St. Moritz, ballroom of the alps, can be a wonderfully sleepy village. After the wild party around Christmas, the New Year, and the last big Cresta race on the traditional sleds, the place is nothing more than snow-covered as of March. Those who did come to the Engadine last weekend flew in for the art, to celebrate the opening of the exhibition “New Watercolors” by the American artist Walton Ford – and their connection to the hosts, gallerist Vito Schnabel and Bob Colacello, the society chronicler and longtime Warhol friend, who has been friends with Schnabel for a long time and advises him on art-related questions.
Ford paints animals, splendid like huge colorful postcards, his works hang at Mick Jagger’s and Leonardo diCaprio’s. Here the subject was on seven panther paintings, each worth several hundred thousand dollars. The artist explained his work over fondue in a rustic hut, the Clavadatsch: “It is the true story of a female panther that escaped from the Zürich Zoo in 1933 and then wandered through the Swiss winter for ten weeks, until it came upon a farmer with a rifle. He grilled and ate the animal”, Ford, an outdoorsman with style and a contagious laugh, snaps and raises his water glass for a toast to the evening. In one corner the gallerists sit amongst themselves: the great Bruno Bischofberger, who rarely goes out anymore, with his godson Vito Schnabel, who opened his gallery in the former’s space just over two years ago. The men are wearing suits, several women are wearing red t-shirts that say ‘Why Not Me #Me Too?’ This remains elegantly uncommented on. Walton himself is a story machine. You just poke him and universes unfold, even when he’s merely raving about his new suit.
DIE WELT: You’re not related to the designer Tom Ford, are you?
WALTON FORD: No, and not related to the car Ford, either, but I have a good tailor. David Mason is a genius! He also tailored for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
WELT: That was Tommy Nutter, wasn’t it?
FORD: Absolutely right. Mason, very smartly, bought up old vintage fashion boutiques such as Tommy Nutter or Anthony Sinclair, who built Sean Connery’s suits. Mason lives in London, once in a while he comes to New York with all his fabric samples. You see, I sit in my studio for hours on end and draw. It’s so annoying to draw fur, for example. I constantly have to keep pushing and outwitting myself: okay, when I’m done with the damn leg I can go eat. Otherwise it won’t ever amount to anything.
WELT: How did you even arrive at animals?
FORD: I actually wanted to become a film director, but I was a catastrophic film student, not made for teamwork. I’m such a loner, a typical suburban kid. My father was an art director at Time Inc. in New York, we lived in the Hudson Valley, later in Westchester County, quite claustrophobically. On the weekends I would go fishing and camping with my father, he taught me about bird species. That was nice. But I was a pretty punky kid, obsessed with “King Kong.” There has always been the idea of something wild, overwhelming, even terrifying, lurking within me. My fantasies from nature are reflected in my paintings.
WELT: You seem to be quite taken by monkeys.
FORD: Well, monkeys are super smart.
WELT: And oversexed, you say.
FORD: Oh, you mean Jack? Yes, yes, Jack was a pretty cocky pet. His owner was William Hamilton, formerly the ambassador of Naples. Susan Sontag wrote about him in her novel “The Volcano Lover.” He was married to Emma Hamilton, who cheated on him with Lord Nelson. She kept this monkey. Jack was raised quite liberally, not to say he wasn’t raised at all. One of his favorite pastimes was to grab male guests by the balls very unabashedly. Then he would sniff his fingers…
WELT: Okay, maybe that’s bringing us a bit too far. Let us talk about style.
FORD: Haha yeah, Jack was a weirdo.
WELT: The publisher of the “Washington Post,” Katharine Graham, whom I once visited, had a huge tome on her coffee table in Georgetown, about rhinos, gorillas, all sorts of birds and how one can read feathers. Popstars such as Mick Jagger and political heads, as well as the late journalist, see themselves reflected in your art. How come?
FORD: Maybe it’s also about a desire - for nature, freedom, and stepping out. We share our planet with animals, but know almost nothing about them. I read everything about animals, whatever I can get my hands on. The craziest books, magazines. Then I file it and pray that it will become something in my head. It doesn’t have to be anything that has to do with what I’ve read. It becomes independent in my imagination, it basically grows as if out of a hallucination. Or I’ll sit in the Natural History Museum and draw there. That’s better than at the zoo.
WELT: To what extent are we still animals today?
FORD: Interesting question. Animals were not always nice to me. I once worked on a farm where a wild buck almost killed me. Animals aren’t any better than us humans. Saltwater crocodiles, for example – holy shit, there’s no playing around with them. It’s not like I haven’t killed animals before, either: turkeys, especially. I’ve slaughtered lambs, helped castrate pigs. Of course I want to eat meat and wear leather. But I was a worker on a farm, and I did what I had to do.
WELT: Do you know the book “The World Without Us”? It’s interesting that everyone always says humans are wrecking everything on earth. It’s not true. If you take away the humans, then the animals won’t live in peace together and the trees will grow higher, but rather the whole earth would be covered in microbes and algae within a short time span. The whole thing would be a jungle that eats itself up, the oceans would tip and all would be lost.
FORD: Nature is cruel. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. And by the way, I would hate it if my paintings were to be understood as political caricatures or as a contribution to global warming. I don’t have a political message to deliver.
WELT: You just paint huge, colorful picture book paintings.
FORD: I certainly don’t plan on following any trends. I follow my own style. I don’t want to go further into it, but I really don’t give a shit what other people do.
BOB COLACELLO (joins us): Barbara Kruger…I can’t see it anymore, or Cindy Sherman. Everything, actually. This agitation, it wears down, it gets tired at some point. Just the significance that is given to all this, materially above all. It’s just too much of it all. It’s so good to see good painting again, watercolors and gouache in this form. Walton’s precision is fantastic.
FORD: I can sit for hours and watch birds. Totally insane, actually. Most animals in the wild don’t really do anything exciting. They hardly move, so as not to use up energy unnecessarily. They just sit there. But if you have enough patience to wait long enough, you’ll eventually see a small movement.
WELT: The world is hostile toward slowness, someone recently said.
FORD: I have no relationship to all of that…digitalness. I live more in the past.
WELT: You live in New York.
FORD: Yes, and I love the city, New York is full of history. You know, traveling is also so important. One has to get out of this virtual world. One has to observe! Has to be engaged with one’s history. Interestingly enough there seems to be an enormous desire to exist along those lines right now. What’s the biggest Broadway show? “Hamilton”! History movies are highly popular. It just makes you crazy staring at a smartphone all the time. Instagram, Facebook. I decline all that. Everyone sits at home and takes part in everything. That can surely be enriching, too. But then people get depressed, because their own life looks completely different. And then you wind up only liking other people’s lives, your own doesn’t take place anymore. That’s sick. Hearing stories, having conversations, actually entering other worlds, even for a few hours, is so essential. You can only realize how someone truly feels in their language, in their gestures.
WELT: And if your gallerist was an animal?
FORD: Vito appears catlike to me, he has something fragile about him. He could also be an antelope.
COLACELLO: Or a panther. In any case he has something of a lion. They love to be the kings of the jungle above all.
The exhibition will be on view at Vito Schnabel Gallery in St. Moritz through May.