A Bomb Grows in Brooklyn

Chris Hackett wanted to have the bomb completed on Monday. But at 4 o’clock that day, he was still out shopping for parts.

He said the strength of the bomb would be equivalent to “about four pounds of TNT. It doesn’t sound like much,” he allowed, “but it’s enough to kill everyone in the gallery.”

Mr. Hackett, who is an artist, doesn’t like to jaywalk; he crosses the Manhattan streets with caution. He looks something like a big paramilitary teddy bear, in work boots (his only pair of shoes) and all-black clothes. He’s in his early 30’s and has lots of big dreadlocks and many freckles. He’s a co-founder of the Madagascar Institute, a collective of radically minded artists in Brooklyn. This latest project, a functional suitcase bomb, will be included in a large art exhibition that will open under the auspices of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council a few days before Sept. 11.

Its components were being purchased, using cash, from “chain stores” in the area. He’d already picked up a nice glass beaker—very scientific-looking. Next, he headed down Broadway towards the Toys “R” Us in Union Square. Unfortunately, that store was in mid-conversion to a Babies “R” Us.

“That probably says a lot,” he said. He looked around the neighborhood. “It’s all electronic consumer products and shoes.”

Down at Kmart on Astor Place, he roamed the basement for super-soakers. For the mechanism that would potentially combine the bomb’s separate tanks of fuel oil and fertilizer, Mr. Hackett wanted to cannibalize pumps from battery-operated toy water pistols. But Kmart didn’t carry those, as a sullen stock boy confirmed. (No doubt the chain didn’t want to be implicated in one of those kid-with-toy-gun-gets-shot-by-cops-at-dusk stories.)

Building a bomb, it seems, takes just a little bit of work.

“I’ll probably go to the Target in Brooklyn,” sighed the artist.

Mr. Hackett, due to the scrutiny he expects this project will receive, is now working on the bomb at a location other than his quarters at the Madagascar Institute, one that he described as “undisclosed.” The bomb will be displayed at either the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art or at the South Street Seaport Museum. The two-venue exhibition—which will include many artists who have run afoul of the law, including Gregory Green and Tom Sachs—is called A Knock at the Door ….

Mr. Hackett’s bomb is designed to be triggered from “anywhere else in the world—you call a cell phone.” He said that he had already purchased the cell-phone trigger. Only he knows the number—but, of course, he has no plans to explode it.

The bomb’s construction will be, in essence, familiar to anyone who has seen a Die Hard movie. The two components that comprise the explosive, fertilizer and fuel oil, would be detonated with oxygen and propane, but they remain unmixed inside the suitcase until the bomb is triggered.

“As long as [the explosive materials are] separate, it’s like an aisle in Home Depot,” he said. “The whole thing is safe and inert.”

Of course, it could be truly inert: Mr. Hackett’s bomb could be a conceptual hoax. On display, the suitcase, he said, will be open to afford a view of its workings; whether it is truly operational, as he claims, is something only he will know. It will probably not, as the artist joked, have “a big red ‘Do Not Push!’ button.”

However, he had thought long and hard about how the mixed elements could be ignited after the cell-phone trigger. “The detonation problem is taken care of,” said Mr. Hackett.

Mr. Hackett has a weird habit of talking of his bomb in an active—which is to say, explosive—tense. “To ignite it, I’m putting a resister in. What that does, it’ll take a while to get enough current in it—when it shorts out, it makes a spark. Two minutes later, the spark goes off and the thing explodes.”

“It won’t go off,” said Seth Cameron, creative director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Mr. Cameron is the curator of the show, as well as an artist himself, and he was speaking from his Dumbo studio.

Did Mr. Cameron feel safe with the bomb’s construction? “Given Chris’ illustrious past, at first, no. Basically, I’m just making him swear up and down that he’s not going to …. ” He trailed off. “It’s one thing for him to blow himself up, but when it comes to other people … I’m just crossing my fingers.”

Mr. Hackett was the victim of one of his own art works early last year. The graphic description in a New York Post story on Jan. 25, 2004, was that Mr. Hackett “blew up part of his face” while rigging a propane tank to fire a confetti cannon. Mr. Hackett’s jaw was broken in the explosion.

“I think it’s significantly safer than things he’s done in the past,” said Mr. Cameron, “because he’s not trying to make something that will work.”

According to the Post story, when police arrived on the accident scene, “Officials found two AK-47s, a 9mm handgun, a pump-pistol shotgun, a handmade machine gun” in the artist’s quarters. The New York Times added a “World War II–era British Sten gun” and “several hundred rounds of 7.62-caliber ammunition” to that arsenal.

Mr. Hackett is currently out on bail from those weapons charges. His next court date, in Kings County Criminal Court, is on Sept. 20. He has made many appearances related to these charges, court records indicate, and while a number of the charges for criminal possession of a weapon have since been dismissed, others still remain.

Mr. Hackett could potentially suffer a long enforced vacation on Rikers Island as a result of these charges. But he believes that his current bomb-making art activities reinforce his claim that those weapons were actually for use in art-related projects.

