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Bettina was more than a Chelsea Hotel eccentric

Written by The Anand Market

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One night in November, a procession of young artists, critics and curators climbed the creaking stairs of a building in Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, to attend the opening of a small, bustling gallery, Ulrik. The show, “Bettina: New York 1965-1986“, was comprised of rarely seen photographs and sculptures by an enigmatic artist who lived for five decades at the legendary Chelsea Hotel, where she created her works in a cluttered fifth-floor apartment until her death in 2021.

Authors from Artforum and Frieze pushed their way through the crowds to get a glimpse of black and white street photography. Pratt Institute students drank cans of Budweiser while studying the wavy wooden sculptures. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art watched grainy footage of the artist in 1976 as she filmed herself taking the very photos of the Manhattan skyscrapers now on display in the exhibit.

The exhibition’s gallerists, Anya Komar, 37, and Alex Fleming, 39, sold three pieces right off the bat. A few of Bettina’s former Chelsea Hotel neighbors showed up, including her longtime babysitter, Rachel Cohen, a jeweler and eyewear designer. designate who has lived in the building since the 1970s.

“Everyone at the Chelsea Hotel knew that Bettina’s art should be appreciated, but for some reason it didn’t happen to her,” Ms. Cohen, 74, said after the opening. “So this night at the gallery seemed impossible to me. Everyone was so young and different. I was happy to see his art appreciated. Bettina was not an easy person. She was rarely thrilled by anything, but I think she would have loved it.

“I think most of those who came that night didn’t know much about his life,” she continued, “so they were just seeing his art itself, and they couldn’t Don’t judge him by his life at the Chelsea Hotel.”


Gallerists Alex Fleming, left, and Anya Komar hope to shift the legend of Bettina as a reclusive bohemian to her work as an artist.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Eventually, the crowd headed to a nearby bar, the River, a haunt for downtown art lovers. They stayed past midnight, drinking martinis and discussing Bettina’s geometric paintings and black-and-white marble block sculptures.

Ulrik has now sold almost all the pieces in the exhibition, which runs until February 1st. A review in New York magazine by Tess Edmonson, editor-in-chief at n+1, called the exhibition “a concise and modest selection from an artist whose estate was almost forgotten.” And fresh-voiced critics like Sean Tatol dropped by on their gallery rounds. Writing in the Manhattan Art Review, he called Bettina’s work “just in time for a sympathetic and almost quiet nostalgia,” comparing it favorably to the creations of conceptual artist Dan Graham.

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Bettina, who died at 94, had a difficult relationship with the art world, but it’s not hard to assume she would have appreciated her new fans discovering her as an artist and not as a resident eccentric Chelsea Hotel.

“Bettina has become a legend at the Chelsea Hotel, but that’s not the most interesting thing about her,” said Mr. Fleming, the gallerist. “You might say it’s funny that the work of a missing 20th-century modernist artist has made its way to the crowds of Clandestino and Dimes Square, but all we care about is that people come finally see Bettina’s work.”

Born Bettina Grossman in 1927, she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. While pursuing her art in Europe as a young woman, she dropped her full name and adopted the mononym Bettina. She made marble sculptures in Italy and studied stained glass making in France. She cut a dashing figure driving sports cars through the Alps and breaking hearts.

She returned to New York in her 30s and began working in a studio in Brooklyn Heights. A fire destroyed all of her works there in 1966. The incident left her deeply protective of her art and wary of sharing it with others.


Some of Bettina’s photographs, particularly those documenting her sculptures from the early 1970s.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Bettina soon moved to the Chelsea Hotel, joining former residents like Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and devoted herself to rebuilding the work lost in the fire. When her attempts to gain recognition in a male-dominated art world were largely unsuccessful, she immersed herself deeper into her work within Room 503.

As a changing city encroached on the bohemian sanctuary of the Chelsea Hotel, Bettina outlasted the other tenants. She installed heavy locks on her door. She wore sunglasses as she walked the halls with a shopping cart full of her wallets. Her apartment eventually collected so many of her works that she began sleeping on a lawn chair in her hallway. She avoided eviction in 2006 and continued to pay a few hundred dollars a month in rent thanks to her apartment’s rent-regulated status.

She ignored requests from journalists who visited her looking for an article, but trusted filmmaker Corinne van der Borch. In his 2010 documentaryIn “Girl with Black Balloons,” Ms. van der Borch introduces Bettina as “a woman living in the shadow of Chelsea” who “has shut herself away for more than 40 years.” In the film, Bettina explains her solitary lifestyle: “The only way to do beautiful things like this is to isolate yourself from reality, from friends, from family, from the complicated situation that exists. »

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A group led by BD Hotels, which operates the Bowery and Jane hotels, bought the Chelsea for $250 million in 2016 and began a long and expensive redevelopment. Bettina died a year before the transformation of the building into a luxury boutique hotel was completed. Today, suites start at around $700 a night, and more than 40 residential tenants stay on its floors.


