Hotel Chelsea : Photographs by Victoria Cohen. A Belated Review and Essay in 2 Parts by Ron Steinman
(Because of its length I am posting this review in two parts over several days.)
Victoria Cohen Pointed Leaf Press ($95) and Exhibition at Third Streaming Gallery Note: I will post Part 2 in 6 days.
I will begin by noting the address where I spent some time, though in part virtual, many months ago. It is 222 West 23 Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan, meaningless to most, until you put a name to it – The Chelsea Hotel, but important to those who once lived there. The name may not mean much to you unless you are a New Yorker and interested in the arts, outrageous and serene, and those who once helped define the creative spirit of the city. As a New Yorker, I cannot tell you how many times I passed the Hotel Chelsea and wondered what was life like behind its thick walls. I knew this Victorian-Gothic pile had a public life as well as a hidden one unlike any other address in New York. That artistic spirit no longer exists at the Hotel Chelsea. Now refurbished, it is a tourist attraction. Designated a New York City Landmark, it is also on the National Register of Historic Places, two honors deserving of its past. I do not know who resides there today but I suspect it is nothing like it was during its prime. In that glorious and sometime nefarious past, mostly in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of the famous and infamous once lived in the Chelsea Hotel. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Larry Rivers, Charles Bukowski, Sid Vicious, and Jack Kerouac, to name only a few who slept and worked in the hotel’s rooms. In the deeper past even Mark Twain and O’Henry occupied a room there when needed. These names are only a few among the many who laid their head on a pillow, got drunk, got high, fought, made love and sometimes created eternal art.
Many people have an insatiable desire to know how other people live. Usually what they see of other’s lives is only from the outside. Behind closed doors, there is often a world far different. The exhibition at the Third Streaming Gallery that ran until October 29, 2014 lives in the book “Hotel Chelsea,” through the creative and carefully composed photographs by Victoria Cohen. It allows us to see the rooms of the hotel as they once may have been. It satisfies the wish to go behind the walls, to a degree, and takes us inside a world once inhabited by people whose lives most people could only imagine. On the bare walls of the exhibition and in the pages of the book, these oddly soothing photos rich in color and in deep contrast, tell us a story of some famous artists of every kind who once lived in the hotel. It is a story of the walls that surrounded them and the furniture that filled the rooms they inhabited.
In the exhibition, long gone, curated by Michael Steinberg, we see only 26 rooms of the 83 opulent photos in the book as photographed by Victoria Cohen. The bare gallery, up a rickety set of steps in a non-descript Victorian era building off Canal Street in Manhattan fits the tone of the exhibition. It was if ghosts from the Chelsea Hotel had made their way to the walls of the gallery, there for us to ponder their presence.