephoned and asked what
she’d done. “I painted all day and had a peanut
butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.” •
L A DY ’ S
Faraway, painted
by Vanderbilt in 1972
as part of a triptych,
is named for her
former Connecticut
house, which is
depicted in the
background; the
figures crossing the
Mianus River are
her husband Wyatt
Cooper and her sons
Christopher and Stan
Stokowski, with the
artist herself leading
the way. Opposite:
The headboard is
embellished with a
Russian icon, and the
large work to the left
is the artist’s 1968
Hair by Akira for
Kenneth Salon.
Makeup by
Miriam Boland.
“Don’t you think dolls are sort of creepy?” I asked her.
“Oh, of course,” she said. “That’s part of the point.”
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