Painters Pat Steir, 80, and Francesco Clemente, 68, have been neighbors for three decades and friends for even longer. They’re from a generation of artists who came into their own during the 1970s and 1980s and settled in then-raffish parts of town which have since become almost unbearably polished. Steir, who once wryly told the New York Times that she’d been “forgotten and rediscovered many times,” has a new documentary about her life and work. Clemente has had a steady and successful career. They live across from one another at the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens, a courtyard in Greenwich Village that you can only access from the townhouses surrounding it. Inside, you’ll find a stone path looping around a lawn and very tall trees.
“When we moved in there in 1990, I sort of elbowed my way into controlling the garden,” Steir says. “So I planted, with the help of two other neighbors, shrubs and grass and we made it what we thought was beautiful.”
It’s one of those old New York spaces that seem like they should’ve disappeared years ago, and in some ways it already has. Condos are now adjacent to the historic townhouses (a few years ago, Anna Wintour, another famous resident of the Gardens, railed against them at a community board meeting) and the area has steadily changed from a Beat-era enclave — Bob Dylan and Alexander Calder were residents — into something much less bohemian.
As new residents have moved in, the fences around the private gardens have grown taller, and the plants more cookie cutter. Some residents hired professional landscapers and gardeners. Things became more “normal” looking, as Steir describes.
“They wanted privets, I wanted flowering shrubs,” she says. “I’m in a constant battle with the new tenants. I had to ward off people who wanted to plant fake grass. And I said, ‘No! It will kill your children. It will off-gas!’ They thought I was an old coot.”
Meanwhile, life has become much quieter. The annual May Day dinner parties, which were once organized by Alexander Calder’s late daughter Mary, no longer take place. Clemente and his wife Alba, a costume designer, raised their family in the garden and recall days when all of the kids would just run around playing together. But now children aren’t as common.
The strangeness of this summer struck some residents as familiar: “When the pandemic started, all of a sudden Soho was all boarded up and looked exactly as it did when I moved to New York 50 years ago,” Clemente says. “So for me it was not a shock; it was a sense of tenderness and ‘oh the past is coming back.’ Now it’s not like that. But you