• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Her Sculptures Were Ignored for 33 Years. Then She Got a New Roommate.


Dec 29, 2023


Hanna Eshel waited more than 40 years for a stroke of luck in her art career.

The pivotal event, when it finally arrived, was not a gallerist seeing the appeal of her work or a critic writing about its depth. It actually had nothing to do with her art.

Her good fortune can be traced to early 2011, when a 38-year-old singer and guitarist named Quinn Luke returned home to New York after three years of touring. He had money to spend and knew what he wanted: to live in a real Manhattan loft, fit for the fabled bohemians of the city’s past.

He looked for seven months until a new listing appeared: 2,500 square feet, 15 windows, $1,500 a month and a 212 phone number. Mr. Luke arrived the next morning.

The building, 640 Broadway in NoHo, had a rickety old freight elevator, left over from the days when the building housed glove and shoe manufacturers. He opened a door on the sixth floor, walked down a corridor filled with shelves of art books and entered the loft.

He encountered a vista of white marble: large, enigmatic sculptures in abstract shapes; piles of smoothly jewel-like marble stones; hulking raw chunks of the stuff the size of three washing machines. Some sculptures rested under an avocado tree in a Zen garden. Opposite the garden, dozens of paintings were piled on a tall shelf. Collages made from oil paint, jute and rough canvas hung on the walls.

Standing in the front sculpture gallery was the loft’s resident sculptor, painter, Zen garden custodian and leaseholder: Hanna Eshel. At 85, she was looking for someone to help pay the rent.

Mr. Luke agreed to move in on the spot.

He assumed, at first, that Ms. Eshel was a world-famous artist whom he had never heard of — an embarrassing thought, since Mr. Luke made a living partly as a consultant to art galleries for the auction website 1stdibs.

After leaving, he looked Ms. Eshel up. Nothing seemed to have been written about her. It was as if, outside the private world of the loft, she did not exist.

He lived in the loft for about two years. Today, he is the man responsible for the objects that once baffled him. It is his job to explain to the world the value of Ms. Eshel’s art — the part of her life that she devoted herself to above all else.

Ms. Eshel died on Sept. 18 at an assisted living facility in the Bronx. She was 97.

Ms. Eshel’s loft represented the completion of many lifelong endeavors. It was the home she had arrived at after a series of moves — from her birthplace in what is now Israel to Paris to the town in Italy where she rediscovered herself in middle age — all motivated by a desire to gain recognition as an artist. And it contained most of the artwork she had made since the 1950s.

Without knowing the full story of the loft, Mr. Luke knew that his friends would be fascinated by the place. He asked Ms. Eshel if he could host dinner parties there, using her cubbyhole of a kitchen. She said yes.

The loft began to draw a very 21st-century crowd of New Yorkers — D.J.s, designers, stylists. During dinner, Mr. Luke said, it was Ms. Eshel who proved herself the worldliest and the boldest conversationalist.

Despite their five-decade age gap, Ms. Eshel and Mr. Luke enjoyed the same people, the same food and the same qualities in art. As she told her new friend about herself, much also became clear to him about their shared home.

She was born Hanna Malka Baltinester on Sept. 5, 1926, in Jerusalem. Her father, Chaim, ran a jewelry shop, and her mother, Dina (Freedman) Baltinester, was a homemaker who focused on raising her six children. She grew up amid rising ethnic violence and the looming prospect of Nazi forces in North Africa invading Palestine.

With the founding of Israel in 1947 and the Arab-Israeli war the next year, Ms. Eshel entered the Israeli Air Force and rose to become a lieutenant of cartography.

It was a time of upheaval, and she decided, along with two of her brothers, to shed the family name, thinking it old-fashioned, and replace it with Eshel, a Hebrew word for tree that appears in the Book of Genesis.

She longed to be an artist, and she thought that Paris was the world capital of art. In the early 1950s, she studied painting and fresco there, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts.

Ms. Eshel began to make a name for herself, showing her work in 1954 at Galerie Katia Granoff, which was known for exhibiting works by Monet and Chagall, and in 1960 at the Musée d’Art Moderne.

Around the same time, she married a fellow Israeli living in Paris, Isaac Israel, an aspiring diplomat, and gave birth to a boy, Ory. Her budding career became an issue.

“He turned to her one day and said: ‘You’re not going to be an artist. You’re going to be a mother to our son. You’re done as an artist,’” Mr. Luke said in a phone interview.

When Ms. Eshel found time to work, she adopted a striking new style in which fissures made of paint and torn fabric ran across her canvas. In 1970, Waldemar George, an influential Parisian art critic, wrote a monograph about Ms. Eshel’s art. Still, the demands of her family caused her to miss many exhibitions of her own work.

In 1972, Ory moved to the United States to attend college. At around this time, he began using his mother’s self-invented surname. Ms. Eshel’s husband said it was time for him and Ms. Eshel to return home to Israel. She refused. Instead, Ms. Eshel, now in her mid-40s, planned a new life. She decided to move to New York, which had supplanted Paris in her mind as the center of the art world.

First, though, she wanted to visit Carrara, the Italian mountain town that Michaelangelo had once relied on to find the marble for some of his greatest sculptures.

At the quarries, she found that marble dust colored a nearby river a white the hue of milk. Walking around Carrara, she breathed in marble particles — and some bad teeth of hers stopped wobbling. She gave credit to the calcium in marble. When, while sculpting, her hammer hit her thumb instead of her chisel, she learned to dry the bleeding with marble dust.

