Celebrating Life at The Chelsea Hotel with Painter David Remfry
by MICHAEL PATRICK HEARN
British-born painter David Remfry is one of the last holdouts at the legendary Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Yes, that Chelsea Hotel where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, where Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls, where Sid allegedly killed Nancy. It has drawn its over abundant share of sods and sots. Like The Roach Motel, some checked in but didn’t check out of this last resort for the self-destructive.
During its salad days after opening in 1884, the place hosted such luminaries as Mark Twain, Lillie Langtry and O. Henry. Later struggling artists flocked to the place where they could exchange artwork for overdue rent. Many of these treasures, along with the kitsch, have since disappeared. Here was where Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road and Arthur C. Clarke the short story that became 200l: A Space Odyssey. Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen all checked into The Chelsea; and fame-hungry Punk princess Patti Smith roomed with photographer Robert Mappelthorpe before they both hit it big in different fields. Seediness has its glamour too.
The plaques on the outside of the building attest to only some of its notorious past, but that is all over now that real estate mogul Joseph Chetrit purchased the property for $80 million to convert its rooms into luxury apartments. It officially closed for renovations last August and allegedly many long-term residents have already been either bought or forced out. Today it bears that still eeriness and cold inefficiency that clung to The Plaza Hotel the last few weeks before it too went co-op. The Chelsea was never an attractive structure, being one of those huge red brick monstrosities of the grand and garish Queen Anne period of American architecture. It is one of the last great monuments to the Gilded Age still looming in real estate mad New York. Its vast halls are generally quiet and empty now. One expects to run into the ghosts of murdered twin girls or axe-wielding Jack Nicholson crazed from writer’s block. That may soon change if the Chelsea becomes chic after the extensive interior overhaul. Oh yes, survivors of The Titanic were among its tenants too.
Despite eviction notices, David Remfry is not ready to leave. He admits that the management’s position has been ambiguous. “It’s very hard to know,” he says. He has lived there since 1995 and has no intention of moving although many of his neighbours have vacated the premises. “I never envisioned living anywhere else,” he admits. A neighbour confessed to him when all the trouble began, “I wanted to die in The Chelsea Hotel.” “That’s the exact opposite of what I want,” Remfry told him. “I want to live in The Chelsea Hotel.” The dapper soft-spoken gent has extraordinary patience. He still puts up with indignities (he calls them “little hiccups”) that would have driven any native-born New Yorker to go postal. The ceiling of his studio leaks when it rains, a constant dire threat to a small room jammed with large watercolours. When and if the problem is ever corrected is anyone’s guess. He knows he will have to move everything vulnerable when the heavy renovations kick in. He is quite content where he is. “It’s got a good high ceiling, good light,” he praises his tight studio, “... a great water supply.”
Born in Worthing, Sussex in 1942, but raised in Yorkshire, Remfry was about eight years old when an uncle asked him what he was going to be when he grew up. He said “an artist.” Even at that easily impressionable age there was nothing he enjoyed more than drawing. He was always asking for crayons and pencils and sketchbooks. He attended Hull College of Art from 1959 to 1964 but left for London when he had the chance. As he puts it, “I left Hull as soon as I could get the hell out of Dodge.” He told his wife he was going to London for two weeks to set himself up and find a gallery. He packed up everything in his second-hand car he recently bought from his father. “As I was driving south, he was saying, 'Good-bye.' And that was that. My wife eventually realised I was not coming back.”
They settled in Earl’s Court, nicknamed Kangaroo Court because of all the Australians who lived there, and later moved to Kensington. As with most young artists in Britain at the time, Francis Bacon was “a huge influence … just an amazing painter”. His pictures “are wonderfully designed … the architecture is beautiful … he was reviled at the school I went to.” The two artists were neighbours in Kensington and used to pass each other in the street and at the Chelsea Arts Club. “He would look at me with this quizzical look,” Remfry recalls the older painter. “‘Is this guy someone I’ve slept with?’ But, you know, I wasn’t.” He also greatly admired David Hockney as did so many other contemporaries. “He had brought a new way of being an artist, if you like,” Remfry explains. “It was sort of refreshing to see the paintings that he was making at the time which I think were beautiful and the graphics.” Hockney took risks. “I think an essential component of being an artist,” Remfry explains, “is being prepared to fail. And if you’re not prepared to fail, you’re not going to achieve anything.” The third and most lasting influence on Remfry was the French painter Ingres, whose precision in line can be traced throughout Remfry’s art.
