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Stella Waitzkin: Idiosyncrasy's Library

by Jonathan Goodman

Chelsea Library, Western view, c. 1993. Mixed media, installation view.
Photo: Norman McGrath.

The libraries of the late Stella Waitzkin (1920–2003), contained in her home and studio at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, suggest a robust, nearly obsessional relationship between Waitzkin and books, which she immortalized as emblems and symbols of an erudition whose importance is physical as much as it is spiritual. Although Waitzkin began her artistic life as an Abstract Expressionist, studying painting with Hans Hofmann and life drawing with Willem de Kooning, in the 1960s and early ’70s she moved into sculpture, performance art, and film. According to Charles Russell, a trustee of the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust, her early work consisted of objects made from melted glass; however, her discovery of what would become her signature medium, polyester resin, came quickly afterwards. Waitzkin’s charmingly bohemian live/work space has so far been saved for the benefit of scholars, curators, and writers, made available to the public through the Waitzkin Memorial Library Trust. The book was of paramount importance to Waitzkin, who cast leather-bound volumes as individual objects and components of larger installations, consisting of freestanding shelves of books, small bookcases, even an entire library taking up the wall of her studio. Sometimes an actual book would be inserted into the polyester resin cast, whose elements included clocks, birds, fruits, and human faces. But Waitzkin’s interest focused on the book, whose powerfully symbolic presence represented wisdom as a physical entity. This emphasis on the physical was part of Waitzkin’s nearly magical notion that by casting books as repositories of knowledge, the idea of the book as an example of wisdom and communication made three-dimensional would become satisfyingly demonstrative of the volume as an object as well as a container of language and literature. Despite her shift of emphasis, Waitzkin always maintained an interest in the painterly surface of her casts, keeping a focus on color and light. As Russell points out, she saw her sculptures in an essentially painterly light, so that the surface of her work became as important as the heavy, object-centered sculpture for which she was known.

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