Last summer, the artist Alex Da Corte packed up his bags and headed from the upper reaches of Philadelphia to a 12.5-foot wide townhouse on New York's Upper East Side, scarcely emerging from the dark, narrow space for the next five weeks until he’d transformed it into a haunted house for the gallery Luxembourg and Dayan. This August, he returned, and even got a bit of an upgrade: for his second uptown project, the installation artist, who specializes in transforming spaces with all manner of neon, carpeting, and vintage, street-sourced bric-a-brac, moved into the tony, Jacques Grange-designed apartment of two New York art collectors, who gave Da Corte carte blanche in their home, with the results photographed for W’s November Art Issue.
“There was nothing off limits,” Da Corte said. He started off by spending a few days in the couple’s apartment while they were out, getting better acquainted with it by rearranging the furniture and bringing the carefully organized items in places like the closets, pantry, and fridge to the forefront. “I would stack things on top of each other or buy food from the supermarket and leave it in the bathroom instead of the kitchen,” he recalled. “I wanted to displace their world, so it might meet my world, which felt equally displaced being there on the Upper East Side.”
After all, Da Corte’s made it clear that he prefers the periphery: Over the last year, he also moved to tiny North Adams, Massachusetts, to install his 10-year survey show, “Free Roses,” at MASS MoCA, though he’s most often found in the former candy factory that holds his studio in Juniata, Philadelphia, an “almost suburban” part of the city expansive enough to store the archives of equipment and knickknacks that are the source of his installations. The collectors, though, were eager to have Da Corte feel at home: “They were very free and generous about me doing what I wanted in their home and letting me be, as though it were my studio,” he said. And what a studio: the apartment is stocked to the brim with works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Richard Prince, which were among the valuables Da Corte said he was free to handle “the way I may arrange a bottle of soda and a plastic broom.”
Those objects ended up holding even more significance, thanks to the collectors’ only stipulation: that they must maintain anonymity. So the items most important to them were the way in for the novelist Hanya Yanagihara, who wrote a work of fiction that accompanies the photographs of Da Corte’s site-specific work. Luckily, their condition wasn't a problem for Yanagihara, who's proven herself quite comfortable writing about New York: much of the 800-plus pages of her 2015 novel, A Little Life, which came out last year to rave reviews and a Man Booker Prize nomination, feature the city as prominently a character. She started with the couple’s most meaningful possessions – a cracked Ming dynasty vase, an 18th-century writing table, and a 10th-century sandstone sculpture, to name a few – and eventually widened her lens beyond the apartment’s travertine walls and floors, to the objects' roots in France and ancient Mesopotamia.
Inspiration also came from the only other information Yanagihara had other than that list of valuable inventory: the fact that, to the collectors, their apartment was the type of home they’d wished they’d had if they’d been more confident gay men in the 80’s. “Insofar as our homes are both a repository of our past and a projection of what we want to be and what we want our futures to be, I thought, What if this was a couple who was having a chance to have a redo, essentially, of the early years of their adulthood in the city?” she explained. “And what if this place they lived in was a place where they actually got to relive a life that they’d had earlier?”
After that, the story filled out quickly: Yanagihara would go back to the world of Greek mythology, and specifically, two of its “most romantic, most dashing” figures: Achilles and Patroclus, whom she describes as “the West’s first great same-sex couple.” “I wanted to talk about this idea of heroism and what it meant to be a man who is not quite mortal and not quite not, as Achilles was, and bring the sort of passion and ardor of that relationship, and its deep romanticism, back to life,” she said. (Da Corte operated with a similar sentiment: “They wanted their space to be queer,” he said, something he added that he also was attracted to.)
A Little Life, after all, has been called America’s "definitive gay novel", but that's not all about the project that attracted Yanagihara. She is also an art collector, and the idea for her book actually stemmed from a series of photos she’d started collecting 14 years earlier, among them an image by Diane Arbus. “Fiction and art are a great companion, and one is often the genesis for the other,” Yanagihara said.
That's partly why, she explained, she always tries to buy a piece of art after she’s finished a big story. As for what she chose with the paycheck from this one? A black-and-white photo by a young photographer named Bryson Rand, prominently – and explicitly – featuring a male couple.