The Lonely Life of a Free Spirit – New York Times


Sunday, April 30, 2000
Coping/Peter Edidin

“The Lonely Life of a Free Spirit”

“Art isn’t easy,” goes a line in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in he Park With George”; but sometimes the artist’s life can look that way. Most weekday mornings around rush hour, for example, an attractive woman can be seen rollerblading the length of TriBeCa with a bounding black-and-white dog.

Her route takes her past the Greenwich Street headquarters of Citigroup, the financial giant; among the masses of soberly attired men and women streaming into the building, a few invariably stop and look questioningly, even yearningly, as the odd couple zips by. With her long hair and her prancing dog, the woman looks like an advertisement for the bohemian life — and the living embodiment of those Road Not Taken thoughts that occasionally ripple across the surface of even the most settled adult lives.

Desiree Alvarez is an artist. She makes extraordinary scrolls in silk and chiffon, some up to 62 feet long and covered with hand-printed etchings, woodcuts of birds, planes, eyes and other symbols. One work is an 18-foot-long woodcut of a Rapunzel-worthy woman’s braid. When displayed, as several were last year in a space at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the room turned “dreamlike,” one curator said.

That’s the good part. Here’s the hard part: all those beautiful fabric works are rolled up and stored under the bed where Ms. Alvarez lives. Being an artist in New York is to be at the center of the artistic universe, but for Ms. Alvarez, and for a great majority of those who come here, it also may mean finding yourself in your mid-30’s, worried about making a living, having no obvious place in the city’s getting and spending, and no place, even, where people can see your art.

“You think becoming an artist is your act of volition, but probably, it chose me,” Ms. Alvarez said recently. “After college I worked in advertising. Everyone around me was really bright — a lot of them were writers — but they were all at least 10 years older, bitter and unhappy. I just had to get out of there while I could and try to make art.”

That was more than a decade ago, after which Ms. Alvarez studied in Paris and in New York at the School for Visual Arts. She supported herself as a bartender (in the 1950’s, her mother, also a painter, used to wait on tables at Cafe Figaro, in Greenwich Village), and as a studio assistant and model for the New York artist and teacher Philip Pearlstein.

Ms. Alvarez has no gallery, though a gallery owner once looked at some slides of her unconventional work and said, dubiously, “So, you think you can sell these?” Still, she has stopped in at several of the way stations manned by the artistic establishment. This year, she is an artist in residence at P.S. 122, a hotbed of new art, and in 1999, she won a $5,000 awrd from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, whose jury included Chuck Close, the capo di tutti capi of downtown artists. In 1998, she was invited to live for a spell at Yaddo, the artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“It’s never been easy to make a career here,” Mr. Pearlstein said. Elsewhere in the country, young artists make art they expect to sell. In New York, serious young artists expect “to make the history of art through their art,” Mr. Pearlstein said.

That kind of ambition is what draws artists to the city, to the galleries and to each others’ studios. They are in search, Mr. Pearlstein said, of “the feeling of envy, jealousy and excitement” that the best new work sends pulsing through the artistic community.

Still, the real work is done in solitude, with whatever it is that drives a person to create a beautiful and new thing in the world.

Recently, instead of the diaphonous works on fabric that had preoccupied her for years, Ms. Alvarez began what she laughingly calls “my Monster Series.” They are watercolors, erotic and violent portraits of recognizable movie monsters — the vampire Nosferatu, Frankenstein, even the Bride of Frankenstein — and their victims. Curiously, there is nothing jokey or ironic about the works. They are dead serious and completely arresting.

The images were so odd, Ms. Alvarez said, that she hid the watercolors and was going to stop working in that vein. Only after an artist friend accidentally glimpsed the monsters and raved about them did she begin to feel she wasn’t wasting her time.

“It’s lonely business,” Ms. Alvarez said, “I mean, you’re all alone with your work. Maybe it’s weeks or months. And you need other artists to come over for studio visits, people who will tell you you’re not out of your mind.”