To first-time patrons of the Ear Inn Tavern in Lower Manhattan, Sari Dienes is a disconcerting eyeful. Her nimbus of billowing white hair (which she claims to wash in Woolite), Indian headband and scruffy poncho suggest an eccentric house barfly as she perches on a favorite stool sipping a nightcap of cider and applejack. Dienes, 81, is, in fact, the sprightly co-owner of the establishment—not to mention the doyenne of New York painters and sculptors.
“Even when I’m dealing with the paperwork and other stupid aspects of my life, I’m still thinking about my art and working on it mentally,” she says. Indeed, she was just given her 33rd one-woman show at the Artists in Residence Gallery in SoHo. It includes abstract paintings, earthworks, collages, Xerox colorings and other adventurous forms.
Though she has never concentrated on any one medium, her work is good enough to have made the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Her prices range from $175 to $20,000. “I’m busier now than I’ve ever been before,” she notes with pride.
In the 1950s Sari did her creative noodling in a midtown loft frequented by young artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. “They used to come around and watch me paint,” she remembers, “and they’d bum a meal now and then. We were all penniless.” While her cohorts found fame in various niches of the avant-garde, Sari searched for her own metier. Inspired by an interest in Zen, she spent two years in Japan, wrote two books of poetry, experimented in printmaking and environmental sculpture. After her rubbings of Colonial gravestones drew critical praise, she was invited by archeologists to apply the technique to ancient Indian stone carvings. She adapted the process and soon was lifting designs from city walls and manhole covers.
Her career in art began much more traditionally. Born in Debrecen, Hungary and raised in Vienna and Paris, Sari studied philosophy, dance and music as a girl, but switched to sketching after her marriage to French mathematician Paul Dienes. Her mentors included Fernand Léger and André L’hote. Later she moved to London, became assistant director of the Ozenfant Academy of Art and hired Henry Moore, then unknown, as an instructor. “In the 1930s, all I cared about was technique,” she recalls. “I studied drawing every day from 9 to 5.” At the outbreak of World War II she was visiting New York, and when passport problems kept her stateside, she began teaching at the Parsons School of Design and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her husband remained in Britain during the war, and the couple never lived together after that.
Nowadays she commutes between a studio home in suburban Stony Point, N.Y. and a spartan apartment above the Ear Inn. She also lectures regularly at local colleges. “Doctors don’t believe I’m 81,” boasts Sari. “When I was 50 I had all kinds of trouble. The doctor told me that my blood pressure was so low I might disappear.” What has disappeared instead are her old ideas of pedagogy and “what art is about.” Says the onetime stickler for technique: “I’ve completely changed. My art is very much like having a baby. You can’t plan how big it will be or what color eyes it will have. It is what it is. Technique can be taught, but knowing the human anatomy will not make you a better artist.” Sari’s philosophy of living has altered as well. “When I was young and had a lot of things to do,” she explains, “I couldn’t make up my mind where to start. I finally decided to do three unimportant things, then another three unimportant things. Before I knew it, I was freed for the important things.”