Helmut Lang, the artist
Step inside Helmut Lang's East Hampton studio and you're in another world.
EDITOR AT LARGE MAX TROWBRIDGE AND DALLAS CONTEMPORARY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR PETER DOROSHENKO JOURNEY TO EAST HAMPTON ON THE ULTIMATE ART AND FASHION PILGRIMAGE. DESTINATION: THE STUDIO OF HELMUT LANG, ON THE OCCASION OF HIS UPCOMING SOLO AT THE DALLAS CONTEMPORARY DURING DALLAS ART FAIR WEEK — HIS NORTH AMERICAN MUSEUM DEBUT. EVERY ACOLYTE OF LANG WILL BE THERE. TROWBRIDGE BREAKS BREAD WITH THE ARTIST AND DRAWS HIM OUT.
The 1990s gave us the most minimalist, deconstructive phase of fashion ever — a laid-back rebellion against the garish, shoulder-pad overindulgence of the ’80s. Leading the minimalist fashion pack during this era was Austrian designer Helmut Lang. Now semi-reclusive, the retired designer turned sculptor punctuates the transformation from fashion to art with his familiar, texturally inspired sense of subversive style.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Lang at his home for lunch. It was cold, it was gray, but that’s New York in February; I was just happy the snow was minimal so that our bus, traveling to East Hampton with a Dallas Contemporary art posse, would arrive on time to tour Lang’s art studio. I sat up front with Sperone Westwater gallery owner Angela Westwater, who represents Mr. Lang, and Peter Doroshenko, executive director of the Dallas Contemporary. Our conversation ranged from Westwater’s early days in Manhattan during the Warhol era to the increased infatuation with contemporary art and other artists that she represents, such as Lucio Fontana, Richard Long and Julian Schnabel.
Of Lang’s work, she said, “Helmut once said to me that he thought a sculpture was finished when it was ‘strong enough to fight back.’ These works are not slick and pretty, but provocative. The material is often recycled from a former purpose and causes a kind of visual snag — it forces you to reflect on multiple kinds of transformation.”
An artist at heart, Helmut Lang has always been cool. He still is, and his art, much like his persona, oozes a superlative it-factor. He’s real, his work is real, and it comes from the heart — no pretense. He’s not trying; it either happens or it doesn’t. His organic creativity incorporates materials that are textural, both natural and repurposed mediums with resins and anything that he can find, literally, at Home Depot. (East Hampton is not known for its access to art supplies.)
When we arrived at the studio, Lang and his life partner, Edward Pavlick, and their dog, Abe the whippet, greeted us with a warm welcome at their oceanfront home. The studio is adjacent to the main house, and both are old barns that date back to the 18th century, lovingly restored. The studio barn, a gift from heiress Adelaide de Menil, was relocated from her estate on Long Island to East Hampton. Of course, the ambiance inside the studio barn was cool, too — that’s the only mode Helmut operates in. A local radio played in the background — The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The studio juxtaposes historical meaning with contemporary references to showcase the thought process of an artist. Foam saturated in resin rests on the floor; various animal horns are clustered close by, and resin-covered paper hangs from wooden beams in the ceiling. Lang built an additional studio and office below ground — a concrete basement filled with artworks that will be exhibited at the Dallas Contemporary in April. It was quite moving, viewing these new works in their place of creation. The new sculptures are almost painting-like — heavy resin-soaked sheepskin on stilted frames, canvases saturated in gold and silver resin — including a few pieces from his 2011 “Make It Hard” exhibition at The Fireplace Project, East Hampton, organized by Neville Wakefield; these works also showed at his gallery debut at Sperone Westwater, titled “Helmut Lang,” in 2015.
This austere grouping that resembles stalagmite columns was created from remnants after a 2010 fire destroyed his personal garment archive. Causing uproar in the fashion community, Lang shredded the fire-tarnished remains of 20-plus years of fashion to create art. He treated zippers, buttons and fabrics alike with resin and pigments and squeezed everything into long casting tubes that he baked in the sun.
Lang’s demeanor is gentle in a very reassuring manner. I felt quite at ease as he shared the process of creation. During our conversation within the concrete walls, in a softly spoken Austrian accent, he said to me, “I always wanted to be an artist.” Post-studio tour, Lang, Pavlick and Abe guided us to their unassuming home for lunch. We passed an organic garden where Lang grows vegetables and herbs and tends to a coop of chickens. Circa 1790, the former barn took years to renovate — a true labor of love. It now shares the subtle modernist and minimalist style that he personifies, shrouded by the historical importance of the 200-year-old dwelling. The purest of white walls reflect daylight throughout the low-ceilinged rooms, which are punctuated with raw wooden beams, window and door frames stripped of any modern finishes.
His carefully placed art collection underlines the design, which echoes the subdued palette you might have seen in his runway shows: white, black and gray warmed with beige. References to his friendships with fashion photographer Bruce Weber, artist Jenny Holzer and the late Louise Bourgeois resonate in books and artworks. During our lunch, Lang discussed Further Lane, a book by Zak Powers, in which photographs detail the historic preservation of homes undertaken by Adelaide de Menil and her husband Ted Carpenter. (His studio is one of them.)
The super-private artist seems at peace in East Hampton, far from the hubbub and the fickle world of fashion. Lang, who intended to begin his career in art yet reached success in fashion, has finally attained his true calling — and arrived at his true self.
HELMUT LANG EXHIBITION CURATOR PETER DOROSHENKO WEIGHS IN —
“Before, during and now after his seminal and groundbreaking years as a fashion designer, Helmut Lang has produced art as a serious creative passion. Leaving fashion in 2005, he has devoted the past 10 years to his sculpture practice and exhibiting his artworks in European museums and art spaces.
A few years ago, I noticed a major artwork by Lang in a German art magazine and could not stop thinking about the piece. I visited his studio last summer and learned more about his creative output; museum visitors in Dallas will have the same opportunity to view Lang’s sculptures that incorporate history, materials and conceptual storytelling. I am excited that Dallas Contemporary will be the first museum in North America to exhibit Helmut Lang’s most recent work.”