Three generations of paintings inhabit Hunts Point studio
Robert Seyffert is a man who doesn’t like to let go.
He has made a mission of retrieving and preserving his grandfather’s paintings.
His own paintings look to the 1960s as a Golden Age.
And he remains in in Hunts Point’s BankNote building, the last artist in the vast fortress-like edifice on Lafayette Avenue that once housed the studios of painters, dancers, framers and print-makers.
The reason Seyffert chose Hunts Point originally is simple: his studio is well-lit and the rent was low.
Built to print money and stock certificates, the building needed skylights because the printers had to inspect their handiwork with care, to guard against counterfeiting, Seyffert explains.
“The building is fantastic,” agrees Carey Clark, the visual arts director at The Point Community Development Corp., who maintained a studio in the BankNote until rising rents drove her to Mott Haven, where she is paying half what the new owners of the Hunts Point landmark were asking.
But Seyffert says, “I would never think of moving out. I like this place.”
Hunts Point “is a struggling neighborhood without a doubt,” he continued, but “it is a wonderful neighborhood with real people.”
He still nourishes a hope, however faint, that Hunts Point will again attract artists. He points down the corridor from his studio to BAAD, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. “I can’t imagine BAAD going anywhere else,” he says, and, “I think with them being here, hopefully other artists will come.”
Seyffert grew up in a household of artists. His mother was an art teacher; his father, uncle and grandfather were painters.
He was 4 when his “super-star” grandfather, Leopold Seyffert died and left him portraits of some of the foremost businessmen, musicians and philanthropists of the early 20th century.
But he began his career as a photojournalist. Then one day he put down the camera and picked up a paintbrush.
“I just said, that’s it! I don’t want to be in a darkroom. I want to be in the light and paint,” Seyffert said.
Famous artists have cameo roles in the paintings stacked in his Hunts Point studio, but the centers of attention are flashy automobiles. He has been painting cars since the 1980s, always setting his work in the swinging sixties.
You have to look closely to find the artist Andy Warhol standing on a street corner in Greenwich Village, near a dazzling car.
The singer Patti Smith chats with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe on the steps of the Chelsea Hotel, behind a polished Pontiac.
“Something amazing happened in those years” Seyffert exclaimed as he showed canvas after canvas. “Today,” he continued, “cars — even the most expensive ones — all look the same.”
Seyffert, who is 59, is not a child of the sixties: he is too young to have marched for civil rights, demonstrated to end the war in Vietnam or partied at Woodstock. He was just 16 in the watershed year of 1968, but he was old enough, he says, “to know what the era was like.”
He recalls it as a time of prosperity, when purchasing power was high and America’s lifestyle was envied and emulated around the world. People were eager to leave behind the pessimism of two world wars. A gallon of gas cost less than 35 cents, and so middle class people were encouraged to buy the stylish cars of his paintings.
The past occupies his other vocation: retrieving his grandfather’s work and reputation. Leopold Seyffert was once a well-known portrait painter, who painted the titans of corporate America. “If he had decided to paint ordinary people” Seyffert says of his grandfather “instead of painting the most wealthy people, he’d be one of the most famous artists in America now.”
Some of those portraits hang in his studio now, along with paintings by his uncle Richard.
But despite his preoccupation with the past, Seyffert says he does not long for it. He mixes the colors of the past with the new colors of today.
“I’d like to live in this era,” he says. “I think nostalgia always wants you to be in another place. The grass is always greener on the other side. I think the grass is pretty green here.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.