NEW YORK — While poking around at a tag sale near her parents’ Putnam, N.Y. weekend home five years ago, Isca Greenfield-Sanders spotted a set of beautiful old wooden boxes. Inside were hundreds of photographs — 600 to be exact — of one family’s vacations and weekend gatherings from the Fifties. When she tried to return the photos to the homeowner, he refused. “At first I was sad that someone would sell them to me,” says Greenfield-Sanders, a 23-year-old artist. “Probably the last member of the family in the photos died and the home’s new owners were selling everything they left in the attic. I decided I had to lovingly adopt them.”
The photos became the foundation for a series of mixed-media paintings called “Beachwood Park,” on view through June 15 at Lombard-Freid Fine Arts on West 26th Street. While the paintings evoke a sense of nostalgia for the innocence of simpler times, the idyllic settings of beaches and backyards, often rendered in moody colors, reveal some family members’ darker impulses, such as jealousy and boredom.
“I know bits and pieces about these people,” says Greenfield-Sanders, who learned from notations on the backs of photos that the little boy is named Tommy, the dog is called Stinky and the grandmother is Alice.
The archive unlocked a creative door for Greenfield-Sanders, who uses a multistaged process that involves manipulating the photos digitally and then enhancing the restaged images with watercolors and oil paints.”This work is a combination of an enormous amount of art history and also design,” she says. “Being able to use the archive freed me from finding content. I was given this wonderful gift.”
Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings have resonated with art lovers. The artist’s Lombard-Freid exhibition — her first solo show in New York — was sold out before it opened to the public. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is adding a piece to its permanent collection through the gift of an anonymous donor. Other major museums have expressed interest in owning the work, which has not gone unnoticed by collectors such as Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder, Jerry Speyer and Melissa and Robert Soros.
“She’s very talented and she’s hit the right nerve at the right time,” says Nancy Spector, curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim.
Like the German artist Gerhard Richter, Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings “are premised on and influenced by photography,” says Spector. “The subject matter is from a certain period. She’s trying to deal with the impact of the Fifties. It’s either photos of you or your parents.”
Sitting in her studio on a rainy April afternoon, Greenfield-Sanders pulls out a series of watercolors from the “Beachwood” series, while her boyfriend, Sebastian Blanck, a lanky, mop-topped artist, looks for a quiet place to strum his guitar, eventually retreating to the living room. Blanck, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (Greenfield-Sanders attended nearby Brown University), is working on a series of large-scale oil paintings of nudes in the shower, which will be shown at the Issey Miyake space designed by Frank Gehry in SoHo in July.
Greenfield-Sanders came to the easel with a prestigious art pedigree. Her father, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is a photographer and filmmaker who chronicles the worlds of art, film, fashion and politics. Her uncle John Sanders is a sculptor and her grandfather Joop Sanders is an Abstract Impressionist painter. Growing up, it was not unusual to find Lou Reed sitting in her parents’ living room or Robert Rauschenberg posing for a portrait in her dad’s studio.The artist may appreciate the family in the orphaned photographs because it is so different from her own. “I have formal birthday portraits for every year of my life and very few candid photos,” she says. “These photos aren’t just random, bad amateur photos. They really do have characters. I would have loved to meet someone from this family.”