Originally published on Hazlitt. Read the original - with all of the photos - here
When I pulled up in front of artist Norman Hasselriis’s storefront gallery in the tiny town of Oak Hill, New York, the lights were off and the door was closed, as they’d been most days since 2006, when Hasselriis had died at the age of eighty-seven. I was there to meet his retired daughter, Connie, and her husband Roger, who were going to show me the 1200-some sculptures he’d left behind, his roughhewn assemblages (as Hasselriis called them) made from flea market flotsam.
Instead, almost immediately after I arrived at the gallery, another car pulled up, boxing me in. An old man with a grey-yellow beard, a thick wooden walking stick, and a nearly impenetrable Polish accent tumbled out.
“Tadeusz,” he introduced himself. He was a sculptor too, and a friend of Hasselriis. Hasselriis had visited his workshop some fifteen years ago, and today he’d decided to return the favor.
Did he know that Hasselriis had passed, I asked? Yes, he told me, years ago. Had he also arranged a visit with Connie and Roger? No, he said, he’d just shown up. Today felt like the day. I would soon come to learn that this kind of human interaction was Hasselriis’ raison d’être (or at least, his raison d’art).
Together, Tadeusz and I contemplated the window of Hasselriis’s store, The Assemblage. Dozens of anthropomorphic faces stared back at us—a tennis racket wearing a wig of old black lace and a pair of pince-nez glasses; a translucent blue plastic bust with a baby doll stuffed inside it; a pitchfork, stuck in a piece of wood, decked out in a bridal veil. Most—perhaps all—of Hasselriis’ sculptures suggest life with a bare minimum of signifiers, giving them a glimmer of humanity that does nothing to hide their object-ness. Both the humor and the uncanny nature of his work lie here, in its approximation of life.
What did he think? I asked Tadeusz.
“Surrealist,” he pronounced gruffly. “This kind of work is always surrealist. Like life. The life is most of the time surrealistic, we don’t even realize.”
Surrealist, I agreed, but more than that, Hasselriis felt to me like a neo-Dadaist, someone who declared beauty in the absurd and the un-artful as a way of looking for a joyful deeper meaning, and rejecting the strictures of supposedly normal life.
But before I could float this conjecture, the door to The Assemblage swung open. After a moment of surprised contemplation of Tadeusz, Connie Hasselriis Eudy invited me into her father’s forgotten world.
I first encountered Norman Hasselriis in the summer of 1987. Barely nine years old, I was far too young to understand his work. A child of the suburbs and the city, I found rural life freaky, and didn’t get my parent’s perverse desire to spend our summers traipsing around the Catskill mountains visiting one potential death trap after another. Inevitably, there were no serial killers in the barns we toured or monsters in the campgrounds we slept in, but that always felt like a lucky accident. When we stumbled across Hasselriis’ store in the hamlet of Oak Hill (population 277, as of the 2010 census), I was convinced that we’d finally found our local Ed Gein. So no matter how many times my family returned, I never went in.
Yet for the next thirty years, Hasselriis remained in the back of my mind. As I learned about Dada and folk art, I began to have a context for his work other than the set dressing of slasher films. If nothing else, his pieces were resonant and unforgettable. But I figured his was a story I would never know.
Or so I thought until this past summer, when I happened to pass by on Oak Hill Day, the town’s annual celebration of itself, and the only day of the year when Connie and Roger come up from Florida to open the store. As we got to talking, I realized there was far more to Norman Hasselriis than I had ever imagined. He was the embodiment of an American myth: the self-taught artist/recluse who’d walked away from a promising career in New York City (two of them, actually: one in publishing and one in art) to spend the last quarter of his life obsessively creating artwork that walked the line between delightful and demented.
Surreal as it seemed, the universe was giving me a second chance to get to know Norman Hasselriis. This time, I wasn’t going to let a case of the willies keep me from taking it. So Connie and I set a date for August, and I began the process of assembling Hasselriis’s story, one roughhewn piece at a time.
Oak Hill’s most dominant feature is the Catskill Creek, which crisscrosses the landscape in such a way that houses on both sides of the main drag have it running through their backyards. The Assemblage stood perhaps 200 feet uphill from it, and it burbled outside the window of the cramped room that had once been Hasselriis’ workspace, which was immediately behind The Assemblage’s storefront gallery and beneath the small living area on the second floor.
