HOUSES AS MUSES
Channeling Creativity with True Great HUNT SLONEM
Personality Snapshots by Jeffrey Slonim
Growing up, my toy room, on the fourth floor of my parents’ house, shared a hall with the very first art studio of my brother, Hunt Slonem, nine years my senior (he altered the i to an e in our family name during the 1970s as a nod to numerology).
Black lights lined the walls, and psychedelic murals of dragons and wizards swirled along the ceiling. Hunt had painted my grandfather’s hand-cranked Victor-Victrola acid-green with white trim.
Years later, when I graduated from Yale and I was applying to work at U.S. Trust, I stayed at Hunt’s now-famed art studio on the Bowery in Manhattan.
At 4 a.m., a long-foot African hedgehog circled my bed. By 6 a.m., white peafowl, waylaid en route to Hunt’s guru in Ganeshpuri, India, were crowing.
Over the years, as my brother’s art gained popularity, and he began showing at Marlborough Gallery, like the population of the birds in his giant cages, the number of his eccentric domiciles would grow.
There is the Cordts’ mansion in Kingston, New York, a larger brick version of the Addams Family house with a five-story tower on a tall hill overlooking the Hudson.
Albania Plantation, two hours outside of New Orleans, was built in 1835 by a Belgian count who had attended Yale.
And, more recently, Lakeside Plantation, a behemoth orange-pink property on land outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, deeded by Thomas Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette.
His latest studio on far West 34th Street, is circa 30,000 square feet of Gothic, Southern Victorian flair, and fine French flea-market finds. And, of course, my brother’s canvases plaster the walls, modernist bunnies in gilded Victorian photo frames, clustered in a group of 200.
He goes through gallons of oil paint every week. The thick swirls of impasto in his art, cross-hatched like a cage with the whittled back end of a brush, make up giant fields repeating bird motifs in his larger works. And butterfly paintings are also scratched into the hazy thought clouds of a lepidopterist. There are channeled portraits of Rudolph Valentino’s close psychic circle, Lincoln and his family, and landscapes borrowed from the Louisiana bayou.
My brother barely crosses the street without consulting psychics. And there is also another broad area of Slonem study mainly overlooked by art world admirers, including the now-late Henry Geldzahler, former curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Like oversized versions of Cornell’s boxes, my brother’s houses are visited by few people often enough for them to notice the art in their constant arrangement and rearrangement. Ossorio shaped trees. Slonem collects and reworks vintage estates at a frenzied pace.
“Yeah, I feel like they’re my paintings,” he answered when I brought up my theory that his houses are a category within his art. “If I could, I would change colors every week in almost every room in every house. They’re just like palettes. They express my creativity.”
On my every visit, the monolithic structures are nearly completely revamped. What’s new at Albania?
“We redid the ballrooms on the third floor,” he said. “It took me ten years to pick the colors. One side is blue, the other, red, and the hallway is purple. And we re-plastered and did everything needed structurally. We had to move a support column and jack up one of the columns in the front of the house to support a beam which was sagging. There is major stuff all the time.”
For his giant city-scale projects, Christo likely doesn’t have to take charge of so much installation and subtle color choice.
Lakeside Plantation was at one time used as a Civil War hospital. “The original mantels had been smashed by Union soldiers,” said Slonem. “So I install period-appropriate mantels as I find them. I just found one for one of the parlors on the first floor, and in my first really daring feat, I painted the room a really hot pink, with the trim and the furniture, all red furniture, with gilded period valances.”
And did Slonem consult psychics about the color? “No, I took an opinion poll with my plantation-owning friends,” he said. “The light is so weird down there, these things don’t look as bright as they are.”
Jude Law and Kate Winslet filmed “All the King’s Men” at Albania. And what is the upcoming film set at Lakeside in 2013? “Beautiful Creatures,” answered Slonem. “They’ll shoot exterior scenes there.” The cast includes Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum. “They’re using the driveway of Afton Villa, which burned down in the 1960s, and my house as the main house.”
Other Slonem projects at Lakeside? “We’re restoring the pigionaires. We’re replacing the window treatments for the parlor with ones that came out of an old house in Natchez. We painted the brick room downstairs cerulean. And the Pompeian room, falling apart when I bought the house, we painted Pompeian red, with gray trim. And I got a great mantel that came out of the Spanish Customs House in New Orleans.”
And his most recent subject on canvas? Anne Slater. “My recent opening in Palm Beach was a benefit for injured polo players,” he said. “And I did a portrait of Anne Slater. She recently took me to the Colony in Palm Beach and then sent me some photographs. The one I used was taken at El Morocco. I’ve done three so far. She’s ageless.”
And what did she say when she saw it? “Sweetheart,” he did her uptown lilt. “You’re a genius.”
Slonem also now has upcoming shows in Knoxville; Naples; and Istanbul. And Vendome Press published The Worlds of Hunt Slonem in November.
“I also did a huge permanent installation in Washington at a restaurant called The Hamilton,” he said. “And Crown, on East 81st Street, has bunnies. I have three upcoming shows in Germany, two in museums, and another in a gallery in London. I’m busy all the time.”
