Copyright Vladimir Kagan 2010
I don't think any of you know that I spent my earliest formative years in Woodstock, NY…long before the Rock Concert that started a revolution. In those days, we lived on Riverside Drive in New York. Every weekend, I would go down to the Henry Hudson Parkway and hitch hike! Sometimes I got lucky, and did it with good connections, other times it might take ten to twelve hours! My parents were never worried….Those were different times. I stayed with my parent's dearest friends, Kurt and Esther Sluizer. Kurt was a painter from Holland and Esther, a free spirit from Sweden who worked her way around the world as a nurse. She had two sons…Gunnar, the younger, was my closest friend together with Chico Cramer, a lanky over 6' Dutch boy. Together we went off on our own adventures. Sometimes Squirrel hunting, other times shooting rattlesnakes on top of Mt. Overlook. We skinned both and Esther would prepare them as delicious meals.
Some years thereafter, my parents bought a modest weekend house, more shambles than house, with a glorious view of the mountains. (My parents instilled in me the love for a view; no matter where we lived, it was the view that mattered). Father painstakingly restored the cottage and added a grand living room. (It still stands as it was fifty years ago; we visited it today!)
Of all the places we have lived or visited over all these years, nothing has remained in a more spellbinding time warp than Woodstock. Woodstock is a magnet for eccentrics. Barefoot hippies, oldsters from day's long gone with long beards and scraggly gray hair, tie-dyed T-shirts with peace symbols, girls and boys with dreadlock and beads…. all living a dream. The clean-shaven, crew-cut policemen mingle peacefully with the street musicians, vendors and gawking tourists.
Woodstock became our weekend home for the next thirty years. Our next door neighbor was Lee Marvin, my friends included José Quintero and Eddy Mann, who ran the Maverick Playhouse and later founded The Circle In the Square Theater in New York, Ian Ballantine and his English wife, Betty, publisher of Ballantine Books, Sculptors, Alexander Archipenko and second wife, Frances Gray, Raoul Hague, the reclusive artist who lived a hermit's life in the woods. Father Francis, an eccentric Englishman, who switched from the Church of England to become the Archbishop of a little known sect of Orthodox Catholicism called the Old Polish Church. Some years later, Erica and I were married by him in his tiny “Cathedral”, The Church on the Mount. The entire edifice was hand built by Father Francis of local woods….The hand carved roots screen is worthy of a trip up the mountain.
Woodstock became a part of our past when my parent's finally sold their modest home in the 70s and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to live their declining years with my sister.
This past week was our return to the Grail, visiting old friends and stirring up long lost memories.
It was a perfect spring weekend with temperate weather while New York was sweltering in near 90 degree temperature. Our first visit was to Raoul Hague's hidden hermit's cottage, untouched and dilapidated, much as we remembered from so many memorable visits with him. It was never pristine…now it is held together lovingly by Bill Mead, the curator of the estate and a foundation started by Jill Weinberg and Tom Adams (of the Lennon, Weinberg gallery 514 west 25 street in New York), who were his lifelong friends and gallery owners together with his closest friends Holly Hughes a New York artist and Janis Ekdahl, who was the librarian at Vassar College and later the chief librarian at MOMA. Raoul was a non-conformist. He was a compulsive reader and made regular sojourns to the Vassar library for more and more books. He hated to sell his work (and dd so only under duress when he needed some money to ward off creditors.) He built three outlying sheds on his property that served as galleries for his work that no one was invited to visit. They still stand today and house his life's work. His work is in most major museums including Museum of Modern Art MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The National Art Gallery in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to mention just a few. He lived by himself and only privileged people were taken into his inner circle. He didn't care about collectors, patrons or people from the real world. He loved Erica, which fortunately also included our daughter Jessica and myself. We would spend weekends in his cramped studio, sitting up until late hours sipping Turkish coffee, which he brewed over an old, wood stove fired with chips from his sculpture. He collected relics of chiming clocks, which he restored and kept in perfect working order…each one set to strike a few minutes apart. The cacophony went on all night. Only he knew which clock told the correct time!