It was here, surrounded by his tools and toys, that Connie and Roger spooled out Norman Hasselriis’s history. “His father was an artist,” Connie began, reflexively tucking her soft auburn hair back beneath her headband. “An illustrator. From Denmark.” Malthe Hasselriis, I would later learn, wasn’t just an illustrator. Self-taught like his son, he was a celebrated miniaturist who did portrait sittings with Pearl S. Buck, John F. Kennedy, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, among other notable figures. Some of his work now resides in the Luce Foundation Center for American Art at The Smithsonian. Yet that didn’t mean he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Hasselriis’s brother was a Columbia University educated engineer, and although her father didn’t talk about it much, Connie Hasselriis believes that that was the kind of life his family encouraged.
“His dad was very strict, and everybody had their place,” Connie said. Born in 1918, Norman Hasselriis’s childhood in Forest Hills, Queens, was a well-appointed one, but one dominated by rules. “I don’t think Daddy was very happy,” Connie mused. Certainly, he would spend the rest of his life with a childlike longing for fun and friendship, and he regularly referred to his sculptures as both his “playthings” and his “company.” Even when he was in his seventies, there was always a part of Hasselriis that felt like a young boy with a new toy, excited to share it with whomever would appreciate it.
Hasselriis studied briefly at Queens College, but dropped out after his first year. According to the book Oak Hill: Voices from an American Hamlet, he was declared 4-F ineligible for service during WWII, and instead, spent part of the war working in a restaurant in Trinidad. Soon after he returned to New York, he married Connie’s mother—the first of his three wives—and began a career in publishing. Having come of age in the depths of the Depression, his need to make art was likely occluded by his need to make a living. For the next few decades, he worked as a traveling salesman hocking ad space in magazines, before eventually founding Bantam Book’s Premium Ventures Division. Although little information about this publishing unit exists today, they seem to have mainly produced light reference works, like a birding guide to Manitoba or a collection of party recipes from Julia Child. It was the kind of successful, stultifying life Hasselriis once referred to in his writings as “the cage of work and wage.”
The sole public expression of his artistic side during these years was Duel, a game he created in 1950. Marketed as the first ever game of bridge for two players, Duel was an outré hit, which garnered a two-page spread in Flair, the short-lived but highly influential magazine created by Fleur Cowles. Though the publication only lasted a year, it featured the likes of Tennessee Williams, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Swanson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gypsy Rose Lee, Salvador Dalí—and Norman Hasselriis. It was so luxe, it was estimated to have lost $2.5 million over the course of its twelve issues.
In the re-printed instructions in Flair, there is a hint of Hasselriis’s love of words and word play. “Duel is Dual,” they begin. Long before he ever made visual art, Hasselriis was a writer, though his work was never published. Starting in the mid-fifties, he began secretly writing poems. He was strongly influenced by Modernists like e e cummings (who was himself influenced by Dada and Surrealism in visual art), and by the Concrete Poetry movement—both of which used form, type, and layout to enhance the meaning of the words on the page. Like his visual art, Hasselriis’s poetry sought to arrange symbolic objects (in this case, words) into unexpected and thought-provoking shapes.
Once he moved to Oak Hill, Hasselriis would self-publish multiple volumes of his poetry, starting with Third Avenue Flat, a collection of his poems from the fifties. In the introduction, he wrote:
Viewed retrospectively now, I judge some of the Third Avenue works are relatively “minor,” even “amateurish,” compared with later ones. But my early “concrete” experiments were a kind of prediction of later experimental forms of collage and assemblage, leading to even more concrete, usually amusing, forms of “objective poetry.”
Juvenilia they may be, but Hasselriis is right to point out that they presage much of his later work, as can be seen in this poem, “a questionnaire and prayer.”
for your love,
blessing me not
mit baseball glove?
In ’59 be loyal, good
As boys conforming should.
Wish loudly on the proper form:
you’ll get: (a) patriotic uniform,
and (b) a nose cone shapelier than (c),
yon sawed-off Christmas tree, and/or (d):
joyously-gossiping geiger counter, to locate:
(1) radiations of happiness, (2) fallouts of hate…
or (3) isotopes of merriness beneath the sprig of missile-toe
Oh, Say: Friends, Neighbors, Segregate, Neutral, or Distant Foe:
OUTER SPACE. AMEN!
