My Colette Experience



ARTINFO: NEW YORK —

“Lady Gaga has been accused of ripping off performance artist Leigh Bowery’s costumes, Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier bodysuit, and the late Isabella Blow’s outrageous hats. Now downtown New York multimedia artist Colette, who had her pieces shown at the Guggenheim and MOCA L.A. in the '90s, is saying the pop star appropriated her environment installations (one is pictured at left) for the Boudoir window that’s part of  (Lady) Gaga’s Workshop at Barneys.”

http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/755096/colette-vs-lady-gaga-tk

Here’s what Rolling Stone Magazine had to say about her and the controversial video: http://goo.gl/uKHD

So far, this video has been viewed over 30,000 times and is still a very controversial issue.

It's important for people to understand the impact Colette has had on the arts scene in New York City and throughout the world for over 30 years. Upon seeing the video (linked on the Rolling Stone web page above), the editors of Artnet.com, Art Info, Rolling Stone Magazine, the Huffington Post and New York Magazine all agree.

“A Barney's window display of Lady Gaga's work has legendary multi-media performance artist Colette's notorious creations written all over it.

Colette, whose seminal performance art and multi-media installations originated out of New York City's vibrant art scene in the 1970's has traveled to museums and galleries all over the world, including the Guggenheim, MOMA and The Whitney.

Upon seeing Barney's Lady Gaga window display in midtown, Colette takes to the streets in protest to send a clear message to the Gaga camp that Colette is standing outside the door and must be invited in and given proper respect.”

 

***

In the New York City art circles, there’s little doubt that Colette had artistic influence on the celebratory trajectory of Madonna and Lady Gaga. Yet, there are some quick to doubt. But if you hung out with Colette, as I did in the late sixties to the early 70’s, long before those ladies catapulted into the creative universe, you’d know that Colette was a unique and creative force, whose style and persona had a strong influence in the evolving artistic and cultural revolution happening in that era.  She was a mystery, but not by design or intent. Who she was, where she came from, her background; all were unimportant. You only knew her by her art. People would ask me, “but where is she at, what’s her story?” I would reply with a shrug, “she’s from another planet.” Bob Dylan, in his composition, Ballad Of A Thin Man, better describes anyone who is trying to define Colette, with his words, “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

 

Picture this: the young, “starving artist” art teacher in a fashionable Greenwich Village grade school comes to her classes in thigh-high six inch platform leather boots, hand painted in red, white and blue and bejeweled with sequins and rhinestones. The children, motivated by their teacher’s artistic awesomeness, went home and started painting their mother’s shoes red, white and blue. The art teacher was summarily dismissed. Colette was out of a job.

 

Picture this: I came across a rather wealthy entrepreneur looking to acquire art pieces for his newly redecorated apartment. I brought him to Colette’s studio/loft in Soho where he chose one of her ultra large creations, priced at over $10,000 as I recall.  He liked the piece because it complimented the colour scheme of his new pad. He offered to write her a cheque, on the spot (how timely…because I knew how desperately Colette needed the money). But she told him to ‘get out – no sale.’ She knew he wanted her painting for the wrong reason!

 

Picture this: Colette’s loft was entirely draped and sculpted with white parachute silk, gracefully flowing and billowing from ceiling and walls to floor. And no furniture…just huge hand painted multicolored pillows among her paintings and mannequins draped with her outrageous feathered, pearled and gossamer clothing creations, ones she would routinely wear even to go out for a quart of milk.

 

Picture this: Colette had been receiving phone calls from a photographer wanting to photograph her. She would constantly blow him off saying that her boyfriend, also a photographer, took enough pictures of her. When she told me of this nagging photographer, I asked if she got the guy’s name. She said it sounded like a Jewish name. I asked her to write it down the next time he called. When she told me it was Arnold Newman, one of the world’s best-known celebrity and artist portrait photographers, I shrieked, “are you crazy! Next time he calls, say yes.” Next time he called he was finally able to tell her that he was hired by Vanity Fair Magazine who wanted to do an article and photo spread on her.


 

Colette by Arnold Newman for Vanity Fair Magazine

 

Picture this: some years later, in Toronto, I had the pleasure to be invited to a private speaking engagement by Arnold Newman. After he finished, he was naturally swarmed by all the attendees wanting to chat with this great master. As I could not get near, from the edge of the crowd I yelled, “Mr. Newman, does the name Colette ring a bell?” His body froze, his head snapped to my direction and briskly broke away from the thick group of admirers and came face to face with me. He said, “did you mean crazy Colette?” I nodded. He said, “oo-la-la,“ rolled his eyes, grabbed my shoulder and guided me away to a quiet corner of the room. “How do you know her,” he demanded.  I said I was the reason that she gave for not wanting any more shots of her. I told him I had a print of his famous Igor Stravinsky portrait by his piano. He invited me to come to his hotel the next day and he would sign it. Of course I met him the next day, he signed the print, we chatted about our “mutual friend” and invited me to visit him at his studio next time I was in New York City.

 

Picture this: in addition to her paintings, some up to 20 feet wide, composed of up to four layers of canvas with sculpted free-form cut-out windows, she would actually be able to crawl in between and among the layers and cut-out windows to include herself as part of the composition and experience, often nude.

