Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Chuck Close, on Bond St., shows the narrow, 6-to-10-foot-wide strip of property by his building where a developer wants to build a retail space that would block Close’s windows, which were original to Close’s building, the artist says.

Chuck Close tries to keep walls from closing in on him in Noho

By Lincoln Anderson

Renowned portrait painter Chuck Close has lived in an array of loft spaces in the Village area since 1967. He lived with other artists in a building New York University owned on W. Third St., but eventually the university threw everyone out. Then he lived on Prince St. in Soho for a while, then on Crosby St. But his loft in Noho at Bond and Lafayette Sts., where he has resided, at least part time, and worked for the last 18 years, has been the studio of his dreams.

But now, he fears, his ideal workspace will be ruined if a developer wins approval to build a seven-story residential condo building on Great Jones and Lafayette Sts. with a thin extension running down Lafayette St. that will drastically reduce his natural light.

Close is a quadriplegic, which makes finding a suitable studio a challenge. His Bond St. space is on the ground floor, so he can roll his electric wheelchair in and out without any problem. It has excellent northern light, thanks to original skylights at the uptown end that had been blotted out with tarpaper when he moved in, but which he uncovered. There is also western light from two windows on his studio’s western wall — again, windows that were original to the building, he says, probably once windows for men’s and women’s bathrooms when the place was a sweatshop. His canvases are stretched in the basement and Close raises them through a slit in the floor via a pneumatic lift he operates with a foot pedal. With the foot pedal, he raises and lowers and pivots the paintings as he needs when working on them. He paints directly beneath the skylights.

The setup works well for Close, and he turns out about four portraits per year, using his signature “incremental” style, in which the portraits are composed of large pixels of pigment or shapes. The paintings sell for “a lot,” he said, “probably an obscene amount.”

If the new project is built per its application, Close says he will probably have to leave the city.

“This can’t be easily duplicated,” he said. “If I lose my light, I’m gone.”

The new project is seeking two variances: to allow 14 residential units; and for retail on the ground floor, including the extension that would wrap around on Lafayette St. This thin leg of the proposed new building would be flush against Close’s west side windows, blocking them entirely. The main part of the new building, which Close says would be about 10 feet away from his building, would effectively put his studio at the bottom of “a pit,” meaning his light from that side would be cut severely.

Until a few years ago, the low-rise Jones Diner was on the project site at Great Jones St., while a juice bar and a shack that a reformed drug dealer turned furniture dealer sold out of were on Lafayette St. But, despite a fierce community battle to landmark the old diner, these were all cleared for the new project, being developed by Olmstead Properties and designed by BKSK architects.

Across the street from Close’s place, a new residential project by a group of investment bankers is rising, while further down Bond St. hotelier Ian Schrager is constructing a swank new condo building. The neighborhood’s gentrification is accelerating, and artists are losing out, Close says. He and a group of other artist tenants, primarily painters, with one dancer, all live and work in 20 Bond St., a seven-story building, under Soho and Noho’s special artist-in-residence zoning. The artists saved the neighborhood when no one wanted to live there, but now they’re being condo’ed out, Close says.

“Nobody wanted this neighborhood. We saved it,” he said on Tuesday, showing a visitor around his space. “Ian Schrager wants to build here now because of the cachet.”

Other notable artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Franks, have also made or continue to make Noho their home, Close wrote in a July 7 letter to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which will consider the variance applications at its July 18 meeting. Community Board 2’s Zoning Committee will consider the applications on July 13.

With hands that he doesn’t have full control of, clasping the piece of paper as if with flippers, the artist displayed an 1885 map illustrating how the former Lafayette Pl. used to stop at Great Jones St. At some later point, Lafayette Pl. was extended south as Lafayette St., punching through both Great Jones and Bond Sts., clearing out a townhouse next to 20 Bond St. in the process. But this townhouse did not extend as far into the lot as Close’s old industrial building, and the map shows that the buildings shared a common courtyard into which Close’s western windows faced.

Close rolled outside to look at the proposed building site from the sidewalk.

“Oh Beth, the portrait of the Dalai Lama has come in,” he noted while exiting to his assistant of a cardboard box by the door. Close also takes photographs. The Dalai Lama would like him to sign the portrait he took of him.

“My windows were never lot-line windows,” Close said, now out on Lafayette St. Lot-line windows are windows that are installed when a neighboring building that would have previously blocked them is demolished. “The outline of the old townhouse [that was demolished to create Lafayette St.] can still be seen on the side of my building,” he stressed. This old outline stops right before it comes to Close’s western windows. (It also happens to bear the faded traces of an ad, painted later, for crankshafts “of distinction.”)

“You can see all the original lintels and window frames,” Close added of the windows on 20 Bond St.’s western wall, again stressing that these were not lot-line windows added later on.

So, Close argues, the thin leg of the new project should not be allowed to run down Lafayette St. past his western windows since this spot was an open courtyard in the past.

Jay Segal, the developer’s land-use attorney, said he and the owner and a representative of the developer recently met with Close and are seeing what they can do to make the project more acceptable to the artist.

“We are now evaluating what he had to say — and what the building’s other tenants had to say — and what our response will be. We have listened and will have a response,” Segal said.

As for Close contending they have no right to build on the thin strip of Lafayette St. by his two western windows, Segal said he isn’t familiar with the argument and hasn’t seen the map, but that it sounds like it doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t know any theory of law that says it would be illegal to build on our strip that we own,” Segal said. “I don’t know what he means. I don’t understand the argument. I don’t know why it would be relevant if there was another property there [in the past] with another configuration.”

Segal also added that at some points the new building will be set back 20 feet from Close’s building — twice as far back as the artist claims. Also, he said, any new residential construction would need a variance, even for new artists’ joint work-live units, so the developers’ are within their rights to request nonartists’ housing.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, a strong supporter of the arts in his Lower Manhattan district, which includes Noho, said that because the new project is probably “on the cusp” of the Noho special manufacturing zone, it legally must include some portion for artistic use.

“Soho and Noho zoning has to be respected to protect the artistic character of those communities, despite the fact that it has been eroded in recent years,” Gerson said. Gerson said that the city must do more to insure that the artistic integrity of these Downtown neighborhoods is protected.

Gerson said he will be issuing a paper on Soho/Noho zoning and the lack of enforcement of the neighborhoods’ artist-in-residency requirement and will be holding a public forum on the same soon.

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