Normally, I wouldn’t go for a space this ambitious,” says artist Kehinde Wiley, surveying his 3,200-square-foot rental studio, with its soaring eighteen-foot ceilings (the bedroom is reached by a walkway that’s eight feet in the air). But Wiley was determined to live and work in the same space, and since his chosen format is modern heroic portraiture, and his canvases run, oh, about nine feet by twelve feet, he had specific requirements when he decided to leave his West 23rd Street studio a year ago.
“I saw a few spaces in Manhattan, but they weren’t quite as cavernous as I wanted,” he says. “And the price was prohibitive.”
He didn’t need the square footage just for his work; Wiley is a famous party-thrower. “One of the great things about having a lot of artist friends is that they can introduce you to more of them, and then you have a whole community of people who can converge into a space,” he says. Some nights, he figures, a thousand people have passed through the living room. “We have a video projector here, so we’ve screened artists’ work. We’ve had sort of cabaret-style things. At one of the parties, we had go-go boys and girls running up and down.”
The Los Angeles native prefers to live in close proximity to his paintings. When he was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Wiley surreptitiously moved into his studio there. “I had my work there, a futon, and a television. It was just the most insane, overcrowded, intense moment, but it allowed me to engage my work in a way I never had.”
Wiley won’t be in this space much longer. For one thing, the landlord is coming back earlier than expected. And in truth, the oversize scale—the high ceilings, the inescapable light—is getting a little intense.
“This massive bank of windows screams at you in the morning when you’re lying in bed: Get out! Get at it!” he says. “I wake up and I think, Oh, God, I have to be . . . Kehinde!” He’s looking forward to the next work-live space: an old church in Greenpoint that he’s renovating. “It’s a lot more artist-friendly, because you can build out a lot more aggressively and tear things open,” he says. “Although it is interesting living in someone else’s fantasy. This is a type of altar to single-manhood.”