(For a do-it-yourself colored version of this card… fill in all the os & Os with colored pencils or pens to decorate your poeTree… and send it with your signature.)
Here, it’s easy to see Hasselriis’s sense of humor and his rejection of conformity, nationalism, and militarism, all traits common to Dada, which emerged partly as a rejection of World War 1. Perhaps most critical to understanding Hasselriis is the final parenthetical note, however. A desire for audience interaction—and a belief that everyone is or can be an artist—would prove fundamental to the trajectory of his life. Many of his sculptures were designed to be manipulated by the viewer. According to Connie, his favorite pieces were ones in which “the person looking at it could arrange it however they wanted, so then they were the artist.”
This need to connect artistically, which required a present and active participant on the other side, was the impulse that set Hasselriis on the path to Oak Hill. Artist and art dealer Avram Finkelstein, who owned and operated a folk art gallery in New York’s Hudson Valley for nearly ten years, told me that this tension is one that many artists find frustrating. “In order to exist within the art world, you have to have some representation,” he explained. “So automatically, you have a filter between you and the collectors.”
For an artist interested in the unfiltered experience of others, then, “artistic success” (as traditionally measured), would be unlikely to bring a feeling of satisfaction. And if we’re all artists at heart, who needs an exclusive art community—patrons, curators, gallerists, etc.—to validate your work? Over the next few years, these questions would come to the fore, as Hasselriis began to explore his artistic impulses fully.
By the early sixties, Hasselriis was leaving the business world behind. He purchased his first camera in 1962 and began experimenting with photo collages that mixed his work with advertising images culled from magazines—perhaps the very ones he had once handled as a traveling salesman. According to a timeline of his life that he put together in the mid 2000s, in 1966 he founded something called the South Street Printing Museum, though unfortunately no records of it survive. But in 1972, he opened the first version of The Assemblage in Richmond Hill, Queens. In this iteration, it was primarily an antique store, selling the things that he would later see as the raw materials for his art.
Here Hasselriis’s poetry began to take a new turn, as he started writing hundreds of “Art Recipes” on small index cards. In this, he was perhaps inspired by Constructivist artist Sol LeWitt, who had begun in the early ‘70s to create abstract, geometric line drawings that were meant to be executed by others according to his precise-yet-vague directions. For instance, here are the instructions for his 1971 piece, Wall Drawing #118.
On a wall surface, any continuous stretch of wall, using a hard pencil, place fifty points at random. The points should be evenly distributed over the area of the wall. All of the points should be connected by straight lines.
Hasselriis’ Recipes, however, were more free form, less specific and executable. For instance, on one card labeled “The Service Station” (dated 11/11/74), Hasselriis noted ideas for an installation he titled “ICKY or ARABIAN KNIGHTS or Just : Well or NRG.”
“Rent empty gasoline station or use hit & run exhibit techniques,” the card begins, before listing all kinds of work that could be in the space. “Giant oil drums | Calypso music” reads one line; “Fill pumps with urine,” reads another.
Roger, Hasselriis’s son-in-law, believed many of these recipes were the basis for the art that Hasselriis would later create. “Before he gave himself permission to be an artist,” Roger mused, showing me the tightly packed box of weathered cards, “he was making relationships between things in his mind—textures, forms, how they worked together—and putting them down on paper as a recipe.” The Service Station may never have been fully realized, but at the end of the card, Hasselriis made notes for a family of tiny toy vehicles to emerge from two wrecked cars positioned to be “humping” one another. These kinds of family and couple groupings would become a common trope in his later three-dimensional work, but he explored the idea first on paper.
It’s unclear when Hasselriis began making his assemblages, but by 1977, he had enough of them in his store to make an exceptional impression on Joseph Masheck, who was then the Editor-In-Chief of Artforum Magazine. In a 1979 letter to Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now part of the Museum of Modern Art), Masheck described visiting The Assemblage, how he ”stumbled in, quite by accident, a couple of years ago, and met the proprietor, who has for years been consumed with a Cornellian passion/compulsion to collect an incredible mass of “odd” objects for use in collage, all of which have been systematically filed away (except for what never quite got filed.)”