Hague Workbench and Tools
Raoul Hague Interior with Clock
Raoul Hague's Stove
From there we visited Frances Gray, whom we had known all our lives as “Mrs. Archipenko”. Frances is one lively cookie. A liberated woman decades before the word was ever invented. Frances runs the Archipenko Foundation from her home hidden in the woods of Bearsville. She had remodeled part of the original Archipenko Art School to be her family residence and now has appropriated a good third of it to accommodate the Foundation and its staff of four, carefully retaining its basic spirit. Archipenko's small studio now serves as a woodworking shop for one of Frances' sons: Andrew, who with a few tools and much imagination creates sensitive rustic furniture and utensils. Andrew is one of Frances' four children. The by-products of four interesting and intelligent fathers, Frances never wanted the encumbrance of marriage. Her lifestyle is simple, she exercises daily, grows much of her own food, is a vegetarian, (but benignly submitted to steak when we invited her to dinner). Her skin is like a young girl's: she looks years younger than her age and though her life is tranquil in Woodstock, she does battle on behalf of The Archipenko Foundation worldwide, providing expertise for private collectors and auction houses. The Foundation's extensive and growing archive is open to qualified scholars and curators as it actively prepares a catalogue raisonné that will be published on-line. Like any good grandma, she revels on her grandchildren…all her kids visit frequently, rambling in and out of the house, just like her two standard poodles.
The next day, we drove up a knobbly mountain road, (all dirt roads in Woodstock tend to be knobbly), to visit with my old-time friend Betty Ballantine. She was 91 years old, somewhat frail and delicate and loosing her eyesight, but her blue eyes were still sparkling and she had the spirit of the young woman I knew sixty years earlier. She was the mother hen to all of us Beatniks. Booze cooled in an abandoned bathtub and we would sit up all night in the Ballantine's garage, getting woozy and incoherent as the night progressed. We passed a pleasant few hours, sitting in the converted garage that now is her home and the beautiful flower garden that she lovingly tenders to reminisce about all the friends long since gone. Betty has grand plans to visit London this summer, where her son now lives.
Erica Kagan, Betty Ballantine, Vladimir Kagan
Our next visit was a pilgrimage to the little “stick” church on top of Mt. Mead, where fifty-two years ago, Erica and I were married! Little has changed, a bit more dilapidated, though it was never pristine. It could use some handrails for old fogies like us, but the romantic charm is still there. Father Francis was a good friend; a spiritual and intellectual mentor, with whom I would spend countless hours, in his cramped quarters, discussing everything that came to mind including the mystery of religion and people's unquestioning faith in it…. It was fascinating, but never captured me.
Church on the Mount
Roots Screen in Church on the Mount
Roots Screen in Church on the Mount
Today, unfortunately, the church is overshadowed by a massive square structure, that houses, of all things, a Buddhist Monastery attended predominantly by Caucasian worshippers who are led in prayer and chants by authentic Saffron robed Buddhist Monks.
A few houses down the mountain, live Stephen and Angelica Cohen, retired schoolteachers. He taught craft at FIT. I only met them recently at ICFF, where he approached me and said he was a cabinetmaker. (I have always had a soft spot for cabinetmakers and their shops: the smell of fresh cut wood, shellacs, lacquers, even the sound of the machines are pure nostalgia for me.) When he said he lived in Woodstock, we added him to our “must visit list”. It's always fun to open yourself up to strangers, the encounter is almost always rewarding. Stephen has a beautiful workshop that would make any woodworker envious. Cramped into a small well-lit shed was the finest woodworking machinery a man could wish for. Two Martin Saws, 20” jointer, lathes, flatbed-sanding machine …you name it; he has it. The space was so crowded with machines that one could barely navigate between them. Obviously, Stephen is a fanatic for equipment, as was I. He is a very creative craftsman and showed me some of his work, which are exceptional examples of design and workmanship…. one never knows whom you will meet….When and where!
Vladimir Kagan and Stephen Cohen in his shop
Stephen Cohen work
Stephen Cohen work
Stephen Cohen with Handcarved chain
Stephen Cohen with Handcarved chain
For further information on The Archipenko Foundation go to Archipenko.org
For more information on The Raoul Hague Foundations go to raoulhaguefoundation.org