Did Anna Gaskell Get By With Help From Her Friends?

Anna Gaskell was standing in a group of friends at the Mary Boone Gallery on the evening of Jan. 9. A beautiful blonde with wholesome, fresh looks, Ms. Gaskell, 28, was one of six young photographers featured in an exhibition that opened that night. The glossy color photograph she contributed is a mysterious, fervid tableau: Taken at twilight, it’s shot through the spread legs of a girl; between her legs, another girl can be seen being held down by two other girls. Ms. Gaskell reluctantly separated from her friends to make an introduction to Gregory Crewdson, a professor at Yale University’s Graduate Studies in Photography program who is her boyfriend.

“He’s over there,” she said distractedly, pointing across the crowded room, which was presided over by the indomitable Mary Boone, dressed on that cold winter night in a white linen Versace pantsuit, set off by her St. Barts tan. “Behind the column,” Ms. Gaskell said, motioning to the middle of the room. With that, she disappeared in the other direction.

To be asked to make introductions to her boyfriend seemed to pain Ms. Gaskell, who has achieved a phenomenal amount of success in a short year and a half. From being a relatively unknown but talented artist living in the East Village, she has become an artist with a solo show at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in SoHo that sold out before it opened. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum purchased a complete set of the photographs from that show. Her work has been included in a group show at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She was invited to hang two prints for the reopening of the P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center last fall and another at Mary Boone in January. And this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and the Galerie Analix-B&L Polla in Geneva, Switzerland, will mount exhibitions of her work as well.

A former studio assistant to Sally Mann, a photographer whose use of her nude children as subjects caused a stir a few years back, Ms. Gaskell has a quiet, resolute determination to succeed. “I knew that she was going to be a big star the moment I saw her work,” said gallery owner Casey Kaplan, who gave Ms. Gaskell her first solo show, Wonder , in December at his space on Greene Street-the one which got her noticed by selling out before opening night-and who has become the primary outlet for her work.

Ms. Boone, who only met Ms. Gaskell on the day of her show’s opening, said she is impressed with the way young artists like Ms. Gaskell have created a body of work that is “finally fresh and alive.” Lamenting that very little has happened in the art world since the late 80’s, Ms. Boone said she thought that Ms. Gaskell has helped create “a whole new esthetic that’s not manneristic and ironic.”

But Ms. Gaskell’s recognition has coincided exactly with the period of time that she has been involved romantically with Mr. Crewdson, her former professor at Yale. And there is an impression in the insular art world that, despite Ms. Gaskell’s talents, Mr. Crewdson is personally responsible for making her a success. Their careers have become inextricably linked in a way that hasn’t been the case for more than a generation. You have to go back to pre-feminist days to find parallels: Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Said one Yale graduate from the 1970’s who asked not to be identified: “Women of my generation made their names on their own merits. You don’t think of Cindy Sherman and then think of who her husband or boyfriend was. This, unfortunately, is the case for Anna Gaskell.”

‘Talent Is Only Part of It’

“Anna is clearly being groomed for a position in the art world,” said Lois Conners, a colleague of Mr. Crewdson’s in the Yale graduate photography program who lives in Gramercy Park. “Talent is only a part of it.”

One of Ms. Gaskell’s fellow students from Yale who asked not to be named put the situation into a neat equation: “You have 16 students who were in the photography department at the same time. Out of those students, the one with possibly the least amount of promise comes out as a rising art star. She also happens to be the one who is dating the teacher.”

When asked if that characterization was accurate, Ms. Gaskell said with a sigh, “People will talk.”

