Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Artist Stephen Montgomery Lives on, in his own Spectacular Oils

Stephen Montgomery (unfinished self portrait)
Moving is no easy task, especially for someone who’s lived in New York City since the 1960s.  Such is the case with my friend Margaret Montgomery, who after several decades residing in Hells Kitchen, decided it was finally time to move on and nearer to her family in Pennsylvania.  I’ve known Margaret for 17 years and had met her, along with many of her friends, while bartending in one of the local theatre district piano bars in the mid-1990s.  Take it from a pro; if you hang out in New York City bars and don’t initiate conversations with the locals, then you’re missing out.  I for one am always curious about the people who have lived in New York for a long time.  Hearing about the struggles they've had, the stories they keep and the treasures that they hold dear are but only a conversation away, if you’re just willing to listen. 

You would think that someone who’s been living and working in New York for over 22 years like myself, would know the ins and outs ups and downs and everything about every friend, colleague and coworker.  Actually, many long-time denizens of New York City like to keep their past and present private.  Such again is the case with my friend Margaret, who had just asked me to come by and look at some LP records of hers, along with some sterling silver and some other collectibles before she packed up her life for the move.  I was happy to oblige and met her at her apartment on 45th St. where I quickly separated her China cabinet, so that she might have a better idea of which pieces were of value and which were not.  I quickly looked through Margaret’s LP records and didn’t see much value in them either, which is a shame because her late husband Stephen was an avid collector of classical and opera.  Unfortunately, although his LP collection was in spectacular condition, it should come as no surprise that classical opera LPs are not exactly at the top of people’s wish lists these days.  It would take a special kind of collector to take all these LPs home. 

"Little Boy" 32" x 38" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
As I stand in Margaret’s living room looking through her glass, silver and LPs, I can’t help but notice that the paintings on the wall are pulling all of my attention.  Huge canvases with bold light and dark contrast, bright color and perfect symmetry, hang in stark contrast to the boxes and bubble wrap that clutter the space.  I’m certain Margaret had mentioned her late husband Stephen in the past, but I can’t recall her sharing any stories about him and I certainly don’t recall her telling me that he was an artist.  The paintings are amazing.  Each piece, it’s own personalized and stylized shade of photorealism, with tremendous use of color and light, just begging to be seen.  Margaret is quick to shine some light on her husband Stephen Montgomery by showing me much of Stephen’s work.  It seems that Stephen Montgomery and his beautiful works of oil on canvas, should have been illuminated a long time ago. 

"Untitled" 40" x 58" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
There’s a smaller painting of a little boy, sitting in a crude, wooden chair.  He is framed in beautiful dark wood, which compliments this dusty, earthy work.  She tells me that the painting was based on a National Geographic photograph, in an essay on the children of Appalachia.  She mentions that the work was always referred to as “Little Boy.”  “Little Boy’s foot used to drive Stephen crazy,” Margaret said, as we move onto the next canvas.  “This is me,” she smiles,  “this was in the 1980’s and we were in the subway station, on our way to the Bronx Zoo.  Look at the graffiti.  There was graffiti everywhere back then.”   I do see the graffiti, but I’m equally fascinated by the way that Stephen Montgomery managed to capture the rusted paint on the side of the steel beam.  It’s a very large canvas in high contrast and again, it’s an exceptional work.  “My hand would drive Stephen crazy too,” she said, “hands would drive him crazy.”  Finally we move on to the painting that had been capturing me all along.  It’s a boldly colored Hells Kitchen still life, painted in that very space.  I look in the kitchen and voila.  Yup, same kitchen.  With hair-trigger precision, Stephen Montgomery seems to capture one of the finest pieces of modern realism that I had ever seen, outside of a museum. 

"Still Life" 40" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
I cannot say it enough – I am not an expert or a critic.  I am a lover of things created by the human hand, be it art, antique or antiquity.  I only know what I like and I liked this piece a great deal.  I especially loved the radiator and the soft, Monet-like hues of the tablecloth.  I wanted to see more and most importantly, I wanted to know more about Stephen Montgomery.  Margaret agreed to the following interview about the life of Stephen Montgomery and their life in old-school New York City.  Their life flashes as a timeless, romantic yarn, not unlike the incredible worlds of Liszt, George Sand & Chopin, except in this story, we’ll have to transplant you into a wild world of down and dirty, New York City. 