Masheck was writing to Heiss to recommend that if she had “anything like a special category for Queens art… [she] might want to consider” showing Hasselriis’s work.
Although Heiss’s response is not recorded, later that year, Hasselriis would be given a solo exhibition in one of P.S. 1’s Special Project Rooms. He named the show Now-At-One / At P.S. One: A Multi-Self Portrait of “040-14-8863” (this was his social security number).
It was a promising start for someone who had only very recently allowed himself to follow his creative impulses, and two years later, Hasselriis would be included in “Artists Make Art,” a group show at the Queens Museum. But despite these successes, by 1982, he considered himself fully retired from the working world, and was eager to leave the city.
Installing his work in the white-box galleries of well-heeled museums was never Hasselriis’s goal. In fact, in the MoMA archives there is a list of items he planned to include in his P.S. 1 show. The last item reads:
The “Real” Whole Person, sometimes Officially known as “040-14-8863,” who claims to be the author of the above and other “artful” works (also known as “Woix”); who may occasionally be present and plying his trade on the premises, since one of his primary objectives is to meet “You”… through these media and by personal interviews.”
This same primary objective that he’d expressed in his earlier poetry— personal, art-based interaction—now drove Hasselriis’ visual art. Newly freed from the need to make a living, he followed it to the hilt. He spent two years in Norwich, Connecticut before finally buying the building that would become his gallery, workshop, and home in Oak Hill in 1984. From this point onward, although he participated in a few local shows, for the most part, he dropped out of the professional art scene.
Recognition, money, fame—“He really wasn’t interested in all that,” Connie shrugged. “But he did love to talk to people and see their reactions.”
And by and large, his new neighbors reacted to his quirky personality with delight. Mary Lou and Nick Nahas own and run one of the few other shops in Oak Hill, the I U Tripp antique store, a former general supply company that they’ve lovingly restored to its period glory. They also own a small collection of Hasselriis’s sculptures.
“He was a man for everybody,” Mary Lou Nahas told me, sitting in her bucolically appointed living room. “Everyone was special to Norman. He was like his art: Not ordinary, but whimsical. He gave you pause for thought.”
No one in town seemed to know Hasselriis well, but he quickly became part of the daily fabric of Oak Hill life. On Nick Nahas’s 60th birthday, they invited everyone over for a picnic, but insisted that no one bring gifts. Hasselriis didn’t give Nahas anything—but he did bring an industrial bubble maker, which Nahas said “was the hit of the party.” For years after, folks would find Hasselriis sitting behind The Assemblage, watching the creek as clouds of bubbles wafted by.
By this point he was in his early seventies, but Hasselriis had entered the most fecund period of his artistic life. He lived mostly off of Social Security and the beneficence of his neighbors, Connie told me, and sold his work for what he thought a visitor could afford. Although this caused his family some worry, Hasselriis seemed happy to be carrying out the visions he’d had since at least the seventies, when he started writing his Art Recipes, and the town seemed happy to keep an eye on him. He spent weekends harvesting raw materials at flea markets up and down the mountains. He particularly loved broken dolls, old musical instruments, wooden tools, typesetting equipment, and birdcages, but almost anything could find its way into one of his assemblages. His days—and frequently his nights—were spent in his workshop, building his playthings. He took breaks mostly to work on his garden, which he regarded as perhaps the greatest of his sculptures. It was only in 2006, when he was mostly deaf and suffering from a brain tumor that made day-to-day functioning almost impossible, that he left The Assemblage to spend his last days with Connie and Roger in Florida.
When he closed the door that final time, Hasselriis left more than 1200 sculptures behind.
“They were his family,” Connie told me. “Even when we came up and got him, when he was sick, he said goodbye to each of them.”
Since that time, Connie and Roger have been photographing and cataloging each piece. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the finished work from the pieces in progress or piles of raw material, but Connie believes her father would have liked that. It’s taken nine years, but they think they’ve gotten everything labeled, though Roger told me that every day he finds pieces he doesn’t recognize, despite them being tagged with his handwriting.
