Bicoastal Artist Sets Up Shop in NYC
IRA YEAGER: BICOASTAL ARTIST SETS UP SHOP IN NYC
By Grace Warnecke, Scene
I found Ira Yeager under the shadow of New York City’s World Trade Center down in the old warehouse district of Tribeca in a renovated building on an old shabby street. The shabbiness of the street contrasted with the large, bright, airy loft into which the popular San Francisco artist recently moved. He has quickly become a focal point for the growing circle of ex-San Franciscans who live and work in New York, but get together to swap the latest gossip, reminisce about bygone scandals, cracked crab, and fog, as well as to entertain the never-ending stream of Bay Area visitors.
Why did Yeager pick up stakes and move to New York, disrupting his comfortable existence and established professional life in San Francisco? “I had always avoided New York,” he admitted, perched on a bureau in his loft. “I used to think it was a big, awful, complicated place. But it is the center of the art world. There is no place like it. To get a part of it you have to be here.
“I love San Francisco, and I return frequently. It’s like a pair of old shoes. I feel very secure. I also have a house in the Napa Valley which I love, and I get a lot of work done there. San Francisco and Napa have better atmospheres for working. But New York is stimulating, challenging, and has the excitement and the contacts. One comes for success.
“You have to keep moving on. It’s like going to college – you have the feeling of starting over. You need a jolt to avoid becoming stuck on a plateau.”
Yeager has never been stuck on a plateau. He was born in the state of Washington, the son of an Irish-German fisherman and a Russian mother from whom he inherits his dark expressive eyes and his brown curly hair. He left home to study art at the California School of Arts and Crafts, where he was greatly influenced by his teacher Richard Diebenkorn. He also studied at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Subsequently, he moved to Europe where he spent four and a half years studying and working in Florence, St. Paul de Vence, Ibiza, Tangier and Morocco. He exhibited his work all over Italy with “Gruppo Numero.” He also supported himself by designing jewelry and ran a jewelry shop in Tangier which had the distinction of having only one customer, luckily a rich one. He wandered as far as the island of Djerba in Tunisia, the original “Land of the Lotus Eaters” described in The Odyssey. During these years he became addicted to exotic remote islands and soon bought a house on the island of Corfu. He learned to speak Greek, and spent 10 years living part of the time in Greece and the rest in San Francisco.
One of Yeager’s most endearing characteristics is making everything seem simple. He cooks dinner for 30 people by himself and pretends that it is a piece of cake. (However, the doctor said that he brought on tendonitis by chopping too many many vegetables!) I can testify that the dinner was delicious.
Moving to New York was accomplished with the same insouciance. He had intended to buy a condominium on the upper east side, but a friend called and offered him a loft in Tribeca, an area that Yeager had never seen. He rented it on the phone. Packing his furniture in a moving van along with 200 paintings he set off for the Big Apple. The first day sitting alone in his empty loft in the old, sparsely-populated industrial district Yeager almost turned the van around and headed back to San Francisco. But when he sat on his roof garden looking out at his panoramic view of the Hudson River and listened to people tell him what a good deal he had, he decided to stay. Now he says about Tribeca, “It has a real small-townie feeling, like living in a little village. I never expected that in New York.”
Yeager’s work has gone through many different stages including the figure paintings, flower paintings and animal paintings that were exhibited at the former Pantechnicon Gallery and that now hang on so many prominent San Francsicans’ walls. His current oil paintings are of expressive Indian heads that stare disquietingly down from the walls of his loft. When he went to Santa Fe in 1967 he was deeply affected by his first exposure to Indian culture. He began the Indian series at that time and has exhibited the paintings in Los Angeles and in the Southwest. “Having spent so much time in Europe I never realized that we had such a rich culture here,” explains Yeager. He hopes to have a show of the heads in New York soon.
Despite his nomadic existence and heavy work schedule, Yeager devotes enormous time and effort to keeping up with a wide circle of friends, most of whom he has known for many years. He feeds them, amuses them, listens to their hard-luck stories, hangs their paintings, and introduces them to new friends. An amateur psychiatrist, he asks the most childlike questions, disarming whoever he is talking with in such a way that the subject reveals much more than he or she ever intended to. On first meeting I thought Yeager very simple, now realize that he’s just very clever.
Yeager’s success and greatest handicap are closely intertwined – namely the fact that he’s been labeled as a “society painter.” The appellation resulted from his first exhibition in San Francisco. When the show sold out immediately, largely to wealthy and social people, Yeager’s reputation was made. He says that at the time he was thrilled, as he could make a living painting and didn’t have to work a hundred odd jobs on the side. But today he is bothered by this label and feels it has become a limiting and unfair characterization and also one almost impossible to outgrow in San Francisco.
One of the reasons behind his move is that he feels his work is taken more seriously by New Yorkers. “I’ve always known how good I am, but there’s never been the enthusiasm that there is in New York.”