Published in Vanity Fair February 2000.
Back in 1927, in one of his many odes to New York City, E. B. White wrote:
You have noticed, if you go about much with your eyes on the ground, that English sparrows are resident here in great numbers. ... It is a sign. Why these birds deliberately endure the hardships of life in town when the wide, fruitful country is theirs for the asking, is a matter of some moment.
More than 70 years later the sparrows are still plentiful in New York. And artists, like White, are still in love with the city that is said to have so enthralled Salvador Dali that he compared it to an "immense Roquefort cheese." I was thinking of White's "Interview with a Sparrow" on a recent winter day as I was climbing five flights of stairs in a building on the city's Lower East Side. Up ahead of me, not needing respites, was Inka Essenhigh, the 30 year-old painter who moved to New York from the Midwest about seven years ago and in the last 12 months has witnessed a dramatic change in her fortunes. Essenhigh's studio is still smaller than many people's bathrooms, but it's been spacious enough for her to have made a number of oddball, cartoony, plastic-looking paintings with a militaristic palette. She says they're about power, and they've certainly been attracting those who have it. In May she's having her first exhibition at Mary Boone's gallery on Fifth Avenue-the same gallery, if not the same location, that practically every important 80s artist passed through at one time or another.
Essenhigh is one of a loose community of painters who have moved to New York in the last few years and triggered claims that painting is back, to which others have replied that it never went away. Essenhigh has been memorialized in a Timothy Greenfield Sanders group shot of late-9Os hotties, and people are already beginning to predict her downfall. Before her career's really begun, I might add. But the buzz on Essenhigh has nothing on the other woman who was in that group shot, Cecily Brown, a 30-year-old painter who moved to New York from London five years ago. Virtually all by herself, she's turned the spotlight that had been on the young British artist scene back to New York.
Brown's work entwines abstraction and figuration like nobody's business. She makes one think about the whole romance of being a painter in New York, about Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the New York School. You can smell it in her studio off the Bowery. There's paint everywhere. On canvases, floors, walls-me, by the time I leave. There's the sound of truckdrivers going crazy at cabdrivers outside the window, which is thrown open even on this winter's day to help get the fumes from the paint outside instead of all in her lungs. The word on Brown has been building for some time; the boostering will change to big-time pressure with her January show at Larry Gagosian's New York gallery. Brown can take it. Her sexually charged work is anything but coy. Nor is she about her relationship to her art: "I don't put painting first, it just comes first." To Brown, her work and the fact that she's doing it in New York are intrinsically connected. "The very idea that I might not have come here shocks me."
If one is going for shockers, John Currin is the most sophisticated new painter on that front. His mostly fictionalized portraits of women have raised some eyebrows, and drawn cries of misogyny for a number of reasons, including his predilection for painting breasts that look like hot-air balloons about to take off. But there's more going on than a first impression might suggest. The surprise is the experience of looking at something new that also feels as weighty and as skilled as paintings of old, making reference to artists such as Brueghel, Hans Baldung, and van Gogh. Currin, 37, moved from New Haven to New York in 1988. His studio is in the Meatpacking District, and one can just picture him walking those same streets in the late 40s, dreaming up his showstoppers. For doing such seemingly "old-fashioned" work, he might have been slugged by his more modernist colleagues in one of those famed Cedar Bar macho punch-outs. On the other hand, the gang might have gone for his take on women, and admired his craft.
While Currin's work and speech manifest his Yale grad-school education, another painter, the 29-year-old Damian Loeb, proudly wears the fact that he dropped out of high school in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and headed straight for New York, where he too has begun to make his mark. "Painting," he told me, "was a good way to avoid having food thrown at me by football players." Now it's art critics who have been throwing barbs his way.
His perfectly rendered, realistic-yet-surrealistic tableaux are really seamless collages of already existing images, and they can be read as painting's reply to the power that photography has had over our lives. Loeb shows how painting can compete with photography's ability to hook the viewer instantly. When asked why he thinks his work is so controversial-he's often accused of being a careerist- Loeb answered, "They are mixing my personality in with the work. I have been successful without the art world, and art critics don't like that." Clearly an artist with media savvy to spare.
Matthew Ritchie, another painter who moved to New York from London, doesn't have those problems with the critics, or at least not yet. Ritchie's wall paintings and floor "works" which are really about a convergence of languages, from the languages of science to the languages of art-are part of a long-term project that began about five years ago. First, though, he had to go through his how-to-make-it-in-New-York-as-an-artist paces. Without papers he couldn't get a job as a messenger, but he became a building super. His description: "It's one of those peculiar experiences where you're instantly granted access to the most intimate details of people's lives." Fixing pipes sounds like just the right training for Ritchie's highly original, complex, and idealistic work, which seems to be about taking the universe apart and then trying to put it back together.
It's important to stress that these artists are all quite different from one another. They don't represent a new ism. Rather, a development in an old tradition-that of artists coming to New York and finding their voices. Think of it as the hour just before dawn, when you hear the sparrows start to sing.
Photos by Todd Eberle