STUDIO VISIT

In the Studio With Peter Schlesinger, Creative Legend

Photography by Nicholas Calcott

Artist Peter Schlesinger in his Manhattan studio.

Peter Schlesinger video calls from his studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. The building dates from the 1910s, and the place where he’s sitting used to be a girdle factory—making the kind of underwear that hoists recalcitrant flesh into shape. Since 1979, however, when Schlesinger and his partner, the photographer Eric Boman, bought a whole floor of the building for a knock-down price, there’s been a less painful kind of smoothing and sculpting. Half of the 4000-square-foot space is their home; the other half is Schlesinger’s studio, where he makes ceramic sculptures that have a timeless quality: elegant, idiosyncratic, infused with art history, but carrying it lightly.

Schlesinger’s studio space.

Schlesinger works mainly alone, without music on, keeping regular office hours. He enjoys a drink to unwind in the evening, but not while working the clay. His studio has northern light, “but there’s a building opposite—if the sun’s out it reflects off the building and into my studio so it’s quite good light. In the winter it gets a little dull.” He points his camera out of the window to illustrate—opposite is another handsome former factory in the Garment District.

Schlesinger—who is also a photographer—describes himself as a “medium prolific” sculptor whose output increased during lockdown, mainly due to the lack of distractions. He handcrafts his ceramics: “they take a long time to build, they’re a little slow at the moment because they got bigger. If you use a wheel that’s much quicker. I like the slow process of it.”

Schlesinger at work in his studio.

Schlesinger starts prepping a new piece in his studio. Photograph by Nicholas Calcott.

Schlesinger’s pottery supplies. Photograph by Nicholas Calcott.

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A selection of work made in the past two years is now on show at David Lewis gallery in New York. Four pieces are shaped like trees; the other eight are vessels, just under a meter—the largest size his kiln can take. “I like the references to the language of ceramics,” Schlesinger says of his pieces. “There’s a language to a vessel that is figurative, they’re called feet and neck and body, and I like the endless variation, the way you can play with different proportions and the different elements and civilizations that have used it.”

Schlesinger’s work on display at David Lewis Gallery in New York City. Photograph courtesy of David Lewis Gallery.

Have any particular civilizations inspired this show? “I surf through them all, I think,” Schlesinger replies.

Surfing is an apt word, given that Schlesinger will be forever associated with California, even though he left the West Coast over half a century ago. He was born in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley. In 1966, at 18, he took a summer drawing class at UCLA. The teacher was the then-emerging British artist David Hockney; he and Schlesinger became lovers.

The tanned, floppy-haired Schlesinger became Hockney’s favorite subject—emerging naked from the water in “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool;” staring off a balcony in sheer white pants in “Sur La Terrasse,” and fully clothed poolside, looking down at a swimmer thought to be Boman, in “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).” This last painting, from 1972, sold for $90.3 million at auction in 2018, a remarkable event that had little impact on its subject. “It’s not about me,” Schlesinger shrugs. “It’s so long ago, it’s like a different person.”

Schlesinger trained as a painter, studying at The Slade in London after he relocated to the U.K. with Hockney in 1968. However, he says, he turned to ceramics as “I think I didn’t like paint, the actual oil paint. I hated cleaning the brushes.” These days, sculpture is a two-stage—and two-location—process. The making happens in Manhattan, and then each summer he and Boman load up a station wagon with sculptures and take them to their other home and studio, in Bellport, Long Island, to be fired and glazed. “It takes two or three trips to get the stuff out there,” Schlesinger says. “We stay for five months or something. Our Manhattan apartment is not air-conditioned, so it’s pretty miserable in the summer.”

The Manhattan studio also houses Schlesinger’s photographic archive. He shows me a cupboard full of bound albums embossed with the relevant dates. It has yielded two wonderful books; “Checkered Past,” a “visual diary” of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and “A Photographic Memory,” which collects material from 1968 to 1989. The beautifully colored and composed images reveal golden years of socializing, in locations ranging from Fire Island in the late ‘70s to the Belle Époque villa in the South of France where the Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street with a crowd that included Cecil Beaton, Manolo Blahnik, Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark, and of course Hockney.

A look inside Schlesinger’s A Photographic Memory 1968-1989, published in 2015.

Schlesinger’s A Photographic Memory 1968-1989, published in 2015.

A photograph by Schlesinger via A Photographic Memory 1968-1989, published in 2015.

A photograph by Schlesinger via A Photographic Memory 1968-1989, published in 2015.

A photograph by Schlesinger via A Photographic Memory 1968-1989, published in 2015.

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Looking at these photos, you yearn for the years of carefree travel and hanging out, not just pre-Covid but pre-smartphone; these days, everything would have been splashed all over Instagram. “It was also nice to experience things firsthand then, going to museums and stuff,” Schlesinger notes—rather than through one’s device.

These days Schlesinger is on Instagram himself. “I’m not obsessed with it, I try to make it not personal; some people show too many pictures of children and food. But I’ve learned a lot about artists I never heard of or ceramics I’ve never seen. And architecture.”

Schlesinger also loves films, watching old ones to relax after work. So has he watched A Bigger Splash, the semi-improvised, experimental 1974 film which charted the breakdown of his relationship with Hockney? “I last watched it when it came out,” Schlesinger says. “I don’t enjoy watching myself. I’ve heard people say it’s held up as a movie, but you can’t be objective—seeing myself looking silly or stupid or whatever.”

Looking glamorous and handsome, you mean.

“Well, I can’t say that about myself,” Schlesinger demurs. He says that when the film was reissued in 2017, the director Jack Hazan traveled to Long Island to see him for the first time in 40 years. “It was quite wonderful to see him again.” It’s debatable whether Hockney would have given him such a warm reception—when the film came out, he was so horrified that he offered Mazar $20,000 to have it destroyed. “I don’t remember David’s reaction because I wasn’t around,” Schlesinger says.

He and Hockney are no longer in touch. I tell him that Hockney sent me a few e-mails a couple of years ago, upset that the newspaper I work for would not publish a piece he had written about the relationship between smoking (of which Hockney is a passionate advocate) and Covid. “I’ve never had a cigarette in my life,” Schlesinger says. “I hate smoke. And it’s so boring talking about it.”

Instead, he’s being as health conscious as he possibly can in these never-ending days of the pandemic. For his show, for instance, “we’re going to have an opening, but in the gallery space people will have to have their masks on and there’ll be a little room dedicated for people who want to drink with their masks off. But I won’t go in there,” Schlesigner says. “I don’t want to be around people with their masks off.”

It’s a far cry from the poolside frolics and drunken lunches captured in his books, but times change. These days, Schlesinger says he is barely going out. “Even with masks on it makes me really nervous,” he admits. “And then you don’t enjoy it anyway as you’re so nervous.” Better to stay in his studio, gazing north, and working the clay with his hands.