The artist is ill at ease. A visitor has invaded the space that is supposed to break an artistic block, and he is perhaps contributing to it. He asks questions that are difficult. For Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman a lot is at stake. Things have to be carefully considered.
First important detail: Yes, Vanderbilt as in that family.
Her studio is behind her summer home, a wood-shingled place in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the Hamptons suburb that partly serves as an artists’ enclave (home to the studios of the painters Mary Heilemann and Vija Celmins). Some of her aluminum sculptures sit in the front and back yards, organic forms in vibrant colors: red, orange, purple.
“I’m a ’60s artist,” says Lehman, settling on a comfortably worn couch in her new studio (an artist’s dream: a small structure with pure-white walls and stations for drawing, watercolors and painting). As for the inspiration for her prolific output, she says, “Where does it all come from? I couldn’t tell you. I really just do what I feel like doing.” Her work ranges from drawings to paintings to those sculptures, giant crosses and curves in wood and aluminum that rise to 8 to 12 feet.
It is all—to speak in pure art-history terms—very good. Ray Stark and Horst Koch have collected her sculptures. Twelve pieces were purchased by fabled modern-art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel—whom the acclaimed 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy revealed to be prescient to the point of clairvoyance, having bought Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein pieces when those artists were just starting out. Lehman’s works sit on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and other museums from Alaska to Hawaii.
But Lehman has no gallery and no agent at the moment. “When someone says they’ve heard of my work, I’m startled,” she laughs. “It just doesn’t happen. People see me online, and they want to show colored sculpture in Oneonta [N.Y.] or something, and off they go. I am really bad at promotion, and it’s an upbringing thing. . . . We were taught not to ask for things. Not to push yourself forward.”
Moving over to her desk, she opens a ledger, the record of her work in pencil. There are thousands of entries. She points to the first line, notated “1964.” “Number one: ‘Watercolor on illustration board,’” she reads. “Imagine having the arrogance to imagine that it would someday matter!”
Lehman has a slender frame, a brown bob, a wry humor and soft-spoken speech. Being interviewed “has put me in a panic,” she says at one point, her voice seemingly calm. “Can you hear it? I’m out of breath,” she adds, sounding perfectly placid.
Lehman is loath to talk about herself in person but gets confessional in her work. One of the drawings on the wall of the studio is a black form with brandished teeth. “I think that one has something to do with something scary in my childhood,” she says. “Some unfinished business.”
Then she’s off to a flat file that contains hundreds of watercolors. “Come see this,” she says, opening one of the files. “I think that one is very pretty, which doesn’t bother me. I seem to like crosses for some reason. I’m not reli- gious, but there’s something structural about them—which is probably why they’re symbolic in religion.”
A visitor says that it’s been a while since he’s seen an artist’s output that’s so varied. “Oh, I don’t think it’s varied at all,” Lehman says, her voice trailing. “To me, they’re from the same person.”
So who is Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman, and where has she been? “I’ve been two distinctly different people,” she says, her eyes scanning the paintings on the wall. “And I have to get them together more.”
Wendy Vanderbilt was born in California. Her father, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II, was one of the 20th century’s driving forces of thoroughbred racing. He divorced Wendy’s mother, Manuela Hudson, when their daughter was 2. Wendy’s grandfather Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I was also a wealthy sportsman. He died in 1915 in the sinking of the Lusitania; his brother, Reginald Claypoole, was the father of Gloria Vanderbilt and the grandfather of Anderson Cooper. Wendy was raised partly in Palm Beach, Fla., and partly in New York City. “I was that tidy little Park Avenue type girl, although I never lived on Park Avenue,” she says. “And then when I went off to boarding school, I discovered a whole new world. I was intellectually stimulated for the first time; I had teachers take me under their wing. And I found out that I was more worthy than I’d been brought up to believe.”
She has no formal art training, other than idolizing Georgia O’Keeffe, whose sister she grew up with. “She was like a granny to me.” One thing Lehman knew early: She wanted to keep her work out of the social sphere. “When I was coming out and all that stuff—the makeup and the little dresses and the Vanderbilt name—I had a lot of attention and fun. So I did that for a while,” she says. “And there were several pictures of me, with a painting or something or another. I began to realize that if I kept getting my face in the newspapers, I would be a socialite artist. So on purpose, I stopped [being photographed].
“I really didn’t want that,” she says, not at all wistfully. “And I think I overdid it.”
She attended Sarah Lawrence College, “but aside from academics I was really more interested in learning how to grow up.” When she was in her twenties, she married Orin Lehman, of the Lehman Brothers banking family. The couple had two daughters.
Her career progressed in fits and starts. She gives no impression of being ambivalent or regretful about this— “My daughter once said that children are the ultimate sculptures,” she says—just of wanting to be recognized for the right reasons. While raising the children, she went to her studio on 82nd Street near 1st Avenue in Manhattan, first for a few hours while the children were in nursery school, then a few hours more as they grew.
The Lehmans divorced in 1995; Orin died in 2008. “People have said to me that to make something of myself in that area, I should add my name back in order to get attention,” she says. “I used to say to Orin, ‘I’m going to use your name when I’m mediocre, and when I hit it big, I’m taking mine back.’ ” She has never felt comfortable with the idea of self-promotion. “When I would go to an opening at Dia or the Drawing Center, or sitting across from someone at dinner, I would never try to cultivate someone for myself. I feel that’s bad manners.”
Lehman shows the visitor a sculpture of a cross, 8 feet tall and cobalt blue, carved of wood. Called “Captive Audience,” it has a door on the side that contains a tiny duplicate of the larger piece. “This is one of my favorites. I’m not a meaning-laden painter. Usually after I’ve done something, I’ve figured out what was on my mind. But this to me has to do with having your intrinsic soul, then someone plunks a Russian doll on top. You might be black, you might be white, you might be lame, you might be a man, you might be a woman, and the inner person has to deal with the outer person for the rest of their life—deal with that person’s abilities, personality and foibles. But which one is the captive audience? The one inside of having the outside, or the outside one of
having the inside?”
It’s a highly conceptual question. But Lehman does not consider herself part of that movement, or any other; she has created her work without even the most casual relationship or dialogue with contemporaries. “I’ve never been someone who’s been with artists,” she says. “My children were at school. When they came home, I came home. I couldn’t go downtown and hang out and be tribal as I would have wanted to.”
Lehman started creating the sculptures in 1980—she would mail or fax small drawings to a house builder, who would cut pieces magnified many times, and she would fit them together herself. She sold her first work the next year; she made them until four years ago. That is when she briefly “came apart,” and she hasn’t made new work since. To get her creative life started again, she decided to move her studio to Bridgehampton. It has just been built; she is still moving in. And now she is trying to get back to work.
She leads the visitor down to the basement of the studio, which is a storage space that could pass for a gallery, filled with sculptures. “Here I am lucky to have a nice house, a studio, an apartment, children. The artist in me was taught things in school that saved my life when I was older. I need to learn how to be an active artist all the time. . . . I was a whole other person when I went off into that more intellectual world, where you are admired for what you did—meritocracy.”
And then, when the visitor begins to leave, she turns motherly, making the offer of a jacket to cope with the overactive air-conditioning on the train back to Manhattan. “I have plenty,” she says. “In all sizes!” Maybe she too will find one that fits.