Dave King / Ellen Berkenblit
I went to college with Ellen Berkenblit. We weren’t in any classes together, but we had mutual friends, and I viewed her as the girl who was always around: sauntering down a hallway with a handful of brushes or sitting on the brown steps in front of the school, smiling as she squinted up at anyone who paused to chat. Once, when I was in a bad mood, I told a friend I never wanted to speak to anyone at that damn school again, and my friend said, “Except for Ellen. You have to say good morning to Ellen. She’s the nicest girl on earth.” Then we graduated, and Ellen worked for a while as a hostess at the Union Square Café. No one could afford to eat there, but occasionally that same friend and I would have a drink at the bar. Ellen would have on a little black cocktail dress, the irony of which she could switch on and off at will, and she’d comp us drinks and chat between customers.
In 1995, Ellen had a show in a small bright gallery on Broadway. The place she shows at now is bigger and grander, and Ellen’s paintings are bigger now, too, but in those days they were smaller, and in this show there were lots of them, hung sort of salon-style on variously colored walls. A very intelligent and evocative show: images of girls and cats and horses, with swathes of strong color sometimes conforming to the linework, sometimes not. By then I was part owner of a small business, and I’d stopped making my own paintings. I was learning what Thoreau meant by quiet desperation, and one way I dealt with all that was to continue to pay attention to art, especially art by people I knew.
I remember the moment I realized I could buy one. I was standing by a window, gazing at a small but very beautiful gray painting. I had money for the first time, and it would be an extravagance but manageable if I picked out a midsize piece. I wouldn’t even have to ask my boyfriend to chip in; I could buy something myself and support an old friend as well. My birthday was coming up, so I bought myself a fortieth birthday present, returning several times to the gallery to be sure I chose the right one. Not the gray painting, but a larger one, of a cat riding a horse, as maroon sky swirled around.
For years, as we slowly fixed up our house, Ellen’s painting got moved from room to room, wall to wall. It was in the bedroom, lit by my bedside lamp, then it was in the hallway, above one of my old sculptures. But for a while now, it’s hung on the staircase, where the wallboard is painted as trompe-l’oeil beadboard and a friend’s costume sketches for The Fantasticks hang in a grid. On the floor, against the wall, is a copy of a Picasso portrait, which my husband* did as an exercise for a film he was working on; he’s still not happy with it. But it’s Ellen’s piece that most draws the eye: the way you take in blocks of color at a distance and only notice the cat when you stand near it. I gazed at it from a distance this morning as I was eating my cereal, then gave it a closer look before heading upstairs to my office to write.
*the painter Frank Tartaglione
“The Collector” is an ongoing series in which I ask people to talk about a painting or a drawing they own. See other installments here.
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