Mr. Crewdson, 35, a photographer known for his surrealistic black-and-white prints of Middle American scenes inspired by Twin Peaks -style melodrama, shows his work at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in SoHo. He began teaching as a visiting lecturer at Yale’s graduate school in 1992, the year before Ms. Gaskell joined the program. She grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and attended Bennington College in Vermont and the Art Institute of Chicago, then spent a year as an assistant to Ms. Mann before going to Yale. Mr. Crewdson, who lives in Brooklyn, was married to Melissa Miller, a painter; they have since separated. After Ms. Gaskell graduated in 1995, she moved into a sixth-floor walk-up apartment on East Seventh Street with Juniper Tedhems, a waitress at Balthazar. It was in late 1996 or early 1997 that Ms. Gaskell and Mr. Crewdson began dating; no one seems to be able to say exactly when. Mr. Crewdson told Tod Papageorge, director of Yale’s graduate photography program, that while he was intellectually attracted to Ms. Gaskell when she was his student, they did not start dating until early 1997. “They were soul mates,” Mr. Papageorge said.

“I think that Anna’s and my relationship is really quite profound in terms of the give-and-take of our mutual influence on each other,” Mr. Crewdson said in an interview with The Observer . “I don’t think in any way it is like a conventional teacher-student relationship. I think neither of us would be interested if that was the case. I think that is part of my philosophy as a teacher-to treat the students as artists and respect that.”

“Greg is the only one [in the Yale photography graduate department] who has that sort of careerism,” said Mr. Papageorge of Mr. Crewdson’s efforts to get his student’s work shown. Among the Yale graduate staff, Mr. Papageorge and Lois Conners are traditional modernists while Mr. Crewdson is a practitioner of what he refers to as a “new esthetic” in photography that fuses the slickness of Calvin Klein ads with the cheap melodrama of tabloid journalism.

Under Mr. Crewdson’s influence at Yale, Ms. Gaskell was involved in documenting her own body in a series of photographs that showed her from the head up, during orgasm and, separately, sneezing. Since she graduated, she has struggled to find an idiom that works as a signature style. She took casting shots of young girls as beautiful objects which eerily predate the JonBenet Ramsey affair. She arrived at an idea to take the basic elements of the story of Alice in Wonderland , by Lewis Carroll, and give it her own interpretation. She wanted to tell a story that referred to another story through what she calls an “elliptical narrative.” The series, which she gave the name Wonder, featured identical twin girls from her hometown, Des Moines.

When Ms. Gaskell was ready, Mr. Crewdson had friends in all the right places. She exhibited her sneezing close-ups in a group show at White Columns on Christopher Street in December 1996. Ms. Gaskell’s work was noted in a review of the show in The New York Times by Roberta Smith, a friend of Mr. Crewdson. Then, Mr. Crewdson’s former undergraduate professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, Laurie Simmons, included a couple of Ms. Gaskell’s Alice in Wonderland -inspired prints in a group show, The Name of the Place , at Casey Kaplan in January 1997. (Mr. Crewdson had recommended Ms. Simmons for a position at Yale, which she recieved.) Other group shows in New York, Boston, Paris and Switzerland followed. In December, Casey Kaplan put on Wonder , Ms. Gaskell’s sellout solo show, which included all the Alice in Wonderland photos and officially launched her career. Ms. Smith called it her “debut.” Ms. Smith’s husband, Jerry Saltz, whom Mr. Crewdson hired as a professor at Yale, also wrote up Ms. Gaskell three times last year in Time Out New York .

Ms. Smith did not return calls requesting an interview. But Mr. Saltz said that he and his wife are friends of Mr. Crewdson, and that they have socialized with him and Ms. Gaskell in the Berkshires, where both couples spend time during the summer. Mr. Saltz dismissed the talk of the connection between himself and Mr. Crewdson as “Academy Award stuff. It’s like this one has to win because of that connection. You meet an artist … you see them a couple of times. I write what I want to write because I think it’s interesting.”

But Mr. Papageorge said he is “suspicious” of the instant success that has come to Ms. Gaskell. “It is a little puzzling to me that this particular person would get all this attention.” And he finds the culprit to be Roberta Smith.

“To me, Roberta Smith is the real conundrum here,” said Mr. Papageorge. “She was on to whatever Anna did well before this. It seemed that any time she showed work in any group show, Roberta Smith was there reporting the excellence of her efforts. In any appearance that she made. I think Roberta Smith looks bad here. She is a friend of Greg’s, and it seems like her position here is very ambiguous, from the way I understand it. She also recommended Anna’s work to collectors, who bought out the show.”