A Bettina drawing on old stationery from the Chelsea Hotel.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

A flyer for a rare Bettina show from 1980.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Towards the end of her life, Bettina’s art received some attention thanks to the efforts of Yto Barrada, a visual artist represented by Pace Gallery who became fascinated with her work after watching Ms. van der Borch’s documentary. When Ms. Barrada, 52, read the report on Bettina, she became frustrated at the lack of attention given to her art.

She spent time with Bettina, warming her up to the idea of ​​a shared performance at Governors Island, and the resulting exhibition became Bettina’s first public exhibition of her art in approximately 40 years. Ms. Barrada also included Bettina in a group exhibition for which she curated MoMAand she facilitated the publication of a monograph, “Bettine”, with Aperture.

After her the death, Ms. Barrada bought decades of his work from her brother, Morty Grossman, and his cluttered bulk was transported from the Chelsea Hotel to Brooklyn. But Ms. Barrada encountered difficulties as she searched for a gallery to represent the field: Big companies weren’t obligated to do so, and other galleries seemed hesitant.

Enter Mrs. Komar and Mr. Fleming.

The two met in their late 20s through the Whitney Museum’s independent study program. Ms. Komarborn in Moscow and studying at the CUNY Graduate Center, hopes to write her thesis on Bettina. Mr. Fleming, a Detroit native who once ran an anarchist space on the Lower East Side, taught Bettina’s work to art students at Harvard when he was an adjunct instructor there. They have never met Bettina and harbor a slight envy towards those who have.

Recently, at Ulrik’s space on Canal Street, the two gallerists discussed their mission to reframe Bettina’s narrative.

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Bettina, in 2011, with one of her works in the hallway of her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/New York Times

“When I give people a tour of the gallery, I feel a sense of responsibility talking about his life,” Mr. Fleming said. “Visitors ask me: ‘Was she really walking around with a shopping cart?’ And I respond with caution, because there is ableism in shopping cart stories, and I want it to stop.

Ms Komar said: “The fact that she is seen as some sort of bag lady, that her art is overshadowed by these stories, makes us angry. »

She added: “It is absurd that someone who keeps their art should be considered a collector. We could all use more storage space in New York. What a New Yorker is not it a collector, if you think about it.

Regarding Bettina’s series of photographs “Phenomenological New York,” Mr. Fleming questioned the story of the 1966 fire.

“People say Bettina became paranoid after the fire, that she was convinced people were stealing her ideas,” he said. “But I don’t think she was under any illusions. It is entirely reasonable that a brilliant female artist of her time would have her ideas stolen.

Later that evening, they went to Ms. Barrada’s studio in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, to discuss an upcoming performance she would give to Ulrik. Billed as “Bettina Unboxing Day” and program On Saturday, Ms. Barrada plans to examine unopened boxes of Bettina’s artwork in an act of collective discovery.

Ms. Barrada’s shepherd, Patchwork, greeted the two gallerists as she showed them some of Bettina’s belongings — an old Olympia typewriter, Xerox wallets. There was also an envelope scrawled with six names in blue ink: “Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hepworth, Bourgeois, Krasner, Nevelson.”

“All female artists,” Ms. Barrada said. “That gives you an idea of ​​what she was thinking. She knew she should be on that list.


An undated portrait of Bettina.Credit…The estate of Bettina Grossman

It was dark when the two gallerists headed to the U-Haul warehouse in Gowanus, where more of Bettina’s belongings are kept. They rode a freight elevator to a labyrinthine floor lined with storage units. A pungent odor was released when the two batches of Bettina were opened. The miscellaneous included twisted wood, yellowed newspaper clippings, a researcher of Russian verbs and piles of paintings. Inside a tube marked with a postal sticker from the Chelsea Hotel, they found colorful geometric designs.

“We’ve never seen this before,” Ms. Komar said. “Seeing all of this, it’s clear that there are more exhibitions to come.”

Mr. Fleming became thoughtful as he studied the piles of dust.

“I always think about what Bettina would think about what we do,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know if she would have liked us to search her things, but I like to think she would appreciate our plea.”

“If she had been recognized during her life and allowed herself to be distracted by the outside world, the irony is that she would not have achieved all this,” Mr Fleming added. “This little-known path allowed him to create art in a way that others cannot. Now we’re just trying to meet Bettina on her own terms.