Glimpsing a soon-to-vanish surrealist world in Chelsea

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Glimpsing a soon-to-vanish surrealist world in Chelsea
“Ex Nihilo,” by Frederick Hart hangs above the fireplace in the apartment of gallerist Neil Zukerman and his husband Tom Shivers in New York, Oct. 14, 2021. Their apartment is “a piece of art we created together,” Shivers said. Now the vast collection assembled with his late husband, Zukerman, will help start a museum. Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times.

by Susan Mulcahy

NEW YORK, NY.- In a former industrial building in Chelsea, Tom Shivers donned a silver sequined mask to greet a visitor. Similar to the costumes he and his husband, the gallerist Neil Zukerman, wore regularly at the Carnival of Venice, the glittery mask acted as both a coronavirus precaution and a fitting introduction to the astonishing world the pair created in their 3,200-square-foot apartment. It is a world that will soon be largely dismantled, with some works headed toward a museum of fantasy and surreal art.

From 1992 to 2009, Zukerman, who died of cancer in August at age 81, was the owner of CFM Gallery on Greene Street in New York. He was also an avid collector of art and books by Surrealists, magical realists and fantasists.

“Surrealism Beyond Borders,” the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows off art by a substantial number of women — including Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Zukerman came to befriend one of the leading lights of Surrealism, Leonor Fini (1907-1996) — who appears in the exhibition’s catalog — during the final 18 years of her life. And he collected her work in a way that few have rivaled.

As Shivers, 78, a certified public accountant and jewelry designer, walked down the long center hallway of the floor-through apartment accompanied by Addison, a black cocker spaniel, he pointed out Finis displayed alongside work by other artists from the CFM Gallery stable, including Anne Bachelier, Michael Parkes, and Frederick Hart, whom Shivers describes as “steeped in their own worlds.” Sphinxes, dragons, unicorns, and angels are well represented.

The Argentine-born Fini certainly occupied her own distinct sphere. Though she was close to, and exhibited with, Surrealism’s major figures, including Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst (one of her lovers), she herself disliked being labeled. Her profile faded over the years, but lately she has had a renaissance.

In 2018, the Museum of Sex in New York mounted a retrospective of her work, with its often erotic subject matter, and in Paris that same year, Fini inspired the Spring Couture Collection at Christian Dior. April 2021 saw the publication of the catalogue raisonné of Fini’s paintings, which Zukerman co-authored, and at Sotheby’s in May, Fini’s 1938 painting, “Autoportrait au scorpion,” drew a record price for her work at auction — $2.3 million.

Zukerman lent numerous Finis to the Museum of Sex exhibition. As a collector, a researcher, and a friend of the artist, he served as an important resource for the museum’s curator, Lissa Rivera. “Fini was Neil’s main passion,” said Rivera. “He worked very hard to share her work throughout the years.”

Rivera speculated that Fini’s highly sexualized subject matter may have caused an “unfair valuation” of her work. That attitude has changed, and Fini’s nonconformist approach to gender and sexuality make her especially timely. “If you’re not taught in universities or included in art history books,” Rivera said, “then you can be edited out of history. When we did the exhibition in New York, people were shocked to see just how connected and prolific and how embedded she was in culture.”

Shivers and Zukerman moved into their apartment, previously a factory in which eyeglass cases were made, in 1980 after selling a place on the Upper West Side. More than 40 years later, hardly a square inch of wall, cabinet, door, or even ceiling is untouched by art, collectibles, and, in some cases, just things.

At the far end of the apartment is an airy “garden room,” with a mosaic floor designed by Zukerman and made of 80,000 individual tiles. “The man who installed it retired when the job was finished,” Shivers said. The view of downtown Manhattan through the room’s 9-foot-high windows is partly obscured by sculpture, plants, a bird cage, stained glass, and a forest of silk flowers brought back from Thailand, where many of Shivers’ bold jewelry designs are fabricated. (Southeast Asia holds another attraction: “Our dentist is in Bangkok,” Shivers said.)

A bathroom’s mirrored ceiling and walls reflect a portion of Zukerman’s large collection of vintage perfume bottles, many from the 1930s, including Fini’s design for Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Shocking” scent. When Rivera first visited the apartment, it was “like being in a jewelry box,” she said.

And the apartment has its own 9-seat movie theater, designed by Theo Kalomirakis. Zukerman collected movie posters and lobby cards, too, along with anything involving Marilyn Monroe. And books, some of them published by CFM Gallery, including editions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Phantom of the Opera” with ethereal illustrations by Bachelier.

When Shivers met Zukerman in 1968, at the Candy Store, a gay bar on West 56th Street, Zukerman’s profession held no hint of his future; he was working as assistant to the president of a steel extruding company. In the late 1970s, Shivers gave Zukerman a gift he longed for: a lithograph of “Sphinx: Ilaria” by Fini, now hanging in their bedroom. Zukerman became fascinated by the artist and her story: her life, as exotic as her work, featured many lovers, including two men she lived with for decades at the same time. On a trip to France, Zukerman found Fini listed in the Paris phone book and called her.

She “could be a curmudgeon,” Shivers said, “but she took a liking to Neil.” Eventually the couple paid a visit and bonded over their pets.

In 1992, at 112 Greene Street in Soho, Zukerman mounted a pop-up Fini exhibit, his first curatorial effort. Soon he found himself running CFM Gallery in the same space. (CFM initially stood for Creative Fiscal Management — the couple’s financial consulting business — but eventually they joked that it meant, “Charge Far More.”) When their lease expired after 17 years, the gallery transferred to West 27th Street. But without a street level space, the new location did not attract the same traffic. Fashion designer Stella McCartney took over the 112 Greene Street location and CFM now exists online.

Shivers and Zukerman, who officially married in 2012, lived out loud, hosting large parties in their apartment and marking milestones with elaborate celebrations in exotic locations. Shivers plans to stay in their apartment, but with fewer possessions. “If you look around,” Shivers said, “You have no place to put things.”

He is in talks with a major university to donate Zukerman’s collection of books related to Fini, including several of the oversize, limited editions created by the artist containing her illustrations of mostly provocative literature, like Baudelaire’s poetry. According to Rivera, a favorite technique was decalcomania, in which wet ink or paint is spread on sheets and pressed together; others show off Fini’s drawing prowess.

Shivers is also selling many works, including a fantastical Fini, “Rasch, Rasch, Rasch, Meine Puppen Warten” (roughly, “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, My Dolls Are Waiting”), a 1975 oil painting. “It’s a very important painting of Fini’s,” said Rivera, “because she’s looking back at her childhood and analyzing her own life and desire to play make-believe that she carried with her throughout her life.”

“This is a piece of art we created together,” Shivers said of the apartment, “but it’s a bit of a burden to pull the cart alone.”

Before Zukerman fell ill, he had been working with Ailene Fields, a sculptor and longtime friend, to start the Skylands Museum of Art in Lafayette, New Jersey, 55 miles west of New York City, on a property she owns, with a focus on surreal and fantasy art. He donated pieces by several artists, including Fini. Fields is proceeding with their plans and hopes to open in 2022.

“I don’t want it to be a museum where everything is sterile,” she said. “I would really like it to look like their apartment.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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