It was at Hull’s Locarno Dance Hall where Remfry began his best known series of paintings, Dancers. For over 40 years he has produced these nearly life-sized watercolours of swirling colour, line and shape. He has always been fascinated with the ways people behave with one another and particularly the way they embrace. There was no better way to express this than through sketching at the dance halls. “They were kind of dodgy, a little bit risky,” he admits now. “Hull had a very big fishing industry so you got the young guys off the trawlers … They carried open razors.” These Northern Teddy Boys may have dressed in well-tailored suits but they were dangerous. “And it is difficult,” he acknowledges, “you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” He got in the habit of making small studies first and then scaling up the finished picture back in the studio. He has filled hundreds of sketchbooks over the years. He often works from models in the studio. “It’s a paradox,” he confesses, “because I actually don’t like anyone being in the room while I’m working.” He has never liked having other people around while he worked – not even his models. He happened to be drawing one night at one of the clubs in Hull when there was a scuffle and another patron was stabbed. “There was blood all over the floor,” he adds. He immediately put his sketchbook away. For a year or two he drew the dancers at the Royal Ballet schools during rehearsals. “But there was something about the perfection [of ballet] that in the end really didn’t interest me,” he explains. He finds ballroom, Latin and tango – “the most sexual dance there is” – far more appealing than classical dance.
He first visited New York briefly in the 1970s, and then in 1994 a friend offered him the use of his Central Park West apartment for a month. Remfry’s partner, Caroline Hansberry, encouraged him to go, and the two had a marvellous time. “I always loved New York,” he explains. “I knew I’d love it before I came. It’s never disappointed me.” While he was there, a gallery offered him a show on condition that he painted the pictures in New York City, so at the end of the month, the couple returned to London and packed up, with the intention of moving to New York for a year.
In London, Remfry had been drawing the artist Patrick Hughes and his wife dancing. They talked about places to stay in New York, and Hughes suggested the Chelsea Hotel. “Don’t ever say I recommended it to you,” he added. Remfry called up the hotel’s manager, Stanley Bard, who told him to stop by and he would see what he could do. “This year extended to 17 years,” Remfry adds. A loft on 26th Street served as his first studio in the city, but he moved his work to the Chelsea when another apartment became available. While in New York, he continued to invite people such as Stanley Bard and his wife to stop by on Friday mornings to dance to Frank Sinatra or Neil Diamond or Latin American music as he sketched (He prefers not to listen to anything when working on a particularly concentrated drawing). “I use the same gestures in watercolour as I use when working in oil,” Remfry told The Telegraph in 2005. “I use a large brush, loaded with pigment, over a flat surface. Watercolour can be pale and translucent, or the pigment can be dense and saturated into the paper, far from the polite little interiors or landscapes which are often thought to be the province of watercolour.”
These stunning paintings and drawings are more than mere figure studies. At first glance they suggest Robert Longo’s black-and-white Men in the Cities (1979-81), austere studies of chic young urbanites violently hurling themselves into empty space. But Remfry avoids Longo’s cool indifference in his generally sympathetic renderings of his models. He has captured the full range of humanity through dance, “a celebration of being alive,” embracing straight, gay, interracial and intergenerational couples. “I am not in to having white Europeans in every painting,” he adds. “There’s way too much of that.” Watercolour became his preferred medium during a lengthy illness in London when he had to meet the deadline for an exhibition in California. “I did a very rapid calculation, thinking, you know, Americans are not noted for their patience,” he confesses now. “It was about nine months later … and it was just the most phenomenal success … It sold out before it got on the wall.” His agitated line, shimmering colour and agile figures are at times reminiscent of Egon Schiele’s work. “I wouldn’t say he’s an influence,” Remfry admits, “although I love the drawings.” Remfry’s pictures are reminiscent of German Expressionism but without the caricature. They are often shrewd portraits of his dancers. The artist himself can be spotted here and there, boogying like the others.
One of his most prestigious commissions came in 1980 from The National Portrait Gallery in London to paint the official portrait of Sir John Gielgud in oil. The great Shakespearian actor sat many times for him back in England. He informed Remfry that he did not like the word “gay.” “Are you queer?” the actor asked the painter. “I’m afraid not, Sir John,” was the reply. “No, I didn’t think so.” Another favourite subject was the Queen of Chelsea, Quentin Crisp. He lived at the hotel for only about a week: when Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols allegedly killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, he thought it was time to leave. Remfry had first painted him back in London and contacted him many years later when the two were living in New York. The Naked Civil Servant agreed to pose only if Remfry paid his fare and bought him lunch. That became the first of many outings to diners and dives. Remfry, still much amused by the incident, recollects one evening at The Empire Diner when the jazz pianist Bea Lyons asked Crisp if he had any requests. “Yes, I’d rawther you didn’t play,” he replied.
The painter has never been shy about asking friends as well as strangers he met at the famed salsa nightclub the Nacional and elsewhere in the city to pose for him. He had already seen the Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the life-changing roll of MC in Cabaret when he noticed him one night at Joe Allen’s restaurant and invited him to sit for him. Cumming is easily recognisable as Remfry leafs through his drawings and watercolours in the studio. Among Remfry’s many current projects is to compile a book of pictures of people and dogs he has painted over the years. He may call it “We Think the World of You,” in homage to JR Ackerley. Cumming posed with his pooch as did former fellow Chelsea tenant Ethan Hawke with his pet. His subjects are rarely celebrities and every sitter with a setter seemed to have a little story to share with Remfry that he hopes to include in the book. He has also painted a remarkable sequence of people with tattoos (often in the nude) who too have told tales while posing. These pictures, inspired by a 16th-century image of a decorated Pictish woman, evolved into a fascination with “the tattoo without the person.” Now he may entirely erase the figure from “the body landscape”. He also wanted to escape line drawing so he has begun a series of moody, atmospheric cityscapes, many painted from the roof of The Chelsea. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave the figure,” he confesses. Although he works from life, whether drawing people or painting landscapes, he thinks of his work as ultimately abstract. “Other people don’t see it,” he admits, “but they’re made in that way.”
Remfry has become a celebrity himself. Fashion designer Stella McCartney, who has worked with Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha and R Crumb, picked Remfry’s work out of one of her parents’ old art magazines and asked him to draw her Autumn 2002 collection. Although he would have preferred to do the pictures in the comfort of his studio in New York, the Ukrainian model could not get a visa after 9/11 so McCartney put him up in a five-room suite in London’s Grosvenor Hotel. What impressed her about his art was that “it’s not a fashion illustration, it’s not fashion advertising. It’s so considered, each line. It’s not a modern-day graphics illustration; it’s an old-school drawing.” In November 2003, The Style Section of The New York Times included David Remfry because of his work with McCartney in its “A to Z List” under “Realist art star.” He belongs to the Royal Watercolour Society and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London; and in 2001, he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to British Art in America by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. Not unexpectedly he overheard an American at The Chelsea tell another on hearing of Remfry’s honour, “It’s a very minor award, you know.” He has never given up his British citizenship and still retains his Green Card. He will continue to live and work at The Chelsea Hotel.
David signed a one-year lease for his apartment in 1995. When introducing himself to Jerry, who used to be on the front desk at The Chelsea, Remfry announced that he would be in the hotel for a year. “You’ll leave feet first like they all do,” said Jerry.