She still knows how to make an entrance, and at 88, Gloria Vanderbilt is still completely stunning. Dressed in a loose white V-neck sweater, white slacks, and black sandals that show her perfectly pedicured red toenails, Vanderbilt sits in the drawing room just off her Beekman Place studio and discusses her artwork, which has ranged over the years from Joseph Cornell-style Dream Boxes to a recent series of paintings and watercolors.
On September 13, a show featuring more than 35 pieces created by the legendary icon over the past five decades will open at the 1stdibs gallery at the New York Design Center, with a gala preview party September 12 hosted by honorary chairs Anderson Cooper, Diane von Furstenberg, Adolfo, Michael Bruno, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kathy Griffin, to benefit Alabama’s Huntsville Museum of Art.
Vanderbilt’s famous smile flashes frequently as she discusses the myriad forms of her self-expression, multiple examples of which surround her, including a small painted glass piece inspired by the emerald earrings worn by Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards, a floral collage, and a large landscape triptych of her former Connecticut country house, Faraway. “It all relates, it’s all connected,” says Vanderbilt of her work. In the hallway outside the sitting room is a table of a half dozen of her published books, including her memoir, A Mother’s Story; a book of short stories, The Things We Fear Most; and her 2009 erotic fantasy, Obsession.
Vanderbilt has been making art since she was a young child. She recalls that “Miss Em,” a childhood teacher at the Mary C. Wheeler boarding school in Providence, Rhode Island, recognized her early talent, and “even let me work in the school studio at night.” Although she studied at The Art Students League of New York and modeled for several painters— including a teacher there, John Carroll, and the fashion illustrator René Bouché—she is primarily self-taught, not to say self-motivated.
“I never really had any support from anybody except myself,” says Vanderbilt, whose storied American family included her aunt and guardian Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and philanthropist who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art. “My aunt certainly never, ever discussed art with me. I didn’t even know she existed until I was 10 and went to live with her at Old Westbury. Her amazing studio was on the estate, but it was closed up. She was a strange person; she was very reserved and shut into herself.”
While her best-known creation may be her snug 1980s jeans, with their significantly placed swan logo, she has also designed scarves and home furnishings, including linen and china. Indeed, in eight fully lived decades (including four famous marriages) Vanderbilt has rarely put down her brush or pen. Her small, stuffed studio is itself a constant work in progress. Shelves hold antique dolls and doll parts found at flea markets. Dolls play a major role in her work, particularly her eerie Dream Boxes, and her recent portraits feature figures that are also doll-like. One corner is dominated by a fabulous pale-green dollhouse, completely covered with lyrical phrases penned by Vanderbilt, and the word yes inscribed in emphatic pink beneath the peak of its roof. “When I paint, I never question a color,” says Vanderbilt. “But writing is totally different. I agonize over a word.”
As for her portraits, whose subjects include Joyce Carol Oates, depicted in several ethereal canvases (Vanderbilt says she is “obsessed with her eccentric beauty”) and the writer Amy Hempel, whom she describes as her literary mentor, many spring full-blown from her imagination. “I don’t really consider my portraits as portraits,” says Vanderbilt, who in the past has painted Truman Capote and Carole Matthau, among others of her celebrated friends. “I try to get an essence of what I feel somebody is.”
Joyce Carol Oates appears in three portraits: as a tall, thin figure in tiny red shoes; as a bust—dark curly hair beneath a pink hat; and as a girlish wraith in the painting Joyce Carol Oates as a Heroine. There are several pictures of weddings, including the impressionistic Country Wedding with its slim women in vividly colored dresses. Although most of the paintings are somewhat muted, they seem joyful. Only Skaters, which shows a skater trapped beneath the ice, Drowning, a pale body surrounded by waves, and a pink-and-orange canvas entitled Panic, despite its bright hues, hint at darker moments. Says Christopher Madkour, curator of the 1stdibs show and the executive director of the Huntsville Museum of Art, “Gloria’s artistic style draws comparisons to the Fauve artists of the early 20th century. Her subjective coloring creates a dynamic visual tension.”
“Color is my strongest passion,” Vanderbilt says. “I can get just absolutely intoxicated with colors and combining different colors. Bougainvillea against terra-cotta. Yes! Yes! Yes! Painting is such a joy.” The World of Gloria Vanderbilt: Collages, Dream Boxes, and Recent Paintings is on display September 13 though October 26 at the 1stdibs gallery. The gala preview party is open to the public for a $150 donation per person. New York Design Center, 200 Lexington Ave.