 

Picture this: on one of our nightly Greenwich Village prowls, going from studio to studio, club to club, from jazz scene to the now famous Max’s Kansas City to catch the last sets of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, we somehow ended up at some sculptor’s three story loft on 33rd Street and 6th Avenue. One floor was his studio where he constructed and welded these amazing abstract metal figures and forms. The second floor was his gallery and living quarters and the third floor, the roof, blew my mind. As we climbed through the roof door, we were slammed in the face with the daunting, lit -up, over one hundred story Empire State Building, just two blocks to the east. The view took one’s breath away! But then he whisked us one floor down back to his living quarters, specifically his bedroom…with ceiling, walls and floor painted black, a hanging orb-like globe chandelier hanging above what looked like a bed.  I should also mention the two sets of audio headphones hanging from the ceiling right over (what I thought was) the bed. Our host, the sculptor, was a large man and we were shocked when he took a running jump on to his (what I thought was) bed. It didn’t smash to pieces - it sloshed as it waved him up and down as an ocean tosses a ship. “Here, try it, I gotta go out for a while but you two can stay here,” and he shut the bedroom door and exited. The room went black but the globe started to glow, first very dimly and gradually grew to a soft medium glow with heart-like pulsations. At that point, what seemed like mini strobe lights started randomly popping from the inside of the bed frame, momentarily illuminating the water-and-colored-oil-filled mattress with spikes of colored lightening (the mattress we later found it to be some sort of tough translucent weather balloon). We’ll leave the story here…but hey, just another average night in the Colette Experience but certainly not my average nighttime or any time. As I reflect on this I wonder if it really ever happened. Was it an acid trip? Nope, no acid - that’s just what I remember. Now, you the reader may simply conclude that this was just a plain and simple but hopped-up waterbed. But after Googling the history of waterbeds, I found that they first came into being in San Francisco in 1972. Our visit to the sculptor’s loft was in 1968 or early 69.

 

And picture this: Colette had an idea to paint a ‘street mural’ which would artistically inter-connect all the art galleries in Greenwich Village and Soho with her style of lines, dots and abstract shapes that would eventually lead to a graphic finale somewhere on Wall Street, the financial centre of New York City. I suspect this project might have been her comment on art vs. finance (just a guess). And she wanted the creation of this art piece documented on film by me (I was also producing and shooting short films at the time). Yes, a gala Colette (mostly) and Larry collaboration. So we started it quite innocently at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Soho and filmed her casually meandering through an exhibit; a maze of life size and super lifelike male and female nude sculptures - more lifelike than you would see at a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. It turns out that a most gorgeous spot lit reclining “David-like” male nude was the centerpiece of the exhibit. As I filmed Colette dreamily drifting past this amazing piece, seeming to contemplate the creation of her own artistic statement, my camera picked up an elderly lady, curiously and cautiously inching closer and closer to this “David-like” nude.  Then a loud shriek emanating from her little body filled the quiet gallery and she seemed to jump three feet into the air…the sculpted nude male had winked at her! He was actually a live model amongst the lifelike male and female sculpture figures. I was so lucky to have caught this on film. Later that night and into the early dawn, we came back to continue the street mural to connect all the other galleries. Colette decided that she wanted to film her finishing strokes of the mural at a Wall Street intersection in the nude or nearly nude. As I composed and filmed the scene, I could see flashing red lights in my peripheral vision. A series of police cars were coming at us from several directions. Not fazed in the least, she kept on painting. Several officers ambled over with a “what’s going on here” attitude.  Still unfazed and now partially covered up, she detailed her art piece. Of course they couldn’t understand but they seemed to be quite amused.  However, they arrested me for defacing public property!  They took Colette away in one squad car and me in another. I never found out where they took Colette but they took me to the police station, found my explanation of the event totally incomprehensible, held me captive for a few hours, then drove me back to Wall Street with my camera gear plus a pail, mop and rags and suggested that I clean up the “mess.” So there I was; swabbing the street, supervised by the constabulary as the sun came up and as hoards of Wall Street people started to emerge from the subway heading to their work.  In the midst of the crowds, I did a stupidly daring escape…dropped the pail and mop, grabbed my stuff and ran down into the subway. Somehow the cops never chased me or just lost me in the crowd. Two days later Colette and I compared notes. She was quite pissed-off that she couldn’t complete the piece but thought it was real funny that I had to clean it up.  Then she started planning how we could do the whole mural again without getting caught.


A subsequent video of one of Colettes additional attempts to create a street mural, post my urging of her to contact Arnold Newman, who wanted to photograph her for a Vanity Fair story. Sadly, our first attempt to make a street mural film at dawn on Wall Street has disappeared. View second attempt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3KfhW3vWLc

 

Epilogue: Since those heady days in the late sixties when we seemed to travel through space and time together, Colette gained huge popularity, due to her exposure in Vanity Fair plus the public's acceptance and love for her paintings, installations, videos, more street murals and countless exhibits in major galleries in New York and throughout Europe.

 

If you think she was, and is, eccentric, that’s your call. People have asked me what she’s all about, where she came from, what’s her last name? (I'll never tell).

 

They stop her on the street and ask her if she’s Lady Gaga.

 

More enlightened folk just observe the creativity of the one who spontaneously creates and recreates her art and herself.  She is beyond categorization or definition. She is of her own dimension.

 

She continues to create.



Portrait of the author by Colette, June 1970                                                                                                              

                                                                                     story  © Larry Frank

comments?           back to articles

© Larry Frank Photographics ~ a Sandvox site