Have you ever thought about the leavings of life bequeathed by people who lived in your home before you, and of the layers which will be superimposed by the inhabitants who come after? It is rare, in the 21st century, to find many urban houses--and I include apartments in this category--which bear the continuous veneer of a single family. In New York, especially, where we live cheek by jowl with all sorts of strangers and familiars, our “inheritance” may comprise traces--legacies--of a person we never met, unrelated to us except by the accident of edifice.
Today we are fond of using--overusing--the word “layering” to describe both architecture and interior design. In architecture, layering has become a term of art, denoting delicate yet stable structural elements that stack or overlap, an alternative to monolithic curtain walls and classical masonry alike. In interior design, layering refers both to textiles and to the incremental changes, sometimes clashes in style that characterize the decorator’s attempt to create rooms in which pieces from different eras talk to each other in harmonious tones, not cacophony.
In April 1990, I was fascinated by four photographs of an interior taken by my friend, artist Stephen Barker. Steve’s fellow artist, Billy Doig, had just moved into some rooms in a house in Brooklyn Heights, imprinted with the creative life of the former owner, artist, Mary Fife Laning (1900-1991).
Mary Fife, born in Dayton Ohio, studied as a young woman at the Art Students League in New York with Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose circle she became a part of, along with Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop and her future husband, Edward Laning. She exhibited widely in the 1930s and ‘40s, atmuseums and galleries which included the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
But the record of Fife Laning’s life is an ellipsis. I sought clarification in a book chronicling the lives and work of her colleagues, The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street by Ellen Wiley Todd. Todd writes in great detail about four urban realist painters--Isabel Bishop, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller--with several passages on Edward Laning, but makes no mention of Mary. The omission is strange, since the book is about American women in the interwar period redefining the work force and the working class, and how artists--including one female artist, Isabel Bishop-- shaped their image, as much in the service of social progress as of individual expression.
From gallerist Susan Teller, who has an etching and a lithograph by Fife Laning, shown here, I learned that the artist had owned the house in Brooklyn Heights, and likely gone to a nursing home in 1990, the year before her death. Fife Laning’s life and oeuvre would make a wonderful doctoral dissertation for a scholar so inclined. Some of her images, incidentally, depict interracial passion, a subject taboo at the time she created them.
The Fife Laning paintings in Brooklyn Heights were beautiful, surrounded by rich impedimenta, including a slender, towering human skeleton. They formed an ensemble which Billy Doig refrained at first from altering, although he would add a few strata of his own, the ones, like lamps, necessary for living.
Stephen’s pictures, published here, capture this intermittent moment when the lives and things of two inhabitants criss-crossed.
For more about photographer Stephen Barker:
For more about the Susan Teller Gallery: