Walls Made with Love
by Glenn Adamson
It is a misty day in December, and Suzanne Demisch is showing me around her place in Accord, New York. We are both in rubber boots. Stretching across the land are stone walls, some marking the property line, others the edge of a gushing stream. The stoop of her house is also of stone, a real monolith, with flat paving stones surrounding it, and alongside, a pair of low walls flanking a set of stone steps. All of this is Demisch’s work, completed since she and her friend Shawn Brydges decided to share a weekend place upstate, in 2013. She gets help when a stone is too big to lift. And she does use a wheelbarrow, and wears heavy leather gloves. Otherwise, it is her hands, and her hands alone, that have cleared this whole property of brush and poison ivy, and have put every rock, many thousands of them now, just so.
Before Demisch began this epic construction project, there were already a few old hand-built walls on the property — here and there a stretch sufficiently intact that it could be repaired. These earlier efforts also afforded Demisch a quarry, a ready supply of material. She has come to know the stones intimately. She handles each one for a moment before placing it, getting a feel for its shape, sometimes putting it back on the pile, thinking that it will be better in some other spot. This constant variation, the individual character of each stone, accounts for the pleasure she takes in the building: “it is the only thing I do,” she says, “where I am not also thinking about something else.”
The scale and ambition of Demisch’s stonework would be remarkable in any circumstances, but what arguably makes it most interesting is what she does for a living: for Demisch is one of the leading art dealers in America. Back in 2005, she co-founded her gallery with Stephane Danant, specializing in French designers such as Maria Pergay and Pierre Paulin. In recent years Demisch Danant has also staged impressive exhibitions with artists like Sheila Hicks and César. She is a leading light of the New York City art scene, and a very busy person.
So… what’s with the rocks? It is a difficult question to answer. Partly, it’s just her hobby, like anyone else’s. Partly a meditative practice. Partly, too, a way of inscribing herself into a place. When Brydges first suggested they acquire this property, Demisch was unconvinced; it was only after he painted the whole house a beautiful coal-black, rendering it into a giant Minimalist sculpture, that she began to think it might be a good idea. The walls help her feel like she belongs here. They are her inscription into the land, like a gigantic drawing on a blank sheet. And this perhaps points to the last reason why the walls are so satisfying for her. As she says of her stonework, “it’s not art, but it reminds me of art.”
It reminds me of art too. Specifically, the work of certain figures from the 1970s, who inherited the language of abstraction and brought it out into the open, staging their works in natural environments: Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson. Not far away from Demisch’s place in Accord are Storm King Art Center and Dia: Beacon, where one can see works by these and other artists. Demisch’s walls are just walls, and she is quite clear about that. On the other hand, there is a certain affinity between her instinct to make them, and the instinct to make art.
What makes someone an artist is not necessarily raw talent, or a refined sensibility; it is an inherent desire to reshape the world. Artists do not take things as given. They always want them to be better, or at least, different. Demisch has this same propensity. In one corner of her land, which she is just getting around to addressing, an old, decrepit wall runs jaggedly along a slope, spilling its stones as it goes. At one point it bends off-line, just slightly, not even ten degrees. I watched Demisch sight along the wall, first from one direction, then the other. She would really prefer it to be straight. She considered the terrain, the trees jutting out of the slope, the dirt that would have to be excavated and moved. The project would take weeks and would have no functional or financial benefit to the property. Somehow though, it seems inevitable that she will take it on.
In this moment, I recognized the same stubborn will that I have known in many artists. It shades into compulsion. But it is just not possible to do something remarkable without first being “unreasonable.” And of course, artists also get pleasure through the process: the satisfaction of making it right, and of the actual making itself. This, too, is something Demisch feels. She is entirely self-taught as a wall builder and has learned a lot over the years — about proper construction, for example. (At first, she placed the stones horizontally running in the same direction as the wall; in fact, she now realizes, one must push them in endwise, anchoring them into a “fill” of smaller rocks in the wall’s core.) But throughout, she has had the gratifying experience of picking up one stone after another and putting it where it’s needed.
There really is something here of the sculptor or painter at work, applying chisel or brush strokes, one after another. But the lesson embedded into Demisch’s walls is not what you might think: that someone with a great eye (which she certainly possesses) can turn whatever she touches into art. It’s the opposite. It’s that aesthetics can jump the rails. A stone wall can’t easily be art, but the spirit of art can find its way just about anywhere.