One Photographer’s Intimate Portrait of the 1980s New York Art Scene

Tom Wesselmann© Harvey Stein

For his 1985 book Artists Observed, Harvey Stein interviewed luminaries of the day, from Keith Haring to Hannah Wilke. Here he remembers these iconic encounters

After moving to New York in the late 1960s to attend Columbia Graduate School of Business, Harvey Stein grew disenchanted with the corporate world and decided to pursue a career in photography. Entranced by the various art scenes in Soho, the East Village, Midtown, and the Upper East Side, Stein began to develop relationships with various artists, and decided to embark upon a project to learn about how they lived and created, and what inspired them to work, in order to see what lessons he could discern for his own burgeoning practice.

Between 1980 and 1985, Stein made the rounds, photographing and interviewing more than 165 New York artists for his project, Artists Observed, which was published the following year by Abrams. Featuring Christo, John Cage, Lee Krasner, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Bourgeois, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, and Marisol, Artists Observed is filled with bon mots from some of the most luminous artists of the era. Here, Stein shares his memories of these iconic encounters, along with the wisdom those artists offered him for the book.

On Keith Haring...
Harvey Stein: “Keith was young, fun, and easy to get along with. I photographed him in a gallery, where he was showing a lot of work. My strategy was to try to integrate, relate, or fuse the artist to the work – to put them inside it, if possible. There was no resistance on his part to me trying different ideas.”

Keith Haring: “I’m always working and drawing; there’s nothing else to do. It’s just what I can do, so I do it. And that’s one big advantage of being an artist instead of an actor or a writer or an athlete; I really don’t have to depend on anybody. I don’t even need a pencil; I can draw with any finger in dust, I can draw with a stick in the sand.”

On Hannah Wilke...
Harvey Stein: “Hannah was very intelligent and beautiful. I think her process was daring and she took a lot of risks. We became friends. I found her open, vulnerable, and brilliant. The photograph is not sexual, but it is sensual. I was attracted to her personality and what she was trying to do.”

Hannah Wilke: “It’s hard making art. It’s boring sometimes; it hurts my eyes. I can’t figure out whether my finger is stiff from arthritis or from drawing. Possibly I’m drawing with a nervousness in my pinkie. It might just be from drawing, but it is hurting me. That delicate drawing takes so much energy. To be calm and cool and collected, to be able to sit down and do those drawings, I almost have to wipe out my mind. I have to lose my mind to be able to concentrate.”

On Robert Rauschenberg...
Harvey Stein: “I got to him through John Cage, who recommended me to Robert. He was really friendly and accessible. He was drinking whiskey when I came in and he was drinking when I left, but it didn’t affect him at all. He had a lot of things going on but the time we had together was very productive. I spent more time with him than any other artist.”

Robert Rauschenberg: “When I started out as an artist, I did not think I would be successful. I still don’t think I am. I work for myself. The other thing is fickle; all this success could fall apart overnight. I don’t think it would bother me if it did, but I’m not sure….Thank God that fame doesn’t help me make the art. It would get in the way if I started to believe I was a good artist. Then I would have to make good art.”

On Andy Warhol...
Harvey Stein: “It took me three years to get to Andy. I had to go through his manager Vincent Fremont. He was hard and I kept at it. He asked for money. He said, ‘Well, Andy is a model, you are going to have to pay him.’ I didn’t have any money. Somehow I got into the lobby, it wasn’t the Factory. I waited about two hours before Andy showed up. He didn’t even give me 15 minutes. I got maybe 10 shots. He hardly talked and he wouldn’t be interviewed, which I found ironic because he is the founder of Interview magazine. I found it [shudders] but I think I got the shot.”

Andy Warhol: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” From the exhibition catalogue at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, 1968.

Artists Observed by Harvey Stein is out now, published by Abrams. 

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