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THE ARTIST’S HOUSES: A BRIEF REMEMBRANCE

BY TRACY BOYD © 2009


Buffie Johnson is a painter who combines two very rare talents.  She is a painter with an extraordinary sense of color and an extraordinary depth of feeling: and she also has a strong instinct for architecture.” – Robert W. Dowling who commissioned the murals for the Astor Theatre.


THE 58th STREET HOUSE:


The first house of her own was acquired for a song – a mere two-thousand dollars – which, even in 1943, was a mere pittance for a townhouse in New York.  235 East 58th Street was a tiny, charming gem of a nineteenth century dollhouse very much in need of the loving care and artful eye of an artist to bring it back to life.  Buffie Johnson was just the right person for this creative restoration.  She enlisted a friend whom Hans Hofmann had introduced her to, the architect Tony Smith, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright – who later in life was to become a minimalist sculptor of no little renown – to help her design the spaces that she envisioned. 


Together they created a wonder-filled Neptunian paradise – not unlike the paintings that she was doing at the time – with, among other attractions, an enormous aviary in which thirteen canaries flew about freely singing their high-pitched song at the very center of the living room.  There were sea shells and whalebones, and objets d’art of every description placed carefully about, some of which were in the process of becoming subjects in her paintings, and everywhere the eye rested, there was a perfect little still-life to behold.

Photo by Robert E.Sheridan.

The house at 235 East 58 Street. (1)

THE HOUSE ON GEORGICA POND:


Her houses were to become works of art in themselves.  For those who had not seen them, an extraordinary glimpse of the wider artistic talents of this accomplished painter were provided by the literary critic and poet, Horace Gregory, in his inspired review of Buffie Johnson’s “transcendental” painting, an article in which he also devoted considerable attention to the artist’s natural affinity for creating beautiful houses.  His descriptions of the next house, the one on Georgica Pond in East Hampton, gave a full picture of the artist. 


    “There is still one other aspect of her accomplish-

    ment in creating a space-revealing nightscape within

    a theatre.  Those who know the interior of the

    Gerald Sykes-Buffie Johnson house at East

    Hampton, Long Island, New York, are well aware

    of her tact in intermural design. . . . As artist, it

    also places Buffie Johnson in the aesthetic tradition

    of Whistler, the arranger, the maker, of unforgot-

    ten rooms––walls, floors, screens, furnishings––in

London’s Chelsea.  As in the case of Whistler, her miraculous tact in decoration is less domestic than a delight to the eye.  These are not “cozy” rooms, no more than Whistler’s were, but rooms in which the floors are painted and waxed in Chinese lacquer yellows and peacock blues and walls are white.  These are rooms for guests, for formal teas and cocktail parties––and the dining-room––all in white, floors, walls and ceiling–perfect for formal dining.  The high three-storied studio occupying a wing is the area for work, for informal company, casual meals, for Puritan plain living and transcendental visions.  As we know, the house was originally designed by Stanford White at the request of a friend and a member of his favorite club, The Players, still housed in one of White’s masterpieces on the south side of Manhattan’s Gramercy Park.  The Easthampton house has an air of arriving out of the best that the American turn-of-the-century-into-the-present had to offer. . . .  On White’s foundations Buffie Johnson’s tact for interior design retains the house’s air of formal poise and renews its brightness.  In arranging a room it is as natural for her to create an atmosphere of immaculate light, as it is for her to breathe.  It is art for the sake of radiant, yet austere beauty.” (2)

The entry hall at “Windover”, the house on Georgica Pond in East Hampton that Stanford White had designed for a mural painter in 1900 and that Buffie Johnson had saved from rack and ruin fifty years later, turning it into a sumptuously beautiful masterpiece with floors of “Chinese lacquer yellows and peacock blues,” as reproduced in Betty Alswang and Ambur Hiken’s The Personal House: Homes of Artists and Writers in 1961.  Betty Alswang notes that the spectacular floor colorings were conceived as “a specific background for the Oriental rugs––an idea inspired by some illuminated Persian manuscripts.”  She remarks about the arrangement of color in one of the guest bedrooms, that it made “as precise a design as a care-fully conceived painting.” (3)

Photo by Ambur Hiken

THE TOWNHOUSE ON 77th STREET:


Buffie Johnson, her husband, the writer and critic Gerald Sykes, and their daughter Jenny Johnson Sykes lived in the house on Georgica Pond from 1950 until 1966, but life in the country was not sufficiently stimulating.  Most of the furnishings would go with them to New York, where another house awaited Buffie Johnson’s touch.  The townhouse at 231 East 77th Street was a dilapidated nineteenth century rooming house that would come to serve as an elegant backdrop for a new style of painting for the artist.  Shortly after the move, she abandoned abstraction altogether and began painting very detailed large-scale single image botanical forms whose monumental presence created an atmosphere of awe-inspiring dimension. (4)


The house and the art (regardless of period) suited each other very well.  When Buffie Johnson had completed her renovations, The New York Times ran a spectacular double-page spread – “Rooming-house restoration” – by the noted interiors writer, Barbara Plumb, with photographs by no less than Hans Namuth, showcasing her newest masterpiece. (5) It was, as they say, “drop dead gorgeous!”

