A Longtime Resident of the Chelsea Hotel Gets Her Due as an Artist

One night in November, a procession of young artists, critics and curators climbed the creaky stairs of a building in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan to attend an opening at a buzzy little gallery, Ulrik. The show, “Bettina: New York 1965–86,” was made up of rarely seen photographs and sculptures by an enigmatic artist who lived for five decades at the fabled Chelsea Hotel, where she created her works in a cluttered fifth-floor apartment until her death in 2021.

Writers for Artforum and Frieze pushed through the crowd to get glimpses of the black-and-white street photography. Students from Pratt Institute drank cans of Budweiser as they studied the wavelike wood sculptures. A Museum of Modern Art curator watched grainy footage of the artist in 1976 while she filmed herself taking the very photos of Manhattan skyscrapers now displayed in the exhibit.

The show’s gallerists, Anya Komar, 37, and Alex Fleming, 39, sold three pieces right out of the gate. A few of Bettina’s old Chelsea Hotel neighbors showed up, including her longtime caretaker, Rachel Cohen, a jewelry and eyewear designer who has lived in the building since the 1970s.

“Everyone at the Chelsea Hotel knew Bettina’s art needed to be appreciated, but for some reason, it didn’t happen for her,” Ms. Cohen, 74, said after the opening. “So that night at the gallery seemed impossible to me. Everyone was so young and different. I was happy to see her art appreciated. Bettina wasn’t an easy person. She was rarely delighted by anything, but I think she would have loved it.”

“I think most who came that night didn’t know much about her life,” she continued, “so they were just seeing her art itself, and they couldn’t judge it by her life at the Chelsea Hotel.”

Eventually, the crowd moved on to a nearby bar, the River, a haunt for the downtown art crowd. They stayed past midnight, drinking martinis and discussing Bettina’s geometric paintings and black-and-white marble block sculptures.

By now Ulrik has sold almost all of the pieces in the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 1. A review in New York magazine by Tess Edmonson, an editor at n+1, called the show a “concise and modest selection from an artist whose estate was very nearly lost to oblivion.” And fresh-voiced critics like Sean Tatol dropped by during their gallery rounds. In the Manhattan Art Review, he called Bettina’s work “right on time for likable and almost leisurely nostalgia,” comparing it favorably to the creations of the conceptual artist Dan Graham.

Bettina, who died at 94, had an uneasy relationship with the art world, but it’s not hard to speculate that she would have appreciated that her new fans were discovering her as an artist, and not an eccentric resident of the Chelsea Hotel.

“Bettina became part of the Chelsea Hotel’s legend, but it’s not the most interesting thing about her,” Mr. Fleming, the gallerist, said. “You could say it’s funny that the work of a modernist missing female artist from the 20th century has made its way to the Clandestino and Dimes Square crowd, but the only thing that matters to us is that people are finally coming to Bettina’s work.”

Born Bettina Grossman in 1927, she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. While pursuing her art in Europe as a young woman, she shed her full name and adopted the mononym Bettina. She made marble sculptures in Italy and studied stained glassmaking in France. She cut a dashing figure while driving sports cars through the Alps and breaking hearts.

She returned to New York in her 30s and started working out of a studio in Brooklyn Heights. A fire destroyed all her work there in 1966. The incident left her deeply protective of her art, and mistrustful of sharing it with others.

Bettina soon moved to the Chelsea Hotel, joining former inhabitants like Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and devoted herself to rebuilding the work that was lost in the fire. When her attempts to find recognition in the male-dominated art world came to almost nothing, she immersed herself more deeply in her labor within Room 503.

As a changing city encroached on the Chelsea Hotel’s bohemian sanctuary, Bettina outlasted other tenants. She installed heavy locks on her door. She wore sunglasses while roaming the halls with a shopping trolley stuffed with her portfolios. Her apartment eventually amassed so much of her art that she began sleeping in a lawn chair in her hall. She staved off eviction in 2006 and continued paying a few hundred dollars a month in rent thanks to her apartment’s rent-regulated status.

She brushed off inquiries from journalists who visited her seeking a story, but put some trust in the filmmaker Corinne van der Borch. In her 2010 documentary, “Girl with Black Balloons,” Ms. van der Borch introduces Bettina as “a woman living in the shadows of the Chelsea” who “has locked herself away for over 40 years.” In the film, Bettina explains her solitary way of life: “The only way you could do beautiful things like that is by isolating yourself from reality, from friends, from family, from the messy situation out there.”