On Dec. 5, 1997, Ms. Smith reviewed Wonder for The Times , and a photograph accompanied the review, a rare honor among artists. “Ms. Gaskell has recast Carroll’s nonsensical tale … in a series of crisp color photographs-alternately innocently seductive and dark-that fuse Lewis Carroll, writer, and Lewis Carroll, photographer of blossoming young girls. Taking the story into her own hands, Ms. Gaskell wryly counters Balthus’ passive young females and a host of works by Surrealist photographers.”

Laurie Simmons, who is famous for photographing baby dolls in narrative tableaux, also spends the summer in the Berkshires near the group of friends. It was on the basis of a recommendation from Mr. Crewdson that Ms. Simmons put Ms. Gaskell in the January 1997 group show she organized at Casey Kaplan.

“Greg knew about the show I was working on, and he told me that [Ms. Gaskell] was doing some pictures about Alice in Wonderland , and he was secure in the fact that that would intrigue me,” said Ms. Simmons, “that that would be the kind of thing that I would really like. I looked at a lot of work for that show, work that I didn’t already know.”

“I like this collision of the very hyper-real version of artifice and things like fairy tales and fantasy,” Ms. Simmons said of Ms. Gaskell’s work. “Yet it has got this very raw, fresh, of-the-moment look about it.” She added: “I don’t think they were an item when [Mr. Crewdson] told me about her work.”

Mr. Crewdson, at first, did not want to admit that he recommended Ms. Gaskell’s work to Ms. Simmons; later, he pointed out that he was not dating Ms. Gaskell when he did so. “I don’t think I am directly responsible for Anna’s success,” said Mr. Crewdson, “I know that is probably a perception. People will talk, obviously.” If there are people who would disagree with him, he said: “I’d like to know who.”

“Anna is an incredible artist,” he said, “so it’s obvious she would be someone who I think would be appropriate to that show.”

‘I Like the Danger’

Mary Boone took all the artists to Balthazar after the opening that January night. Even though her roommate works there, Ms. Gaskell said it was her first time inside the SoHo bistro of the moment. “I couldn’t really afford to eat there regularly.”

Late one afternoon at the Casey Kaplan Gallery, she stood in front of the Alice in Wonderland series, wearing a pair of faded black jeans, Doc Martens and a worn T-shirt with tiny pin-size holes in it. Her blond hair had been cut stylishly the day before at Girls and Boys in SoHo.

The series hung salon-style, with one photograph above another, on the wall. She pointed out that it does not move chronologically. “There is no start or finish,” she said with a satisfied smile. “I like the idea of being in a place where there are not any laws or gravity or anything could happen, or there is no sense of time. It is an elliptical narrative that moves in any way you want to put it. When I was installing the show, I kind of had a sense of the way I thought the room flowed together, but not like this happened and then this happened. I am not trying to refer directly to the story in that way.”

About her relationship with Mr. Crewdson: “I think the thing is that Gregory is an extremely generous person. Since I’ve graduated, which will almost be three years, I have seen other students of his whose names he is telling people. He is an incredible person that way. He is just generous. I don’t think it has to do with our relationship. To say that he was single-handedly helping me out is wrong,” she said emphatically.

Ms. Gaskell also maintains that she and Mr. Crewdson were not going out when he recommended her work to Ms. Simmons. “I think in the end that the art will come out,” said Ms. Gaskell.

What is it that draws her to Alice? “I liked her relationship with-or the slipperiness of-her relationship with Charles Dodgson,” she responded, referring to the allegedly romantic relationship between Dodgson, the creator of the Alice books that he published under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, and the young Alice Liddell.

Ms. Gaskell tugged on a strand of her hair. “So complicated and mysterious,” she said. “We don’t really know anything about it, but we know enough. There is the possibility of child abuse. His longing for her. I like the danger about it-at some point, being unable to explain it. I like the world that she lived in.”