Between 1993 and 2003, the artist Mette Madsen lived and worked inside a brooding loft right on the Bowery in downtown New York. Friends of the artist describe the dramatic wood-paneled space as a “cabinet of curiosities,” filled with her personal collection of 5,000 seashells, “feathers and buttons and beads and hourglasses and beautiful pieces of glass.” The apartment was “almost like a theater piece,” one recalled, and it seemed to nourish her art. Madsen created visionary paintings there that absorbed and reflected her surroundings. Sometimes she also made sculptures with the bones and antlers she collected.
The Victorian-era building had once been the home of the photographer Robert Frank and artist June Leaf, and later it housed low-income single room occupancy units. But when Madsen took over the loft, she made it thoroughly her own. “It was like it jumped out of her imagination,” said the filmmaker Sara Driver.
Around 2003, Madsen was involved in a tragic car accident that has left her permanently unable to paint. She currently resides in Connecticut, but retains the New York apartment, which has in part served as storage for her work. The paintings she produced there will be seen for the first time in her forthcoming solo exhibition at Independent, presented by the Los Angeles gallery STARS.
Madsen’s mode of painting is dark and elusive, centred on organic forms creeping out of murky backgrounds. Though it predated the Bowery loft by a hair, it was in that space that the artist was able to incubate a total environment to develop these slippery visual ideas.
Mette Madsen was born in 1955 in New Canaan, Connecticut, and earned a BFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1979. She soon moved to New York, putting down roots in the then-nascent downtown arts community. Her first home and studio was in SoHo, on Greene Street between Prince and Spring. “I remember people like Rene Ricard would come over, Vince Gallo,” Driver said. “Everybody would sit on her floor and start drawing, or talking, or making something. It seemed like we were always making something over on Greene Street.”
“It was a very small world,” said the writer and editor Vicky Pedersen, another close friend of the artist. “Truly, below 14th Street was where most everything happened, where people lived. And she was part of that whole scene.” At that time, Madsen was making large-scale figurative paintings. She staged two solo exhibitions, in 1984 and 1985, at Colin de Land’s East Village gallery Vox Populi.
She would not show again until 1994, when she was part of a group exhibition at Hudson’s Feature Inc. gallery. “She wasn’t particularly career-driven or money-driven,” the artist and musician Sally Webster explained. “She was kind of a purist.”
In the 1990s, the best way to see Madsen's work was to be invited into the dim atmosphere of the Bowery loft. A sense of darkness is a clear throughline in the paintings going on view at Independent. This is partly what attracted gallerist Christopher Schwartz of STARS to Madsen’s work in the first place. “I was pulled in by the world building it seemed Mette was really involved in,” he said, describing how her ethereal canvases “exist in darkness but are fighting to find the light.”
Sleepscare #1 from 2003 suggests a cellular form or a snake coiling inward or maybe even a portal to another dimension. Mantis #2 from 2002 appears to zoom in on a section of the titular insect, layering hot green over foggy black. Sugar Plum, painted in 1993, takes an abstracted look at the fairy’s ballet dance from The Nutcracker—perhaps not a surprise, given that Madsen danced for decades.
The writer and musician Richard Hell, who collaborated with the artist in the late 1990s on his publishing imprint Cuz, observed the shape-shifting quality of Madsen’s paintings. “They’re abstractions, but they’re sort of geometrical shapes and also almost like trompe-l’œil. They switch back and forth from being biomorphic but then, no, elemental.”
Despite being a vital part of the New York scene, Madsen rarely discussed the intentions and ideas behind her painting practice. Ross Bleckner and Louise Bourgeois are key influences, according to Schwartz. Webster said that she remembered the artist once comparing her work to the fugitive images that appear for many people after they rub their eyelids too hard. “She was very interested in aspects of heightened awareness and visualization,” Pedersen noted.
A sense of otherworldliness seems to permeate descriptions of Madsen, both in art and in life. “She’s the only person I’ve ever met who could sit down in a yard and just pick out a four-leaf clover,” Driver told me, comparing the artist’s mysterious aura to that of her contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat. “There was something really enigmatic about her, very much like these paintings,” Pedersen added. “There was this idea of cracking the Mette code.”
John Chiaverina is a writer based in New York City. He has contributed to publications including ARTnews and T: The New York Times Style Magazine.