Romain de Plas was a French-born, New York City-based artist who lived and worked on the Lower East Side from 1998-2001. His apartment-cum-studio was on Rivington St. between Norfolk and Suffolk Streets from which he had a view of the World Trade Center towers. Though an accidental death cut his life short in 2002 at age 31, he left a rich body of work that the wider world is only now getting to experience.
Moved like so many artists and New Yorkers by the events of 9/11, de Plas worked on a series of impressionistic paintings during the year following the tragedy, eight of which are on view in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York through December 4.
The Twin Towers and the City: Paintings by Romain de Plas features eight paintings, never officially exhibited before. While de Plas wasn’t in New York on 9/11, he began the series on the morning of the attacks from his family’s home in Connecticut and continued working on them for a year in various locations. He died before completing the entire series of 11 canvasses — just two days after inviting friends to a bar in the East Village to see some of the paintings on the first-year anniversary of 9/11.
The World Trade Center series represents de Plas’ meditation on the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath. He depicted the towers in a range of moods from calm to agitated, poignantly paying his respects both to the buildings and to those who lost their lives at the site. Bold brushwork combined with a searing use of color and his impressionistic style leave an indelible mark on the viewer.
“The work was still in progress. It was intended as an intense and very focused consideration and reflection on the events of 9/11,” says Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator, The Museum of the City of New York. “Obviously, it was a transformative event for him.” The exhibition is presented in conjunction with The Twin Towers and the City: Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara, which documents the Towers and their relationship to the city over a 40-year period. “For me, it made an incredibly powerful pairing. It’s highly personal work that I think people can really respond to,” says Henry.
Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, was De Plas’ friend and mentor and brought his work to the attention of the MCNY. The WTC series represents something of a departure from the majority of de Plas’ work which is showcased in the posthumous monograph Romain De Plas (2011) published by McCall Associates. The book includes written contributions by Gund, David Frankel, writer and editor and Michael Whittaker Martin, de Plas’ college friend, as well as a recently discovered interview with the artist himself. The essays help place his work within a broader cultural context while revealing de Plas’s unique personal history. “The book provides an extraordinary and beautiful summation of a career cut too short and will serve as an enduring legacy for him,” says Henry.
Romain de Plas was born January 4, 1971, in Paris and moved to New York City during his childhood, frequently returning to France as a kid and throughout his adulthood. Having suffered a traumatic sledding accident at the age of seven, de Plas would undergo a series of painful reconstructive surgeries to his head and face over a 25-year period. Family and friends say he threw himself into painting full-throttle during long, recuperative stretches, focusing on little else.
De Plas began drawing as a boy. He attended Riverdale Country School and the Canterbury Shool in New Milford, Conn. for high school when he began painting. Later, he attended Brown University and went on to earn a degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1998.
Seth Martin, a close friend and neighbor, recalls seeing some of the WTC works— the paint still wet—on the first anniversary of 9/11 and how excited the artist was to show them for the first time. Martin says de Plas often invited him over to hang out and talk while he painted: “He was very open like that.” De Plas used photographs of the Twin Towers shot by Martin as inspiration and a perspective guide for the WTC series over the course of the year he worked on it.
“Painting was very therapeutic for Romain. It was a creative channel through which he could deal with the pain he had to endure,” the pain that came as a result of successive reconstructive surgeries, Martin notes. “Painting was how he dealt with the pain but it wasn’t necessarily reflected in his work. Romain felt better when he was painting. He also understood the suffering of a mind that is captive to something.”
While the WTC series represents something of a stylistic departure from the rest of de Plas’ work, there is a link. “You see a continuity within the difference in the use of paint, the colors and the impressionism. It’s of a piece,” Henry notes. However, she adds, “There’s no doubt that for him personally and artistically, the 9/11 event was a thing apart. It constituted a break with the continuity of our lives and our concerns.”
Like Henry, David Zaza, co-editor and co-publisher, McCall Associates, the Tribeca-based boutique that designed and produced the book, finds cohesion between the WTC series and the work that preceded it.
“The towers were white, and there’s no white at all in the paintings—de Plas favored blue which shows up in the series. There’s a lot of continuity in terms of technique and style. He hadn’t done much representational earlier in his career but he did figurative work—people and animals,” says Zaza. “I think he was [absolutely] driven to do this. It was a very profound time and a lot of artists simply felt they had to respond.”
During the three years he lived on the LES, de Plas could look out a window in his apartment for a view that framed the Twin Towers. He lost friends in the tragedy. Henry describes the gravitational pull toward the subject matter: “There’s something about having your workspace where the towers had been everyday like eternal monuments. And to have the daily reminder of what seemed eternal, anything but… It became the central focus of his creative output during the final year of his life.”
“He loved the Lower East Side,” says Bobbie Gootrad, de Plas’ mother. “He knew what it was going to become. He knew it would be a hub for young people. He felt it was the future of New York. He was fascinated with it when it was rough. It wasn’t easy living down there [at the time].”
Of his friend, Martin says: “To me Romain was really kind of the embodiment of that creative spirit of the LES. He lived by his own clock.”