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Interview: Esteemed Photographer And Artist Bonnie Lautenberg On Her Latest Series, Late Husband Senator Frank Lautenberg, An Andy Warhol Musical, And More

Sydney A. Braat

Bonnie Lautenberg's 2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Marilyn Minter, Scrumptious.

Artist and Photographer, Bonnie Lautenberg, graced the Hamptons scene this summer at Market Art + Design, the East End's leading modern and contemporary art and design fair. She showed ARTISTICA! for the first time this summer which is a bold body of work exploring how one art form might have influenced another. Her style is certain to surprise and delight art lovers.

Curator Levi Prombaum of the Guggenheim Museum remarked, "Throughout ARTISTICA!, Lautenberg highlights film that borrows from the well-worked techniques of painting to create moments of intrigue, mystery, and romance. Through Lautenberg's juxtapositions, abstraction's high-keyed color becomes Technicolor; painting's genres become comedy, drama, musical, and thrilled."

We spoke with Lautenberg to learn more about her creative process:

It seems like you have had many passions throughout your life, including politics and art. How have those two joined together in your work today?

BL: My life as an artist crossed paths with politics when I met my late husband, Senator Frank Lautenberg. He taught me the equivalent of a PhD in political science. At my core I am creative, but my journey with Frank enabled an intersection of art and politics that's become who I am. The art world has always been influenced by politics, and I'm thankful in my own life as an artist I had the privilege of getting front row access to current events. The political world inspired me, as it has for so many artists before me, and my close proximity gave me a unique perspective that I was able to convey through photography.

I was a passionate photographer all the years I was with Frank. As Frank's wife, I accompanied him to many incredible events in Washington and always had my camera with me. I also photographed him all the time which he loved. Frank was a prolific author of legislation in the Senate. He accomplished so much by authoring important bills that have had a lasting positive impact on our society, including: the No Smoking on Airplanes Bill; the 21 Age Drinking Bill; and the .08 Bill that the lowered the amount of alcohol allowed in your system before driving from .1 to .08.

Swearing in Frank Lautenberg. (Courtesy Photo)


Frank's accomplishments inspired me to find out about what other senators had done. My curiosity became an idea for a project that would showcase the legislative accomplishments of all senators to educate the public about what they contributed to society. Frank thought it would be impossible for me to photograph each senator, especially across the aisle, but I was determined. They saw the bipartisan nature of the project and within three months I was able to photograph 100 sitting senators and ask them what their legacy piece of legislation was. The project became "How They Changed Our Lives: Senators As Working People," which was exhibited at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey in 2011 and is in the Library of Congress online in perpetuity and I still receive emails to use these photographs from time to time. It was a great project and an excellent tool for students to learn what so many of these United States Senators accomplished and how it affected them. For instance, the Violence Against Women's Act (Joe Biden); the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Ted Kennedy); legislation that got $4.3 Billion to helped rebuild the World Trade Centers (Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer); legislation that not only stopped smoking in airplanes but stopped smoking in federal buildings where children had reason to be in that building for school (Lautenberg); the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain); and the Americans with Disabilities Act (Tom Harkin); just to give you just a few examples. There were almost 100 pieces of legislation quoted in this project. It was amazing. Remember, it was over the lifetime of these senator's careers so it spanned many years.

Music was another passion of ours. Frank loved music and one day in 2010 he called to say he wanted to see a singer who was on the front page of The New York Times Arts section who was performing at Radio City Music Hall - Lady Gaga, an artist I hadn't heard of at the time. I was thrilled by his enthusiasm because his birthday was the following weekend, as well as our wedding anniversary, so it was the perfect gift.

I was able to get front row seats from a ticket broker friend and knew from the article that Lady Gaga allowed fan photography at her shows. With my best Canon camera in tow, we were escorted to the first row and to our delight the seats were perfectly front and center, it felt as if she was performing just for us. She was fantastic and I was able to take the best photos. I have exhibited them many times as part of a series called "Pop Rocks," which also includes other pop stars such as Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. I love the energy from live music and still continue to photograph amazing artists on stage.

Can you speak about the moment you knew you wanted to focus your full attention on art and why you made that decision?

