By Lisa Zeiger
Darling, the body is a guest house;
every morning someone new arrives.
Don’t say, “O, another weight around my neck!”
or your guest will fly back to nothingness.
Whatever enters your heart is a guest
from the invisible world; entertain it well…
--Rumi, The Guest House
Thanksgiving 2018 with Susan Manno and Alexander Wood at their country house in Canajoharie, New York, near Cooperstown, was a visit of rare warmth, for the joie de vivre of the Woods as a couple envelops the friends they invite to dine or stay. On Thursday night, my friend, decorative arts curator, Markus Winter and I arrived in Cooperstown to meet the Woods at the grand Otesaga Hotel, built in 1909, where the outsized holiday buffet groaned with sumptuous American comfort food, its gracious plenty and presentation somehow reminiscent of the early 1960s, just before counterculture undid the customs once followed by all levels of American society, including dressing for the occasion.
In Canajoharie, the Woods’ house, whose bones date back to 1793 when Washington was still President, has evolved decoratively over the fifteen years in which they have gradually let go of Manhattan. It represents purely the work of their own eyes, hands, and wit, an constantly renewed aesthetic dialogue that began fatefully on September 10, 1985, when Susan and Alexander met for the first time at a birthday party for Ford Wheeler at the Villa Mosconi on Macdougal Street.
Susan arrived with Ken Tisa; Alexander with his partner at the time, Honey Wolters. Paired with Susan by their host to blow up balloons together, Alexander received a coup de foudre: he knew instantly that he and Susan would marry, and so, a decade later--May 10, 1995--they did.
As their relationship jelled, Susan and Alexander were each fully steeped in art and artists, through both work and friendship. Susan’s familiars were young artists just starting out, many of whose names today are legendary. Her closest friend was the late photographer Peter Hujar, within a coterie that included Ken Tisa, Donald Baechler, and the late David Wojnarowicz.
In 1983, Susan had founded Swimming Pool Productions with her friend Keith Davis. Swimming Pool represented and recruited graphic and fine artists for commercial projects, its roster containing David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Chuck Nanney, Ken Tisa, Philip Zimmerman, Steve Doughton, Greer Lankton, and Neil Winokur, among others.
A major Swimming Pool client was fashionista Dianne B., for whom Susan had been the buyer from 1979 to 1983, and to whom she would return in 1985 as buyer in Paris. Swimming Pool’s marketing for Dianne B. was an art form in itself, with collaborations by Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Cindy Sherman and Peter Hujar. Susan’s eclectic clientele included Cygne Design, Tommy Motola Champion Entertainment, Hall & Oates, The New Museum, ‘80s fashion designer David Cameron, the jeweler Gregg Wolf, and the French XYZ company, Arlequin.
When he met Susan, Alexander was working for Semaphore Gallery, after beginning his New York career at a high Modernist mecca: the prestigious Grace Borgenicht Gallery. Semaphore, in contrast, was about newer, untried art, led by Barry Blinderman, the first critic to write about Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In April 1986, Alexander would found his own eponymous gallery at 127 Spring Street, an adventure lasting through February 1988. Shedding the headache of overhead, Alexander spent three halcyon years with Lucio Amelio, the wonderfully imaginative dealer from Naples, before becoming an associate at Hirschl & Adler Modern in 1991.
At their successive (always charmed) addresses in Manhattan throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, Susan and Alexander collected friends and art: twin, inseparable devotions. The collection hanging in their house today conjoins their knowledge of art with their abiding affection for its makers; intimate memories of departed genius merge with life’s ongoing discoveries.
Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz preside over the house in image and spirit, deeply kindred as they were to both Susan and Alexander. The walls are dense with work by other intimates: Donald Baechler, Ken Tisa, Andrei Roiter, Robert Hawkins, Jean-Francois Octave, Wolfgang Stiller, Neil Winokur, John Bowman, and Keith Milow, Kiki Seror, Martin Wong, and Donald Lipski.
Still other artists collected by the Woods are Steven Westfall, Juan Matos, Christian Silva, Deborah Warner, Daze, Steve Schwartz, Richard Bosman, Suzan Pitt, Skip Snow, Yayoi Kusama, Phillip Zimmerman, Chuck Nanney, Michael Ottersen, and Tom Woodruff.
The Woods’ collection is as accessible as it is important, art to be enjoyed at ease rather than displayed with hauteur. I felt free to ask questions, realizing I had missed much of the 1980s New York art scene imbibed by the Woods. The works and names in their house were an intriguing supplement to my own memories of the period, which was divided between study of literature and later law at Columbia, and exposure, through friends at Cooper Union, to a handful of very much living artists. Somehow my path had never crossed Susan’s, although we both knew Donald Baechler at his first studio on lower Broadway in 1981.
