The Front Paige Whether a star of Warhol’s Manhattan or a trendsetter in hyper-hipster Portland, Paige Powell is always making headlines, says Mark C O’Flaherty
The Front Paige
Whether a star of Warhol’s Manhattan or a trendsetter in hyper-hipster Portland, Paige Powell is always making headlines, says Mark C O’Flaherty
ART CURATOR AND animal-rights activist Paige Powell has fashioned a career out of being in the right place at the right time — usually in the right dress.
Today, in the lobby of the Ace Hotel in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, it’s bare-shouldered Rodarte, with cutaway arm straps and a woodgrain print. Yesterday, at an event for Fetch Eyewear in aid of animal rescue and adoption, it was vintage Pucci. Tomorrow it will be Comme des Garçons. Invariably, there are knee-high boots and long blonde tresses, and those most incredible Bambi eyes.
After three decades at the heart of the American art machine, she’s seen it all, and influenced plenty of it, but still looks pretty much as she did the day she said goodbye to Andy Warhol, throwing a copy of Interview and a bottle of Estée Lauder’s Beautiful into his grave before it was covered with earth.
‘We were attached like mittens,’ she says. ‘We lived eight blocks from one another, we worked together and partied together. We ate the same macrobiotic food, had the same Japanese masseuse, used the same Olympus camera and even had the same haircut for a while.’
Paige is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Driving me around Portland in her trusty, well-worn station wagon (the ‘doggie car’), she takes me on a personal tour of the city and then to meet some of her friends. Did I try the Oregon Pinot she had sent to my hotel room earlier? Had I been to Besaw’s for brunch? And did I want to go with her to some go-go bars later?
Because, it’s explained to me, Portland’s liberal attitudes are summed up by its more louche establishments — from the all-male revues to the one and only vegan strip joint. She makes everything sound like the best, most appealing idea ever, and it’s easy to see why Warhol fell for her in such a big way. It seems remarkable that someone so aligned with the notoriously glacial cliques of fashion and art should also be so disarmingly friendly.
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Right now she’s organising her immense archive of photographs and ephemera into what will be the most significant and comprehensive catalogue of the Manhattan art scene in the 1980s ever seen. Exhibitions and book compendiums are in the planning stages.
‘These archives document the intimate lives of artists and friends living through a wonderfully open and creative, free-thinking period in the city,’ she says. ‘It was a time before personal handlers and PR firms, Facebook and hideous reality TV.’
Thomas Lauderdale, pianist and founder of the band Pink Martini, and one of Paige’s closest friends in Portland, has been the driving force behind arranging the archive and is helping her catalogue it all, while Frances Terpak, the photography curator at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and a team from the New Museum in New York have also offered advice.
‘There are 40 boxes to go through,’ says Thomas. ‘They are stuffed with treasure. Recently I found the receipts from the works that were sold when Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited at her apartment — $5,000 for one large painting. And her photographs are amazing.’
POWELL HAS LIVED her life as a privileged insider. After studying art in Europe and making the move to New York from her native Oregon in 1980 (‘five days after John Lennon was shot’), she knocked on the door of Andy Warhol’s studio. ‘I wanted to work for either Woody Allen or Interview magazine,’ she says. ‘I approached both, and was offered two jobs, but it just so happened that the one at Interview, selling advertising, started first.’
As, subsequently, Warhol’s associate publisher and closest ally, she was the Manhattan art world’s most celebrated It Girl, at the focal point of a crucial, transitional time in American Modern art. The business was being redefined by Reaganomics and downtown Neo-expressionism, while gallery politics were being played out in the Page Six glare of the Limelight VIP room and at Odeon as much as they were at Tony Shafrazi and Mary Boone.
Paige was the most photogenic element of the Zeitgeist. She danced with Duran Duran and was dressed by Stephen Sprouse, whose work she was instrumental in mounting in a posthumous exhibition in 2009, via her close friend Jeffrey Deitch, director of the MOCA in LA.
She also dated Basquiat, and one of her first ‘kooky’ dates with the artist is recorded in Warhol’s diary entry for 9 August 1983: ‘They went out to Brooklyn to a black neighbourhood and went to a White Castle and had eight hamburgers and then two people came in with big sticks and they thought they were going to kill them.’
It’s impossible to overstate how close Powell and Warhol were. Before he died, he’d spoken to her about adopting a child together. ‘He asked me to get the preliminary adoption papers,’ she says. ‘He also wanted to work with me directly on commissioned projects, but he was terrified of telling Fred Hughes, his business manager. They were always fighting and he was trying to get up his nerve. He died before it ever happened.’
Paige Powell at home in Portland, sitting on the sofa pictured in the picture above the sofa. Photograph by Brian McDonnell
SINCE RETURNING TO Oregon in 1994, Paige has split her time between working for non-profit animal-protection organisations and on art projects. She put together the art collection for the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland, commissioning local artists and close friends like Gus Van Sant, Philip Iosca and Storm Tharp, and she is also commuting across the country to work on the art for the new Lexington Hotel in New York with David Ashen of Dash Design.
‘It’s a 750-room Deco-era hotel,’ she says. ‘Joe DiMaggio used to live in the penthouse with Marilyn Monroe. I want very contemporary, conceptual and abstract commissioned works with some references to that cool, smoky, bluesy jazz era.’
There have been opportunities for Paige to launch herself as a fully fledged gallerist, but she’s always resisted it. As well as representing Basquiat part-time in the 1980s, she looked after other downtown graffiti artists Rammellzee and AOne.
From 1998 to 2002 she was executive director of the Pearl Arts Foundation in Portland, commissioning site-specific and permanent works, which included Kenny Scharf’s Tikitotemoniki totem poles and William Wegman’s Portland Dog Bowl, both of which were rated by Art in America magazine as being among the fifteen best public artworks in the country.
She continues to work on one-off projects and support animal charities and local businesses in Portland (she recently showed a few pieces from her archive, including photographs of Basquiat and a shot of Warhol watching some breakdancers, on the walls at her favourite café in the city, Courier Coffee) but prefers to engage her wealth of experience as an art adviser.
‘I need to feel passionately inspired about an artist to curate an exhibition for them,’ she says, ‘and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re a gallerist dealing with young artists, you have to operate on the secondary market to survive and show a new body of work every six weeks. I wouldn’t be able to keep up.
‘But there are young artists that really inspire me, like Julie Mehretu, Ryan Trecartin, Urs Fischer, Mickalene Thomas, Chris Johanson, Banksy and Assume Vivid Astro Focus. And I’d really like to see more women artists addressing and attacking the cultural dynamic of the “man’s world”. We live in a time of easy online porn access and government-funded Viagra. Nubile female nudity is commonplace and gratuitous in the art world.’
PAIGE CONTINUES TO inhabit her own realm of fashion, art and counter-culture. She’s a tastemaker. While Louis Vuitton markets Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti prints, she wears the vintage originals he gave her. ‘I particularly love the dayglo micro miniskirts and coats,’ she says. Then there’s that eye, honed by being immersed in, and living through, such incredible American art history. It never closes.
Sitting down for dinner at the opening of Portland celebrity chef Vitaly Paley’s Imperial restaurant, she gestures at a huge canvas by the door: ‘I love that Michael Brophy landscape,’ she says. ‘It’s so right that it’s here, because he’s such a strong landscape painter from the North West and his work has such resonance of the pioneer spirit. But it’s wrong. It needs to be hung half a metre higher. It would make all the difference.’
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