How did you and Stephen meet?           
Stephen was living in Abington Square in the penthouse with his friend Clay, who was a friend of another friend of mine.  We had done summer stock together.  I went over, Stephen and I hit it off immediately and I fell in love in about five seconds.  Stephen and Clay then moved up to Lake George, where his family had their summer home.  Stephen came from money, but his father wasn’t exactly approving of an “artist.” 

Did Stephen have any formal training in the arts?
He came from a very artistic family.  His mother was artistic, she did watercolors and such, not as good as Stephen, but his uncle Frank Milan who was on Broadway in the 50’s and 60’s, made his living painting miniatures for society ladies.
Broadway Actor, Frank Milan, 1950's
Stephen did the war in Vietnam, and was very lucky, he was in the medical corp. so he didn’t have to go to Vietnam, but he served honorably.  He actually became the Captains right hand man because he could take shorthand.   After the service, he went to different schools, but never really studied art per se.   Stephen and his younger brother Bobby, who’s an attorney now, started doing puppet theatre up in the Lake George area.  It was called the “Montgomery Marionettes.”  He really started pursuing his artist career in earnest, when he moved up to Lake George with Clay.   I would go up a lot and we would go out onto Glen Lake and watch meteor showers and of course with the times, we were all starting to experiment with pot and the drug culture.  Stephen and I became intimate at that point and I found myself in New York, unhappy.  He was up at Lake George with his Mother coming in and out of the cottage all the time and his Sister was always up there too.  He didn’t mind the cold but when the mud season hit, when everything started to thaw, he started calling me all the time and eventually he moved back down to New York City into an apartment on 47th Street, and I moved in across the hallway.   We would go up on our roof a lot and that’s when he started painting a lot of the rooftop paintings.  That’s also unfortunately, when we got burglarized.   His cello was stolen, they smashed everything up. 
"Rooftop Painting" and Poloroid (ca. 1978)

So he was good at a number of artistic mediums besides theatre and art?
Well he did play the cello and he went to Julliard for a while, he also played orchestras in and around Lake George for the local theatre company up there.  Stephen was always torn.  He could play the piano as well and could also write and transpose music.   We had a piano and he would give voice lessons but then he would always come back to the painting.  I was quite taken with the painting and the music.  I guess I was an enabler in the fact that I would always go with the flow, whatever he was into at the moment, because I was always very impressed with all of it. 

You were in love with the person.
Stephen was gorgeous but I realized that I was really taken with his whole grouping of talent and I really didn’t mind being a muse.   I guess he said I was.

That was one of my questions, were you his muse?
He said I was.

Did he consider himself a crackerjack?
I don’t think he considered himself good at anything.  His Mother was quite artistic but quite unpredictable.  He was not close to his father who did not approve of him.  Stephen would start to paint and his Mother would come in and say, “You know, I really think you were probably better when you were doing…”  So he was always back and forth with all of these things he could do.  He would also talk about entities coming to him.   He would say sometimes, “I don’t know where all of this is coming from, I really don’t.”

What was your world like in general and in New York City specifically, in the time frame that you were together?  What parts of that world did you both embrace together?
New York was raw.  It was raw and it was creative.  I had come from a more creative world in the Lower East Side in the 60’s where I did La Mama and New York Theatre Ensemble, etc. and I knew a lot of those early playwrights, Bob Patrick used to sleep in my living room, all of that. 
"Nude" Oil on Canvas
We used to go to all the clubs, we used to go down to Marie’s Crisis, we used to go to all the sleazy places, spent some time over here at Jimmy Ray's but not a lot.  We actually spent a lot of time in our apartment.  We did go out, but we had specific days that we would plan what we would call “special trips.”  Sometimes they were trips and sometimes they were “trips” (laughs).  The Gilded Grape was on the corner and there was porno everywhere.  Backstage was across the street too, there were piano bars everywhere, there was creativity, the theatre was cheap, even though we were quite poor, we saw every show.   I don’t go to the theatre like that anymore, I can’t afford it.   I wouldn’t say that I was running the streets at night alone much, although nothing ever happened to us besides the burglary.  We never got mugged because Stephen was tall and actually pretty strong because he did yoga constantly.  He actually used to do his yoga and then paint.  He did a lot of the painting at night, under elaborate lights. 