She spoke no Italian. She was the only woman at the atelier she joined. She had already reached the age when, she was told, men tire of the physical demands of sculpting.

Yet instead of passing through Carrara, she moved there full time.

“I was in love with marble,” she wrote in her memoir, “Michelangelo and Me: Six Years in My Carrara Haven,” published in 1995 by Midmarch Arts Press.

It was a consuming love. Ms. Eshel’s marriage ended. “Divorce,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay published on her website, “made me a full-fledged ARTIST!”

She and her son kept in close touch, but she decided that their lives “were now on different tracks,” she wrote in her memoir. When her parents died in Israel, she missed their burials.

“My main thing was my art,” she said in an interview for “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old(er) Woman,” a 2007 documentary about Ms. Eshel and two other artists. “My family, my husband, my child: It all went around me, and around the art.”

In an open piazza of Carrara, her hair tucked into a bandanna, sunglasses on, wearing a turtleneck and a stained work jacket, Ms. Eshel hammered away at enormous chunks of stone.

The fissures she had once woven into her jute canvases she now reimagined as jagged empty space between two marble forms that did not quite fit together, or as cracks she gouged directly into stone. She saw this motif variously as an open vein, the start of an earthquake, a bolt of lightning — something natural and universal.

“It seemed that with this trembling line I was expressing a tension appearing everywhere I knew of,” she wrote.

By 1978, she had finished more than 60 sculptures. Six years after arriving in Carrara, she was ready for New York.

The city provided rent protections to artists who lived in downtown Manhattan lofts. With the help of money she had inherited after her parents’ deaths, Ms. Eshel took the loft at 640 Broadway.

In the coming years, she wrote in her memoir, her work required multiple shipments of around 20,000 pounds of marble from Carrara. She later told Mr. Luke that a crane had to be used to lift some of the sculptures from Bleecker Street through the loft’s windows, because they were too heavy for the freight elevator.

But Ms. Eshel found no luck in the New York of the 1970s and ’80s, the city of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her abstract, elemental style, inspired by such European modernists as the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, seemed old world, even academic. Her sculpture was hardly exhibited in the city.

So she arranged her loft into an art installation of her work: a permanent one-woman show and career retrospective awaiting the public.

In later years, Ms. Eshel claimed that she had been too high-minded for commercial success.

“I had no interest in promoting art,” she told The New York Times in 2014. “There was Pop Art and Op Art. I didn’t follow the fashions.”

Yet noble indifference was not the full extent of her response, according to Mr. Luke.

“She tried desperately for years and years for her work to be seen,” he said. “She put out a sandwich board — ‘Open studio, come up to my studio and buy something, please’ — but no one cared.”

About as far as she got, Mr. Luke added, was getting her sculpture placed in the window of a local showroom of the high-end furniture brand B&B Italia.

For decades, the loft remained the same. The tendrils of Ms. Eshel’s houseplants grew longer; the stone sculptures surrounding her stayed in place, like the walls of a tomb.

She lived frugally, subsisting on lentil soups she cooked on a hot plate and berries stored in her small fridge. Roommates helped pay her already modest rent.

Once she considered Mr. Luke her friend, she asked him if he could sell her work, which seemed destined for an estate sale, if not the scrap heap. He accepted. Several months later, Ms. Eshel grew ill, suffering from dizziness, mental fog, loss of appetite and diminished mobility.

She needed to move into assisted living. But once she did, the lease on the loft would be lost. Mr. Luke and Ory Eshel came to an agreement: If Mr. Luke found buyers, he could work as the designated seller of the work, with the two men splitting the profits.

After 35 years of stasis, a deadline loomed.

At that exact moment, thanks to invitations by Mr. Luke, the loft began drawing the kind of art-world figures Ms. Eshel had long yearned to meet.

One was the fine art and furniture dealer Todd Merrill, whose gallery was across the street.

“If you’re a dealer and you walk in, you have the whole story at once,” Mr. Merrill said of the loft. “You can create with that.” He put on an exhibition of her work.

Patrick Parrish, another gallerist, went further. At Mr. Luke’s invitation, he came to the loft and, Mr. Parrish said, agreed immediately to store the vast majority of Ms. Eshel’s art and represent it for 10 years.

Her work was no longer unfashionable: As an overlooked female artist, Mr. Parrish said, she appealed to contemporary taste. Finally, her reputation took off.

She was profiled in T, the style magazine of The Times. Designers and artists began to report that they collected or were inspired by her paintings and sculptures. “Part of the thrill of viewing Eshel’s work,” Daisy Alioto, a journalist and editor, wrote in 2019, “is the frisson of knowing it almost ended in the shadows.”

Mr. Parrish said that he had poured himself into promoting Ms. Eshel’s reputation, and that his revenue from selling Ms. Eshel’s work had amounted to “the high hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But around the time of Ms. Eshel’s death, Mr. Luke ended his business relationship with Mr. Parrish. He removed all the work from Mr. Parrish’s storage facility this month. In a phone interview, he declined to say if he knew what the final destination of Ms. Eshel’s life work would be. His intent, he said, was to bring her work “to the attention of top-level collectors and museums in the world.”

Ms. Eshel never fully recovered after falling ill in 2013 and was unable to fully bask in her long-delayed success. She died in her sleep, her son said. In addition to him, she is survived by three grandchildren.

After Mr. Luke and Ms. Eshel left the loft in 2013, he said, it was renovated. The rent of the new space, according to StreetEasy, is $23,000 a month. The only suggestion of marble is the material of the bathroom walls, and the place has been subdivided — it’s no longer a loft at all.


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