BL: I've always loved taking photographs but it was during my time with Frank that I was able to sharpen my focus. As his companion, I was able to capture pieces of history. When people would see my photographs, they were surprised to learn I wasn't a professional and that I had only taken a few photos to get a great shot. When I developed photos from the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the lab technician told me my photos were as good as or better than the ones sent in from the newspaper photographers. After a trip to India I took more film to another lab and again they complemented my body of work. It was then that I realized I might have a talent for this. I became more serious with my photography, and about 15 years ago I was offered my first show at a gallery in Sag Harbor where I sold many pieces. I've been showing my work in exhibitions and galleries ever since!

After Frank's passing my life was very different and I began thinking about where to focus more of my energy. I became more involved in my photography, and other projects such as writing and developing a musical. Frank was passionate about protecting the environment so I know he would have loved to see my photographs of Antarctica.

Honey and Ice. (Courtesy Photo)


What's next for you? Do you have a particular goal in place that you hope to accomplish?

BL: Creating art and capturing precious moments or magical images is who I am and part of how I think and function every day. It's rather organic and you can't help it if your mind works that way, so I know that will continue. The creative process is so exciting, it keeps me up at night thinking about new projects and how to make them happen. I feel enriched and so lucky that I have this passion and talent to stay energized with exciting goals.

I have a body of work opening in Chicago at the Jean Albano Gallery on September 6th called ARTISTICA!, which debuted at Art Miami last December and was exhibited at Market: Art & Design in Bridgehampton this summer. This body of work is the first time I didn't use physical images that I personally took with my camera. It was a conceptual idea I had about how one art form might have influenced another art form and I chose to use film stills and paintings. The film and the painting of each piece were done in the same year and each print is titled by the year they were made. For instance, I used an Andy Warhol "Elvis" from 1963 and paired it with Paul Newman in the movie "Hud." It is really powerful when you think that "Hud" and the "Elvis" pieces were done in the same year. Another I paired is Marilyn Minter's "Scrumptious" from 2004 with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." The response to this project has been amazing. It brings great joy to the viewer to see these pieces and stills side by side, and great joy to me to see how people are reacting with huge smiles to this work that is my homage to filmmakers and painters I admire. I have about 40 pieces starting from 1928 going to 2017. The response has been amazing - viewers see the work speaking to each other and wonder why this had never been done before! I would say there's something political here as well.

I have a show opening on September 5th at the 92nd St. Y called "Honey and Ice: Fragile Elements." This body of work is very political in that I photographed the country of Israel from a helicopter and the glaciers of Antarctica via a boat. When the 92nd Street Y asked if they could give me a show of my work, I began to think about what could be interesting for this exhibition. I chose to use the mountain regions of Israel and the glaciers and ice of Antarctica together to demonstrate the surprising similarities between the energy in each environment. Both regions are politically charged between global warming and the ice melt and the politics of Israel surrounded by so many enemies. I colored the images of the mountains in several of the pieces in bold, vibrant colors representing the intensity of the region and made three diptychs of the ice and mountains to draw correlations between these politically-charged regions. They are stunning images if I might say, and in viewing them you feel the magnitude of the intensity. There are 21 pieces in the exhibition.

I have many goals which continue to drive me every day. One current exciting goal is developing a Broadway musical on the life of Andy Warhol together with Steve Leber. We are co-founding producers and have been working on this project for a few years building an amazing creative team. Frank left me a series of ten Warhol "Soup Can" prints when he passed away, which I gave to his children. When they were put up for auction I asked my friend Steve Leber if he would like to join me at Christie's to see them. Steve knew Andy from his past in the music world when Andy managed the Velvet Underground and Steve was head of the music department at the William Morris Agency. After Steve saw all the Warhol's he quietly wrote a treatment for a Broadway show on the life of Andy Warhol. I knew the head of licensing at the Warhol Foundation so I was able to get it in front of them and much to our excitement they loved it and a great partnership was formed. Working on this project is very exciting and I hope to have more to tell you very soon.

I also love writing and am currently editing a book on Frank that I co-wrote with Dirk Olin. It will include many photographs I took of him during our years together. I can't wait to see it published and have his story told alongside my photos.

For more information on Bonnie Lautenberg, visit www.bonnielautenberg.com.




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