Ghosts, Aliens, Jon Bon Jovi: Nothing Can Ruffle This Chelsea Painter
Last week, with a documentary film crew in tow (It was a shoot for New York Streets, a documentary that will be aired on Dec. 10th on channel NHK BS1 in Japan (and a small subscribed Japanese cable channel here). Debbie and I went to visit the painter Robert Lambert in his apartment/studio in the Chelsea Hotel. Robert’s willowy figures exude a weird, otherworldly, spiritual beauty that captivates and transports the viewer. Surrounded by Robert’s magnificent large canvases, Debbie asked the questions and I scribbled the answers down in my yellow note pad.
-When did you first move in?
1998. I had just come back from Paris. My friend was living here and he introduced me to Stanley. That always helps. I was in 831. [Editors’ Note: this is part of Thomas Wolfe’s old suite, and, more recently, the inspiration for the fragrance Kyle.831]
-What had you heard about the Chelsea before you moved in?
I never gave the history any thought. The place had a nice vibe to it, and I liked it. Stanley was pretty good about it and showed me a few places, and so I moved in. I stayed 19 months, went back to Paris and lived there for 3 years, then came back to the Chelsea and I’ve been here ever since.
-How has the Chelsea changed your art?
It’s been changed by every place I stay. There’s differences in light and color everywhere you go. I’d have to say that it was hard for me to get a feeling for my art after 9-11. When I moved in [in 2002] I used lots of paint, lots of texture, like in my piece about the killing of Theo Van Gogh. But I got my first computer while I was living in the Chelsea, and it enabled my new work, which is flat, mixed media, with a very rough texture [it’s burlap on wood]. All this is drawn from my life at the Chelsea, though I can’t be specific about how it influenced me.
-Which city has the better light, New York or Paris?
I don’t know, I use construction lights. That’s only impressionists who care about that. The only way light influences me is by the mood it creates: I go outside and I come back in, and I see the seasons changing. It affects the way I express myself.
-According to legend, Stanley will take a painting in exchange for rent. Any truth to that?
Not with me. Maybe in the olden days. Stanley has a good collection. He has a good eye and certainly came up with a lot of great art. But he also missed some of the great ones. When Cristo moved out they found that he had wrapped all the doors and furniture, everything in the apartment, but Stanley didn’t know what it was and so he threw it all out. But the artist can get away with a lot more than the ordinary person. He’ll come up and look at my work once in awhile, nod his head, not say much, but let me know that he supports my work.
-How have old science fiction movies influenced your art?
They are classic, not old! They haven’t really influenced my art at all. They are hokey, silly, you have to suspend disbelief, so it feeds the imagination. You have to add color yourself and pretend that somebody with a tea kettle on his head is an alien. It’s like a good painting, never finished. You have to work at it.
-Do you have a ghost?
I don’t know who it is. It knocks on my door at 2 or 3 in the morning, a definite knock. Sometimes I have the feeling that it’s in here, a presence. But it’s a nice ghost. Stanley told me an actress lived her, and perhaps she died here. It’s a female presence. I would say it was even if it wasn’t anyway.
-Do you think the Chelsea has a Creative spirit?
Yes, a lot of them. But if I had to single one out I’d say it’s probably the drama. There’s a drama being played out every day in the lobby, and watching it can’t help but give you some juice. Sometimes the drama is sad and pathetic, sometimes just plain silly. A lot of times it doesn’t even make any sense. It’s like a Guatemalan soap opera, it’s so outrageous. It’s unlike anywhere else in this regard.
-Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?
Not here. But I lived diagonally across the street from him on East 66th Street in the 80s. I saw him walking his dog everyday, and going around handing out Interview Magazine to all the doormen. I never spoke to him, and we just nodded at each other as we passed. But the strange thing was that, after he died, over the next few months the tree in front of his house withered and died as well.
Robert recently had the honor of serving as the Painter in Residence at Rockefeller University, where his paintings commemorating 9-11 hung for a year, and where he himself hung out with Nobel laureates in the various sciences. He wants everyone to know that he believes himself to be the only one from the Chelsea to have ever spliced genes—and he doesn’t mean Levis either! (That joke is better when you hear it rather than read it.)
As we were about to leave after the interview, Robert mentioned casually that Jon Bon Jovi had once shot part of a video in his room. Eureka! Now we know who the ghost was! Of course, you might argue, Bon Jovi is not dead, but we think a dynamic international superstar of his magnitude is most likely able to generate a ghost even while living. Bon Jovi is not really a female presence, but oh, what the hell. Who ever said ghosts were supposed to be logical: “Like a cowboy, on a steel horse he rides...”