Stella Waitzkin, an artist who was a longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel in New York city and who summered in her home on Music street in West Tisbury, died Sunday evening, Oct. 19. Ms. Waitzkin exhibited widely in Europe and America and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1995.
During the last decade of her life, Stella spent much of the year on the Island. Her prolific, passionate work was inspired by the cold storming ocean off Lucy Vincent and the shady, gently sloping West Tisbury property that enthralled her anew day after day.
She was known on the Vineyard for her own brand of intuitive astrology, her found treasures sold along with harsh predictions at the flea market in Chilmark, and her knack for matching up people. She was friendly and delightful around town, yet she painted and worked in complete secrecy. She warned friends not to visit her on Music street because her home was her studio. And also because she valued her solitude.
Stella grew up in Brooklyn and attended Alfred University, New York University, and Columbia University.
She began her career as an actress under Bill Hickey but made her mark in art initially as an abstract expressionist painter, studying in the 1950s with Hans Hoffman. Her early paintings were directly influenced by Willem de Kooning and Gandy Brodie.
In the 1960s, however, she turned away from painting to work in film, performance art and sculpture. In 1972 she lay like a corpse in a coffin during an exhibit in Hamburg, Germany and buried sculptures near the pyramids in Egypt and on top of Machu Pichu to protest the Vietnam War. Her first sculptures were created by melting glass bottles over mattress springs in the huge kilns of her father's lighting fixture company, Globe Lighting.
In 1973 she began working in what became her primary medium, polyester resin, which she used to cast her primary subject, the book. She would use old, leather bound books to create her molds and infuse the resin with vibrant pigments to create colorful, translucent, at times luminous objects that are nonetheless dense and heavy to the hand. Her books are like abstract expressionist paintings. Stella relished contradiction: creating books without words, mischievously titling her works God's Wife, Dictionary, Foot Notes and Synonym. She enjoyed the paradox of creating books that evoke humanity's collective wisdom, yet are rendered silent because they cannot be opened. She fended off all efforts to interpret her art by declaring, "All words are lies."
She was best known for her installations of free-standing shelves of books, entire "library" wall constructions, and for the monumental environment of books that she assembled around herself in the Chelsea Hotel, which became a place of pilgrimage for many people in the art world. Her largest single piece, Details of a Lost Library, measures 7 by 12 feet and is in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery.
Stella Waitzkin was born Nov. 17, 1920 in Brooklyn to Sadie and Isidor Rosenblatt.
In 1942 she married Abe Waitzkin, a company executive. Her passionate involvement in the art world during the 1950s, however, drew her away from her comfortable life in Great Neck, and she was divorced in 1959. She lived on Ninth street in the Village and became an active figure in the downtown arts scene of the 1960s. Her son, Fred Waitzkin, recounts the story of her transformation from corporate wife to avant-garde artist in his recent book, The Last Marlin. She moved into the Chelsea Hotel in 1968 and soon began to build the environment that eventually enveloped her. Her Chelsea apartment is a glittering library of wordless books whose subjects peer out from their covers.
Stella is survived by her son Fred; a grandson, Joshua Waitzkin, who is the subject of Searching for Bobby Fisher, also written by his father; and a granddaughter, Katya.