Photographs by Frankie Alduino, designed by Eli Showalter, with an introduction by Dr. Miriam S. Chaiken
When Westbeth Artists Housing opened in 1970, it was a radical model of community life in a city that was increasingly unaffordable for most artists. Westbeth was (and is) a lifeline for New York artists, providing them with both affordable housing and the freedom to pursue their craft without being held back by financial worries. Alongside well-known residents like Diane Arbus and Hans Haacke, Westbeth has attracted a host of more obscure artists, all inspired by the creative spirit of the community. But more than five decades later, many of those residents have passed away, taking with them memories of Westbeth’s original and vibrant community.
Photographer Frankie Alduino began capturing the older generation of Westbeth residents in 2017. Most of the artists he spoke with were well into their 80s and 90s and had stopped exhibiting decades ago. Therefore, Vertical village, Alduino’s monograph on Westbeth and its people, reads like some sort of archive. The photo book is an attempt to celebrate this colorful community and a last ditch effort to preserve this faded piece of the city’s cultural heritage.
Like its residents, the Westbeth Building is a special relic from an earlier era. In fact, the West Side Elevated Line, part of which later became the High Line, originally ended in Westbeth. The industrial buildings that make up Westbeth Artists Housing were constructed between the 1890s and 1930s to house various facets of the Bell Laboratories. The complex was abandoned in the 1960s when Bell moved its operations across the river to New Jersey and lay dormant for over a decade. If the building’s tradition is to be believed, Westbeth was the vision of Joan Davidson, the daughter of grape juice mogul JM Kaplan. Davidson had seen his artist friends go out of town and came up with the idea of converting the old Bell complex into affordable housing.
Kaplan commissioned Richard Meier to design the community, this was the architect’s first solo commission. Meier’s plan created 400 live / work studios, which were built to be as open and versatile as possible. Alduino photographed the residents in their apartments, capturing his subject matter and their studio space, illustrating how these spaces become extensions of the practice and personalities of these artists. Writer and painter Jack Dowling’s apartment is an elegant loft with columns and accents reminiscent of a neoclassical bookcase. Dowling sits on the steps leading to the attic, playing the role of a scholarly retiree. This is in stark contrast to her neighbor, the Latvian-born dancer Vija Vetra, whose cluttered apartment is filled to the brim with tchotchkes and relics. Vetra stands in the middle dressed in black, an imposing presence that unifies the eccentric piece.
Because Meier was commissioned to combine a series of existing factory buildings, Westbeth has a labyrinthine structure. To reach some apartments, residents must exit to a lower floor, walk down the hallway and take a separate elevator to the upper level. Signage is sparse and landmarks are often invisible to the foreign eye. Like the inhabitants of a small village, the artists of Westbeth are often the only ones who can navigate the building and its intricacies. Indeed, while photographing the residents for the book, Alduino often needed their help moving between apartments.
The photo book is therefore closer to a visit to Westbeth and its inhabitants than to a collective portrait of its members. The opening photograph shows a floor plan of the building, showing us the complexity of the space. Between the portraits of the residents and their apartments, Alduino intersperses photographs of the interior architecture of the building. As we visit the topics in the book, we move around the interior space of the building as well, sometimes noticing the unusual spacing of doors and stairwells that serve as landmarks for residents. In short, the building itself becomes a character.
The release of Vertical village last year coincided with the 50th anniversary of Westbeth Artists Housing. The pandemic delayed the celebration until this year and included oversized images of Alduino’s work displayed in the building’s courtyard. But the pandemic has also accelerated the atrophy of Westbeth’s original generation. Several of the artists captured by Alduino, including Jack Dowling, have died due to complications from COVID-19. With few original residents actively producing works, there is palpable fear among the remaining tenants that Westbeth’s artistic legacy is already being forgotten. Over time, the photographs and the work of the tenants will be all that is left.