Institutional artists have galleries, museums, collectors, and agents to take care of their estates and safeguard their legacies. Had Hasselriis continued down that path, there’s a good chance that his death would only have made his work more sought after. But what’s to be done with the work of an artist who actively walked away from fame? Roger estimates that just finding, sorting, and tagging all of Hasselriis’s sculptures took him “six weeks of working a minimum of six hours a day, every day.” Thanks to their labor, Hasselriis’ estate has been organized to a degree that someone could do something with it. But what?
Just down the street from The Assemblage, Amy Hausmann spends her weekends repairing another old Oak Hill home. But during the week, Hausmann is the Deputy Director of the Arts for Transit program in New York City, which commissions and places artwork in the subway system. Although she never met Hasselriis, she also stumbled into The Assemblage one Oak Hill Day, and was similarly enchanted with his work. Since then, she’s been advising Connie and Roger on their next steps.
“I would love for The Assemblage to stay as a museum in Oak Hill,” she told me over the phone. “I think that’s where it should be. It’s a treasure for the town.
A treasure it might be, but not one without costs. Establishing a small museum requires money, knowledge, and most of all, time. Time that Connie and Roger—in their sixties, living in Florida, with children and grandchildren of their own—aren’t sure they have to put in. “In the first couple of years I was pretty enthusiastic,” Connie sighed toward the end of our afternoon together, “but I don’t know if I’m up to it.”
They’ve had offers to buy the building, but not the work inside. Connie, Roger and their extended family have already taken the assemblages they want to keep. Folks who knew Hasselriis and liked his work might buy a few of the remaining pieces, but unless a rabid collector appears, the vast majority of his art will likely end up junked. There’s a kind of cosmic humor to that—ashes to ashes, junk to junk—that might have amused Hasselriis. But it seems a terrible shame to destroy the legacy of a talented artist, preserved in situ and with all his notes, simply because he avoided the spotlight.
Hausmann is working with Connie and Roger to ensure that doesn’t happen. To that end, this October, she invited Bartholomew Bland, the Deputy Director of the Hudson River Museum, to visit The Assemblage. “I was fascinated by the work,” Bland enthused over the phone. “I love the idea of an antiques dealer transforming all of this ‘raw’ material.”
Bland wants to work with Connie and Roger on something—an installation of Hasselriis’s work, perhaps, or a show of photos of the assemblages—but anything will take time. And as for a permanent home for the work, Bland doesn’t know what to suggest.
At the heart of the issue, according to Finkelstein (the folk art dealer), is the tricky question of valuation. Art has to be “worth” something for collectors to want it, and one of the first things a museum does upon acquisitioning a piece is have it valued by an expert. Outsider artists like Hasselriis have generally resisted this kind of capitalist approach to their art. It goes right back to Hasselriis’s belief that there is an artist in all of us – a communist concept of talent. To be true to this spirit, his preservationists must find a way to save his work without turning it into the kind of fetishized commodity that outsider art so often becomes.
Finkelstein points to the case of Henry Darger, perhaps the most celebrated outsider artist in the American canon. Darger, who lived his life in and out of institutions, died in a room so small that he was never able to fully unfurl his giant canvases, which illustrated his 15,000 page manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger’s landlords—one of whom was a photographer for The New York Times—discovered his work after he died, and his canvases now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Darger needed an insider to validate (and valuate) his work for the art world, which is the kind of recognition that Hasselriis walked away from decades ago. If he didn’t want it while he was alive, is it disrespectful to pursue it after his death?
Regardless of this tension, Finkelstein still believes that “the greater good of seeing the work… is more useful than having it disregarded because it’s tainted by capitalism.” If Connie and Roger can create some kind of institution that keeps Hasselriis’s work together and connected to the place he loved, they may be able to preserve his vision without sacrificing his spirit.
And despite the nine years that have passed since his death, Hasselriis’s vision still draws visitors, like myself and Tadeusz, Hausmann and Bland. The monetary value of his work may be impossible to assess, but the emotional power of it is visible to anyone who drops in. Through his sculptures—his playthings—Hasselriis’s spirit still animates The Assemblage. Every time I walk through the door, it feels as though the sculptures have only just sat still, and every time I leave, like Hasselriis himself, I have the urge to say goodbye to each one, hoping it won’t be the last time I see them.