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The Soho Loft ‘Bad Paintings’ Bought

Artist Neil Jenney paid just $36,000 for this 11,000-square-foot space in 1973. It was “completely unlivable.”

The Studio: The art exhibited in Neil Jenney’s studio includes his “Bad Paintings,” his “Good Paintings,” his “Atmosphere Paintings,” and the work of artists he admires, including Robert Lobe, Kathleen Gilje, and Ki-young Sung. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Studio: The art exhibited in Neil Jenney’s studio includes his “Bad Paintings,” his “Good Paintings,” his “Atmosphere Paintings,” and the work of artists he admires, including Robert Lobe, Kathleen Gilje, and Ki-young Sung. Photo: Jason Schmidt

You see, I have this problem,” Neil Jenney tells me when I meet him at the Wooster Street end of his 11,000-square-foot full-floor Soho loft. “I have a landline telephone, and I tell people, ‘Let it ring because I have to run down the block to answer the phone.’ ” That phone is located in what Jenney calls his “everything” room, which is at the West Broadway end of the space that he bought for $36,000 in 1973.

Jenney, 77, got into Soho and the art world when the two were entirely intertwined and full of possibility. He grew up in Westfield, Massachusetts, around chickens and tobacco farms, where he worked in the summers. To this day, wearing V-neck denim overalls of his own design, he still looks a bit like he could be heading out to do some chores.

He moved to New York in 1967, a year out of the Massachusetts College of Art, and found an apartment with a tub in the kitchen on East 6th Street between Avenues C and D for $35 a month. There were no brunch options in the neighborhood in those days, and the invasion of the high-spending finance bros was decades off. There was room to experiment.

At the time, as he recalls it, “the whole scene was infected with photorealism, which was basically second-generation Pop. It was a stale idea done pretty.” So he decided to make the opposite: what curator Marcia Tucker (she later founded the New Museum) called his “Bad Paintings.” He describes them as “a good idea done as fast as I could get the message across.” They were not for everyone, but Ivan Karp, then co-director of Leo Castelli’s gallery, bought one. “I was a made man after that.”

Karp opened a gallery of his own, OK Harris, on West Broadway in 1969. A few years later, the gallerist put together a group to buy this building, which had been slated for demolition to make way for Robert Moses’s proposed lower-Manhattan expressway. There was also, for a time, a plan to tear the building down for a high-rise, Jenney claims. But then the formerly doomed Soho became a landmarked neighborhood of now-appreciated-by-the-culture historic cast-iron buildings, many of which, like this one, hadn’t been very well maintained.

Jenney joined the Karp collective and purchased the fourth floor, although he wasn’t able to move in until 1975, when the lease for the artificial-fruit factory that had been there ended. “The loft was completely unlivable at that point, of course,” notes the artist’s daughter, Emma Jenney, “with holes in the ceiling and rats and roaches. It took 15 years for my dad to get it anywhere close to what it is today.”

After the “Bad Paintings,” Jenney went on to make what he calls his “Good Paintings,” as well as various sculptural works, while also making frames for his paintings and for Picasso reproductions he commissioned from the late Ki-young Sung, whom he discovered selling art in a subway arcade. Hung on his walls are works of other artist friends, including Mercer Tullis, Kathleen Gilje, and Robert Lobe. Jenney has his own West Broadway gallery space within his studio, where he exhibits their work, along with that of others, by appointment. He shows with Larry Gagosian, who is “basically my biggest collector,” Jenney says. “He’s got the best ‘Bad Paintings.’”

The “Everything” Room: Formerly the ladies’ room for the workers of an artificial-fruit factory, it’s where Jenney’s stored decades’ worth of drawings and papers. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Kitchen: Tucked behind louvered doors in the Wooster–street side gallery, it’s the first thing he put in once he got access to the space in 1975. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Entrance Foyer: Jenney created the entrance foyer to resemble a hotel check-in, complete with a call bell on the counter. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Sitting Room: “I bought out all they had,” Jenney says of the Windsor-style chairs he found at the long-closed shop Workbench years ago. “They are functional and practical, and that appealed to me.” Photo: Jason Schmidt
Jenney’s Overalls: “I worked on a farm as a kid,” Jenney says. “I grew up across the street from a thousand chickens.” The V-necked bib overalls he wears today are his own design, which he had patented. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The Gallery Space: The gallery is open by appointment. Here, a view of one of the walls with work from left to right: Two “Sung-Picasso” paintings by the late artist Ki-young Sung, who had a portrait gallery in the subway arcade at 40th Street and Eighth Avenue. “I started bringing in pictures of Picassos that I wanted him to paint, just like any other commission.” Jenney says. “He changed details, as he didn’t want to be thought of as a forger.”One of Jenney’s Atmosphere paintings with a frame he designed and made in his shop in the basement; The 2013 Muhammad Ali portrait is by Kathleen Gilje. Photo: Jason Schmidt
The gallery includes a series of Jenney’s “word paintings” with some of his Bad Paintings on the wall behind. Jenney’s career started with support from dealers including Anina Moser, Vivian Horan, Holly Solomon, and Marcia Tucker, who created the New Museum and the term Bad Paintings. He cites Waqas Wajahat, “who has given me support for 30 years” and published Neil Jenney: 50 Years. Photo: Jason Schmidt

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The 11,000-Square-Foot Soho Loft ‘Bad Paintings’ Bought