Meanwhile, Slonem’s not the first artist to become obsessed with collecting. Besides Warhol, there was also a huge auction after Sir Peter Paul Rubens died. “Rubens was enormously rich,” Slonem added “He was not just an artist; he was an ambassador. Monet had the gardens at Giverny. Hudson Valley artist Thomas Cole’s house was modest, and then there was Fredric Church’s more exuberant home, Olana. I like to show my paintings salon style and cluster-hang the smaller ones. I use antique frames. I get up really early to go to flea markets and deal with pickers. I called my last book ‘Pleasure Palaces,’ but I wanted to call it ‘A Wing and a Prayer,’ because I really live by prayer.”
Any rules for collecting? “If you hate something you have,” he said, “get a lot of it. I hate Depression glass. So I have 100 Depression-glass candlesticks, and they look fabulous together. And I ask all my interior-designer friends what they have in storage. One of my big heroes was Picasso, who used to buy chateaus, fill them up, lock them, and then buy others.”
And can you describe what you’re up to at the Cordts’ mansion upstate? “I’m redecorating–making it more eclectic, less high-Victorian. I’m letting more light in. I feel like Mrs. Havisham when the curtains were torn down. I had heavy, heavy Victorian curtains from my late friend Jimmy Biddle’s historic house, Andalusia. They were from 1851 and were never used, and he had sold them to me.”
Besides all the historic portraits and landscapes, Hunt’s own art figures prominently at all the houses.
“Yes, I incorporate my art,” he said. “And people sometimes have spiritual experiences with it. During a hurricane, my healer, Lena, witnessed one painting pop out of the frame. She said the room was filled with white light, and the Virgin Mary appeared to her.”
Many of his works record images of channeled personalities. “Rudolph Valentino was a main source,” said Slonem. “And his friend, the Countess Xacha Obrenevitch, as well as Empress Eugenie. They have all have spoken through my friend Michael Butler, who is sadly missing at the moment.”
And what do they talk about in these sessions? “Empress Eugenie quoted stories of past-life friendships, woven stories. And I hadn’t realized that there is a whole room of her court, painted by Winterhalter. But had done portraits of her as painted by Winterhalter posing as Marie Antoinette. She planted l’Orangerie in Paris. She was very mystical and had a very troubled marriage.
“Oddly enough, I’ve learned that over time that my interior sensibility is completely late-19th-century German. There is a book on the Romantic palaces of the late 19th century. They used Gothic furniture and painted the same colors I did. The rooms look like rooms in my houses. It’s so weird. It must be a past-life association.”
Favored treasures? “I love big, voluptuous Mallard furniture and the portrait that John Barendt did of me . . . it looks like that portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell in bed wearing the turban.”
Hunt Slonem is a legendary artist who paints birds, butterflies, saints, and socialites. The Worlds of Hunt Slonem was published by Vendome Press in November.
Hunt Slonem interviewed by Jeffrey Slonim
Written by Jeffrey Slonim
Photography by Patrick McMullan, Nick Hunt, Adriel Reboh, & Chance Yeh for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Hunt Slonem, Beth Rudin DeWoody and Leslie Klotz host a Birthday Lunch for Debbie Bancroft and Lorraine Bracco, Hunt Slonem’s Studio, NYC, October 20, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
(Left) Bird Champagne Perrier Jouet, Dinner for Artist Hunt Slonem, at Hunt Slonem’s new Studio, February 17, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
(Right) Hunt Slonem, Declan Slonim, Jeff Slonim, Brooke Shields and Paul Cavaco Celebrate “The World’s of Hunt Slonem,” Vendome Press at Crown, NYC, December 5, 2011, Photography by Sylvain Gaboury for Patrick McMullan.com
Hunt Slonem Studio, West 34th Street, NYC, Photography Courtesy of Hunt Slonem
“Lakeside” 2009 Oil on Canvas 108 x 108, Photography Courtesy of Hunt Slonem
Hunt Slonem & Somers Farkas, ROLEX presents “AMERICA DANCES” Career Transition For Dancers 24th Anniversary Jubilee, The Grand Ballroom, Hilton Hotel, NYC, November 2, 2009, Photography by Nick Hunt for Patrick McMullan.com
Jeffrey Slonim, Nicole Sexton, Hunt Slonem, Lucia Hwong Gordon, ANNE HEARST MCINERNEY and JAY MCINERNEY Host Cocktails To Celebrate The Upcoming 2011 ALZHEIMER’S ASSOCIATION RITA HAYWORTH GALA Party, Private Residence, Water Mill, NY, August 5, 2011, Photography by Adriel Reboh for Patrick McMullan.com
Beth Rudin De Woody, Hunt Slonem, Anne Slater, New Works private dinner, Hunt Slonem Studio NYC, September 21, 2004, Photography by Chance Yeh for Patrick McMullan.com
Hunt Slonem’s Albania Plantation, Louisiana, Photography Courtesy of Hunt Slonem & Jeff Slonim
Hunt Slonem Studio, West 34th Street, NYC, Photography Courtesy of Hunt Slonem