As well as proliferating art works, every single room at the Woods’ has at least one bookcase, a library that roams the whole house. Their domain is a high-spirited duet of tastes, spiked with surprises, not unlike the conversations one has with Susan and Alexander themselves. The couple do not finish each other’s sentences; they excitedly interrupt them--like an M-dash--until the other spouse picks up the thread of an intensely shared memory to finish the story. On speakerphone, they consistently outshout my own insistent decibels.
The private moments of my stay were spent in a charmed room; charmed because it is dominated by an immense, bright red fresco-like painting by the Italian artist Ernesto Tatafiore (b.1943)--whom Lucio Amelio had represented since the painter’s first solo show in Naples in 1969--and whom Alexander came to know during his 1980s tenure with Amelio. I did not know Tatafiore’s name or work at all, but was immediately entranced, claiming “the red room” as the one I wanted to stay in. I would learn later that the painting’s grey, black and white figure, writing at a desk with three severed heads, was Robespierre, part of works with characters from the French Revolution Tatafiore had begun in the 1980s and continued to explore for decades.
As with every object in the Wood household, there are stories and histories behind Tatafiore’s painting, likely from the early 1990s. I was startled, first, to learn from Alexander that the Neapolitan artist is also a practicing psychoanalyst, a discipline suffused with dreams; yet often parched by Freud’s successors into reductive, straitjacket interpretations. Interpretation and creation cancel each other out, especially when they war within a single individual. Not in Tatafiore’s work, which preserves the preeminence of dreams. Achille Bonito Oliva had coined the term, “Neo-Illuministic,” to describe Tatafiore’s visual connection of art to history, memory to life.
When I asked how they’d acquired the Tatafiore, Susan remembered with eidetic clarity a contemporaneous event that would indirectly spur their purchase of the painting from Lucio Amelio. In 2004, as part of the ongoing reconstruction of lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11, the Uffizi Gallery lent twenty-two sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings. All but one--the newly restored ''Madonna della Gatta,'' by Federico Barocci--were portraits of the Medici family, icons the Splendor of Florence Festival staged throughout the Wall Street area. The exhibition, from October 1 to November 15 that year, was held at Federal Hall National Monument on Wall Street and Broad, an 1842 Greek Revival building said to mark the spot where George Washington was inaugurated in an earlier building in 1789.
At the Uffizi exhibition, Susan was transfixed by “Medici red--everywhere!”; red pervaded the clothing depicted in the Uffizi portraits. Medici red is as hard to describe as it is to imitate. I think of it as a color close to that of fresh, rather thin blood (not the blackish kind collected in test tubes) with the faintest tone of deep orange, a perception which might be color heresy. It is a red with a hint of transparency and lightness despite its vivid saturation. Medici red seems not to exist outside Italy. As Diana Vreeland, who had difficulty getting workmen to mix the exact red she desired, memorably remarked, “About the best red is to copy a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.”
In the Woods’ Red Chamber, my dreams were haunting; and as is my habit in the country in bleak midwinter, I began listening to podcasts on philosophy, invariably ending up with Nietzsche’s magnificent writings and dreadful life. Snowy open landscapes remind me of the philosopher’s voluntary, difficult solitude in the village of Sils Maria in the Engadin region of Switzerland, where in fact he spent summers rather than winters, when he escaped to Turin or Rapallo. Nietzsche, as we know, had lost the love of his life, Lou Andreas Salome, to his faithless friend, Paul Rée, during a trip the triangle made to Leipzig in 1882. He seemed afterward to abjure companionship of any kind.
“The best friend will probably acquire the best wife, because a good marriage is founded on the talent for friendship,” wrote Nietzsche four years earlier in Human, All Too Human. In the unlikely search I just made to find a Nietzschean aphorism fitting to the Woods, this startling sentence was the first to appear, a clever, appropriate conclusion just biding its time.
The Woods’ love and friendship for one another reaches ever outward, inviting new friends to encounter the old. The house in Canajoharie is tangible expression of their gift for friendship: its art the work of cherished companions.
With pleasurable anticipation, the Red Chamber awaits its next guest. Will it be an emissary from the all-too-human slaves of New York, or denizen of a world--what Rumi called the Source--no less real for being invisible? Both are welcomed, with love, Into the Woods’.