Parlor floor living area of the East 77th Street townhouse.              Photo by Hans Namuth

The design maven gushed – and with good reason.  There was something about the light. When one entered the floor-through parlor on a sunny day it was drenched with dappled sunlight streaming through high-hanging plants suspended in the street-facing windows.  A more muted light glowed in the distant rear sitting room/living area through double pairs of elongated William Morris stained-glass windows highlighted with bright yellows and reds.  In the evening these were backlit, creating what Plumb called, “a nighttime room glowing with rich jewel colors.”  All of this was offset by the elegantly dark baroque chairs upholstered in bright hues, and a gold-leafed 17th century Spanish Colonial altar screen that served as the piece de resistance. (6)


The entire house was painted a flat eggshell white to highlight the paintings that were displayed here and there like little gems.  This was particularly effective in the high-ceilinged parlor floor that served also as a kind of art gallery.  Here, the entire west wall, which was the first thing one saw upon entering the space, had a recessed half-inch black edge painted around the entire perimeter to act as a kind of floating frame.  The new large-scaled paintings from the Plant Series looked particularly stunning in this setting.  To say that they were breathtaking would not be an exaggeration.


This perfect backdrop was not to last.  After a relatively short time in this elegant townhouse, the artist and her husband were to divorce and she would, in a few years, take up residence in an up and coming vibrant art center that came to be known as SoHo.


THE LOFT ON GREENE STREET


In the early 1970s, the area of shabby, cobblestoned streets south of Houston Street and north of Canal Street was where the art action was.  There was a freedom about the place that was, at the time, like no other place in New York.  An untold number of artists lived in secret splendor and many more in silent squalor behind the dingy facades of neglected cast-iron loft buildings in this manufacturing district in lower Manhattan.  The artists mingled with all the workers in the neighborhood, like the rag-pickers on Greene Street who bailed cloth scraps and loaded them onto filthy diesel-burning trucks all day long.  When they left at the end of the day, the narrow streets were deserted and quiet, but the “Mafia” patrolled the streets at night, so it was the safest neighborhood in all of New York.  Everyone knew everyone else.  And there was a warm camaraderie that was unusual for a city like New York.  That’s all gone now.


Artists were looking all over SoHo for lofts to buy.  The sculptor William Tarr, and his wife, Bread & Soup Cookbook author, Yvonne Young Tarr, already owned a whole building of lofts on the fine historic block of Greene Street between Spring and Prince, and they were looking to sell and move to, of all places, East Hampton.  Much had been done to convert this former warehouse to sculpture studio and some-time living quarters.  There were some amazing architectural feats that the sculptor/magician had performed, like the ramp that allowed him to park his motorcycle just inside the front doorway – a doorway so wide that it opened like the end of a gigantic ferry boat to allow enormous steel sculptures to be moved freely with pulley and lever systems onto waiting flatbed trucks.  He had also constructed a circular steel stair with perfectly proportioned kidney-shaped steps that led to a cozy living area under a curved cast-iron and glass skylight.  The kitchen floor below was made from the ends of lumber sliced into two-inch pieces held in place with thickly-poured polyurethane.  And then there was, and always will be, Bill Tarr’s tour de force: the main entry, which is a show-stopper of a steel door sculpture.

The great steel door sculpture by William Tarr

at 102 Greene Street, New York. 

The steel hook on the upper left is the door-knocker.  The barred window at the center of the door, just to the right of the knocker, opens from the inside to see “Who’s there”. (7)

But there was oh so much more that had to be done to this unusual three-storey 25 foot wide building in the heart of SoHo that had been built in 1881 by a hat manufacturer named Amos Woodruff, and which still had a dirt floor in the basement.  This was the loft that the sculptor used for his working studio.  It looked like an alchemist’s laboratory brimming with furnaces and unusual objects of every description.  This eleven-foot-high space was lit from a rear skylight under which beautiful mushrooms and graceful ferns grew – naturally – of their own volition.  Needless to say, the renovations needed to make these lofts habitable – and beautiful – were a major undertaking.  There was no work crew or anything like that, and the budget was zero.  It was a real adventure that sometimes felt like the Mad Hatter’s tea-party.


The Second floor, which was to become the studio and living quarters for Buffie Johnson and her family, was a dark and dismal loft with rickety overhanging balconies and the occasional bare light bulb to show the way.