A group led by BD Hotels, which operates the Bowery and the Jane hotels, bought the Chelsea for $250 million in 2016 and began a long and costly redevelopment. Bettina died the year before the building’s transformation into a luxury boutique hotel was complete. Today, the suites start at around $700 a night, and more than 40 residential tenants remain on its floors.

Toward the end of her life, Bettina’s art received some attention through the efforts of Yto Barrada, a Pace Gallery-represented visual artist who became transfixed with her work after watching Ms. van der Borch’s documentary. When Ms. Barrada, 52, read through the coverage of Bettina, she grew frustrated with how little attention was accorded to her art.

She spent time with Bettina, warming her to the idea of a shared show at Governors Island, and the resulting exhibition became Bettina’s first public showing of her art in some 40 years. Ms. Barrada also included Bettina in a group show she curated for MoMA, and she facilitated the publication of a monograph, “Bettina,” with Aperture.

After her death, Ms. Barrada bought decades worth of her work from her brother, Morty Grossman, and its cluttered mass was shuttled from the Chelsea Hotel to Brooklyn. But Ms. Barrada faced difficulty as she searched for a gallery to represent the estate: The blue chips weren’t compelled by it, and other galleries seemed hesitant.

Enter Ms. Komar and Mr. Fleming.

The pair met in their late 20s at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Ms. Komar, who was born in Moscow and is studying at CUNY Graduate Center, hopes to write her dissertation on Bettina. Mr. Fleming, who hails from Detroit and once managed an anarchist space in the Lower East Side, taught Bettina’s work to art students at Harvard when he was an assistant instructor there. They never met Bettina and harbor mild envy toward those who did.

At Ulrik’s space on Canal Street recently, the two gallerists discussed their mission to reframe Bettina’s narrative.

“When I give gallery tours, I feel a sense of responsibility talking about her life,” Mr. Fleming said. “Visitors ask me, ‘Did she really go around with a shopping cart?’ And I answer carefully, because there’s an ableism to the shopping cart stories, and I want it to stop.”

Ms. Komar said: “That she was seen as some kind of bag lady, that her art gets overshadowed by those stories, makes us angry.”

She added: “It’s absurd someone who held onto their art is seen as a hoarder. We could all use more storage space in New York. What New Yorker isn’t a hoarder, if you think about it.”

Turning to Bettina’s photography series “Phenomenological New York,” Mr. Fleming challenged the story of the 1966 fire.

“People say Bettina became paranoid after the fire, that she became convinced people were stealing ideas from her,” he said. “But I don’t think she was delusional. It’s absolutely reasonable a genius woman artist of her time would have ideas stolen from her.”

Later that evening, they headed to Ms. Barrada’s studio in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, to discuss an upcoming performance she’d be giving at Ulrik. Billed as “Bettina Unboxing Day,” and scheduled for Saturday, Ms. Barrada plans to examine unopened boxes of Bettina’s art in an act of collective discovery.

Ms. Barrada’s sheepadoodle, Patchwork, greeted the two gallerists while she showed them some of Bettina’s personal effects — an old Olympia typewriter, Xerox portfolios. There was also an envelope scribbled with six names in blue ink: “Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hepworth, Bourgeois, Krasner, Nevelson.”

“All female artists,” Ms. Barrada said. “This gives a sense what was on her mind. She knew she should be on this list.”

It was dark when the two gallerists headed to the U-Haul storage facility in Gowanus where more of Bettina’s belongings are kept. They rode a freight elevator to a mazelike floor lined with storage units. A sharp odor emerged when Bettina’s two lots were opened. The miscellanea included twisted wood, yellowed newspaper clippings, a Russian verb finder and piles of paintings. Inside a tube marked with a mailing sticker from the Chelsea Hotel, they found colorful geometric drawings.

“We’ve never seen these before,” Ms. Komar said. “Seeing all this, it’s clear there are more exhibitions ahead.”

Mr. Fleming grew reflective as he studied the dusty heaps.

“I’m always thinking about what Bettina would think about what we’re doing,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know if she’d have liked us searching around her stuff, but I like to think she’d appreciate our advocacy.”

“If she’d been recognized in her lifetime, and let herself be distracted by the external world, the irony is she wouldn’t have made all this work,” Mr. Fleming added. “The unrecognized path let her make art in a way that others can’t. Now we’re just trying to meet Bettina on her own terms.”

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