Art as Idea
JS: Why did you stop this painting? Was it the limit of the wall?
HS: Exclusively. I wished I had had an enormous studio—or a sky! I used to dream of doing sky paintings with airplanes. I would have liked that very much. You know? Skywriting. Just imagining, it's already good.
JS: You are now a conceptual artist.
HS: Well, now I do that all the time. I do my best work now.
JS: By imagining.
HS: Only in my imagination [laughs].
JS: Starting in the ‘60s, you lived in Long Island.
HS: I spent between the beginning of May to the middle of October in a little place where I worked. I was not really a recluse, but I saw others not much.
JS: The reason?
HS: To keep my energy for my work, and to do what I liked to do in my first life: to draw and to read, my great pleasures in life. Chatting at parties with a drink—I don't have that kind of gregariousness.
JS: Would you like to tell me about your studio?
HS: Well, it's my bedroom, which is where I did my last drawings. December 1, 2004: that drawing on the easel is the drawing I did that day, of the stroke in the evening. It's a reminder. That's where I worked the last days of my working life.
JS: There are many works by other artists in the room where we are sitting. Tell me how you first got to know the work of Mary Miss.
HS: We became friends about 16 years ago. I met her through a friend. I immediately became interested in Mary because when she had a show, she took the first money she ever made and went trekking in the Himalayas. Walking. And I was very intrigued by her, a very interesting and very beautiful woman, and a good artist.
JS: What is it about her work that interests you?
HS: Technique. And the fact that it's not sold by dealers. That she is in touch the way one was in touch. People wanted a portrait, they went to the artist. You know that dealership is only about a hundred years old. And the way she does it is so vital, and so authentic. People who need her work come to her. She is a public artist, you know?
JS: Tell me about the Marcia Hafif drawing. When did you first see her work?
HS: I met her in Mary's studio.
JS: That one on the wall is by John Graham, and another is by Richard Lindner. What are these? With all the signatures?
HS: These are the diplomas that Saul made. Fake diplomas. This one over the stove is my cooking diploma. And that one over the sink is my dishwashing diploma.
JS: Were you friends with Ray Johnson?
HS: I knew him slightly. Johnson was an interesting artist. When we met he came to the gallery—I didn't know him then—and he told me he had founded a Hedda Sterne fan club. He came and invited me, but I thought that it was a kind of putdown, so I didn't respond at all. And now I'm very sorry, because I know that that was his art.
JS: I'd like to ask you about Alexander Calder, who lived in Paris between 1926 and 1933. I'm wondering if you might have seen him perform his Circus when you were in Paris.
HS: No. I met him here, soon after I came in '41. I went to the Museum of Modern Art and I saw a mobile hanging. I thought, I'm in paradise. You can't realize the kind of art they were doing in Romania. Did you ever see the silver Russian revolution sculpture where a little girl is playing a violin made of silver? I mean the art was of a level of corniness beyond any description. And to see here a place where grownups, real people, took an art like Calder's seriously, I was absolutely ecstatic.
JS: What particular aspects of his work interested you?
HS: The mobiles. They were fantastic. Nobody did this kind of thing. It was authentically and completely new.
JS: He accomplished what many of the Constructivists imagined.
HS: He really did, to a great extent, three-dimensional Miró. Because if you did see his shapes, they are out of Miró. But it doesn't mater. They are still fantastic.
Recent Drawings and Looking Back
JS: Do you draw at all now?
HS: For 10 or 12 years I couldn't see color an then in the late ‘90s I began to only draw, until two years ago when I had the stroke. That's why I'm in a wheelchair. The stroke also affected my eyes I already had the macular degeneration—so I see less and less. But for five or six years or more, I drew 12 hours a day. I was in a state of euphoria and exhilaration. I loved it.
JS: Are you tempted ever to work with other materials now, clay, or—
HS: No. I'm not. I enjoyed drawing so much. The best moments of my working life have been these last years. I worked breathlessly, you know. I had no time to worry, to wonder if it was good or not good, you know, the way I did when I was young. I just had to do it, and did it, and did a lot. Couldn't have enough. I got up in the morning impatient to work.
JS: How do you spend your days?
HS: Now that I am so old and incapacitated, I don't do anything with great enthusiasm. You know, thinking, dreaming, musing, become essential occupations. I am watching my life. As if I'm not quite in it, I watch it from the outside. Because after so many years of working unceasingly, and enthusiastically, being idle is a tremendous effort of concentration and adjustment.
The luck is that there is less energy. That's a compensation. It makes it easier. Just sitting. I saw peasants in Romania, you know, on Sunday, when they get up all summer at 4 and work incessantly until noon, let's say. And Sunday they just sit, and their resting is so active like an activity, resting. It's a beauty to behold, you know. It's not just doing nothing. It's being and existing in a certain way. In a way old age is a little bit like that. It has its beauties.