The designers – and friends – Barbara Schwartz and Barbara Ross of Dexter Studios, came to the rescue with all kinds of

wonderful solutions to what seemed like a

long list of insurmountable problems.  They were the geniuses behind the angled storage racks that accommodated the artist’s paintings, a scheme that allowed large paintings to be hung on each of the sheetrocked wall sections that concealed the racks’ contents from the sides. 


Everything was stripped down and painted white, even the new pine flooring, which was installed at an angle to the brick walls to emulate the angled storage racks.  And the whole space was washed with light from huge windows at either end of the loft, supplemented with daylight-temperature florescent bulbs, again, positioned to reflect the angle of the racks, and track lights that highlighted the art on the gleaming white walls.

Buffie Johnson relaxing in her newly renovated second floor studio/living quarters in the nineteenth century cast-iron facade loft building at 102 Greene Street in SoHo. (8)

The painting is Buffie Johnson’s Pasiphae, 1976.  Collection of Marilyn French.

Photo by John Stewart

Not only was everything white, everything – well, almost everything – was modern.  Except for the spectacular Victorian chairs and a few other prized pieces that had lived quite comfortably in all of Buffie Johnson’s previous houses, she had sold all of her antique furniture and her entire set of Rose Medallion china when she moved out of her 77th Street house.  Marcel Breuer’s 1927-28 leather and chrome Wassily chair and his straight-backed cane Ceska chair – all recent knock-offs – were the new look.  The all-white Eero Saarinen Tulip table in the dining area was a perfect compliment to the pared-down modernity.


The paintings were very happy here.  The big open high-ceilinged space allowed numerous works – they were all from the artist’s recent Plant Series of that period – to be “on exhibit” all the time.  They were a joy to live with and a source of nourishment for the soul.  Buffie Johnson had finally found her rightful place in the world, a place where she was surrounded by other artists, and by marvelous sights everywhere she looked.  SoHo was a very magical and special place and it suited her.  She spent the rest of her life there, at 102 Greene Street, and died in her loft on August 11, 2006 at the age of 94.

The artist descending the stair; her paint table in the foreground; the open kitchen/dining area in the distance beyond the studio area of the second floor studio/living quarters in the nineteenth century cast-iron facade loft building at 102 Greene Street in SoHo. (9)

Photo by John Stewart

NOTES: THE ARTIST’S HOUSES: A BRIEF REMEMBRANCE

BY TRACY BOYD © 2009


  1. (1)The photographer Robert E. Sheridan has walked the streets of New York City for many years photographing doors, buildings, and neighborhoods.  This is one of the thousands of his fascinating shots.  His record shows that in recent years the house at 235 East 58th Street has been the home of Dux Store.  His website is not to be missed.  Plan to spend some time walking around with him. <http://www.coffeedrome.com/walk.html>

  2. (2)Horace Gregory, "The Transcendentalism of Buffie Johnson," Art International, Vol. IX, No. 8, November, 20, 1965, pages 13-14.

  3. (3)Alswang, Betty, and Ambur Hiken. The Personal House: Homes of Artists and Writers. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1961), p. 69 and 70.  The Hamptons: Johnson-Sykes House, pp. 66-70 includes numerous interior and exterior shots of the house photographed by Ambur Hiken as well as her photos of Buffie Johnson working in her three-storey studio on the Astor Murals.

  4. (4)See: Tracy Boyd, “From the Very Beginning . . .” : An Introduction by Tracy Boyd With Statements by Buffie Johnson and Others About Her Work” © 2008 and The Plant Series 1968-1989 at this website.

  5. (5)Plumb, Barbara, and Hans Namuth. “Rooming-house restoration,” The New York Times, Sunday,                           1968, pages 94-95.

  6. (6)The gold-leafed 17th century Spanish Colonial altar screen, which has been owned for many years by this author, is now available for sale at  the Ancient Artifacts and Antiques section of this website.

  7. (7)William Tarr’s Martin Luther King monolithic cube stands on the entry grounds of the Martin Luther King High School in New York City.  An early maquette is available for sale at the Works by Other Artists section of this website.

  8. (8)Published in “Soho: La Nouvelle Vie D’Artiste: SOHO AND SO ON,” Grands Reportages, Mai/Juin 1980/Numero 13, pages 92-106. B/W photographs of numerous SoHo studios and environs by John Stewart, with text by Guy Hocquenghem.

  9. (9)Ibid.

  10. (10) Tambimuttu, Essay for Exhibition Catalogue: “Buffie Johnson” at Galerie Colette Allendy, Paris, Du 11 Mars au 2 avril 1949.

Like the Chinese calligrapher whose patient study and meditation on the articulation of grass and bamboo gave him his different styles charged with the meaning of plant life, . . . with no less an intelligence and delicacy, Miss Johnson’s art is given its precision by her love and knowledge of her subject.  Each picture is like a house in which she has lived and worked.” (10)