Did you and Stephen ever rub elbows with the artistic elite of the day? 
When he started painting the larger paintings, we met this dealer named Fred Checker who was dabbling in art and thinking of making us all money.  Fred took Stephen to meet Alice Neel.  Alice
"Fred" 32" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
adored Stephen, didn’t like Fred Checker too much, but was quick to yell after her caretaker Nancy, “Nancy, come in here right now, interesting things are being said.”   Fred talked to a couple of society people in Philadelphia to try and sell some of Stephen's work and things were going pretty well.  I was thinking I was finally going to be able to get out of New York.   I was getting tired of New York, I was a little tired of teaching in parochial school, I was a little tired of not having any money.  This building in itself in those days was quite different.  It was full of ex-Vaudevillians and radio people.  They seemed very old to me at the time.  We moved into this apartment after the burglary when I was about 32 years old, but there would be Alfred Ryder, Tennessee Williams could be in the revolving door with you, we would walk home Olive Deering, drunk out of her mind and I found it all very interesting.  I don’t regret living in New York in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s I loved it.  I was very happy with the whole world here until AIDS.  My friends just started dropping like flies.   Stephen certainly went through the whole gambit of sexual freedom, as we all did.  The world we lived in was completely different, we had an open relationship and it was very honest.   I don’t really have those issues I never really did.  I can’t stand the way New York is now.  

Apart from Fred, what was his relationship with the art world and where did he see himself in that framework?
He loved the art world.  He was enamored with the impressionists and he loved the museums and the artists were like gods to him.   I don’t think he thought he was going to be a successful artist, I think he had an idea that maybe fate was going to shine on him, when Fred was selling some of his art and some money was coming in.  He never said to me that he thought he was a specific kind of artist.   He never said I think I’m a photorealist or I’m an impressionist.  He never said the term.

"Napalm Sonata" 30" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
Did he follow photorealists?  Did he follow Chuck Close or Ralph Goings?
I know he looked at all of them at The Modern, but Stephen actually preferred The Met.  Stephen was very fascinated, oddly enough, with the Egyptians.  I don’t think it was so much the painting as it was the antiquity of it.  He liked Georgia O’Keeffe, he loved Monet, he loved Manet, he really liked the Impressionists.  He loved Joseph Cornell too.  I don’t think he saw himself as connected to any of them, necessarily, but he did understand it all, he loved the idea of light and color and how it affects the eye. 
"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

I've seen some very fun abstracts, studies and risqué subjects, and you’ve shown me some of his cartoon animated paintings as well.  Was there a specific time when he decided to move to the bigger canvases and embrace this type of photorealism?
Yes. That cartoon art was done very early in conjunction with his family who has most of it, because his Mother was helping, they were writing a book called “Rubin the Rat.”   His Mother lost interest and “Rubin the Rat” never got made.  When I was with him, the cartoon art sort of ebbed away.   He started working on bigger canvases when we were on 47th but nothing like these.  These big ones were created here, with me.  He was really hard on himself with his paintings.  Really a lot of temperamental depression, but he was painting up until he lost his eyesight.  The self-portrait was going to be the last thing.  He actually came back from the hospital and tried to continue.  We had put up these elaborate lights, we thought it would help him, there were spot lights and I remember that day when he said, “I can’t see.”  We knew that he would never finish the self portrait.

"Unfinished Self Portrait" 53" x 68" (Stephen Montgomery)
What would Stephen want to have happen to his work?
I think he’d like to have people see it.
Stephen Montgomery died of HIV-AIDS at the young age of 38.  Margaret plans to move Stephen's collection with her to Pennsylvania.  Even though the works of Stephen Montgomery will remain with Margaret, I truly hope that you have enjoyed this look into parts of his collection. I hope that this interview helps to at least establish Stephen Montgomery as a legitimate artist, with exceptional talent.  Margaret made it very clear to me and it was very refreshing, to hear that Stephen worked freehand from photographs, using only his own personalized sense of perspective.  Please enjoy these additional photographs, all of which are representative of the works of Stephen Montgomery.  Thank you Stephen.  


"Untitled" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Head" 7" x 7" x 8" Clay Sculpture

"Untitled" 12" x 18" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)

"Untitled" 15" x 20" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)

Stephen Montgomery with "Unfinished Self Portrait"

"Fred" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Head" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Untitled" 14" x 18" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)

"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Little Boy" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Little Boy" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Head" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Napalm Sonata" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

"Untitled" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

Stephen and Margaret Montgomery