“Can you hold on a second, please?” the polite Mr. Hackett had asked during a phone conversation last week. He was outside his regular workspace, which is at the head of the Gowanus Canal. Voices were heard over the cell. He returned. “A cabdriver got carjacked across the street from me, and the detectives are with him now. But they don’t want me—right now.”

—Choire Sicha

The ‘Psychopath’

Splashy full-color posters depicting a plain-looking, bespectacled man—but with airbrushed Beelzebub horns and a bling necklace—appeared in Chelsea’s art district and in the Hamptons this spring and summer. The poster itself asks a single question: “Have you seen This ‘Psychopath’ Art Collector Recently?” And an accompanying flier made defamatory accusations about the poster’s subject.

The man in the photograph is John L. Stewart. He’s a New York–based art dealer in his mid-50’s, known as a premiere collector of Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. Associates say that he’s a private man who loves his dog, hangs in the Hamptons, and is being sued by a former assistant. (Hey, who isn’t?)

But the posters and fliers, alas, bear no signature—save for the mysterious moniker “Art Community’s Coalition Against Fraud”—and no one has yet ’fessed up to the deed. But several art-community members contacted by The Transom said they’d heard various shady rumors over the years about Mr. Stewart. Very few, however, were willing to speak publicly. This, of course, makes for a long list of suspects. What presumably disgruntled former lover, business partner, fellow collector or assistant might have pioneered these attacks?

Reached yesterday, Mr. Stewart told The Transom that he hadn’t seen the posters in question, but that he had heard about them.

“You’d have to be buried under a boulder to not have heard about that,” said Mr. Stewart, laughing. “I think it’s pretty silly.

“The posters, from what I gather, are just outrageous,” he continued. “I’d just assumed people are intelligent enough to get by that. People want to believe crazy stuff, they’ll believe it, no matter what I say. If people are … reasonable or intelligent, they’ll see it for what it is.”

Acquaintances of Mr. Stewart say that he began his New York career in finance working for large firms. He later struck out on his own, starting an investment firm called Pegasus with Peter Bacanovic—who would, of course, later gain notoriety as Martha Stewart’s jailed stockbroker. A close friend of Mr. Bacanovic’s said Pegasus only lasted “a year or two.”

Mr. Stewart then made his way into the art world. He’s a longtime friend and sometime business partner of noted financier and patron Robert W. Wilson, who sits on the board of trustees of the Whitney. The accusatory posters reference a “Sugar Daddy Uptown Bob,” with Mr. Wilson’s home phone number listed adjacent.

“I have been friends with him for many years,” Mr. Wilson told The Transom on Tuesday, speaking from his San Remo apartment on Central Park West. “I think John has a great eye for art. He is not capable of really working as a team with other people, but on his own he’s very effective.

“He gets into scrapes with other people, which is just his psychological makeup,” Mr. Wilson continued. “So he’s controversial—and, I think, in sort of a needless way. He brings it on himself.”

Mr. Wilson said that he has put up money for Mr. Stewart’s business dealings in the past, noting that the two are in an art partnership together.

Neil Stevenson, a former assistant of Mr. Stewart’s, filed a complaint in New York State Supreme Court in January. In it, he claims that his former boss owes him over $115,000 in loan repayments. Mr. Stevenson, himself an art dealer, claims that he loaned Mr. Stewart a series of sums in 2003, and in 2004 he left three Stephen Bush artworks, valued at $18,000, at Mr. Stewart’s residence. The paintings were sold by Mr. Stewart, the complaint claims.

“We are in the process of identifying other individuals who have had similar dealings with Mr. Stewart,” said Andrew L. Schwab, Mr. Stevenson’s current attorney, who spoke on his client’s behalf. “We are hoping the district attorney will look into this matter.”

Mr. Stewart has filed a response denying Mr. Stevenson’s allegations.

Mr. Stewart deferred questions about the lawsuit to his attorney. Still, he said, “There’s definitely a very different side to the story. I don’t think that the art world is out to get me.”

Asked about the legal complaint, Mr. Wilson offered a verbal shrug.

“John thinks that Neil possesses some pieces of art that belong to us. And Neil thinks John owes him some money. And I suspect both of those statements are true, and why the matter can’t be settled is beyond me,” Mr. Wilson said.

And what about that pesky poster? Why target Mr. Stewart?

Mr. Wilson laughed. “I’m harder to pick on than John. I’m older and richer and well-known and all of that.”

In 1994, Mr. Stewart acquired a 12,000-square-foot Civil War–era townhouse on Bank Street in the West Village, a beautiful and sprawling home that was previously owned by the dancer and choreographer Murray Louis. A source close to the sale said Mr. Stewart bought the property for $2.3 million, with a half-million earmarked for Mr. Louis’ Nikolais-Louis Foundation for Dance. According to the source, these payments were not forthcoming, and Mr. Louis had to threaten legal action—and pay legal fees—before receiving his money.

“If you look back at the record, when it came to the last payment, he demanded a certain payment which was way in excess of what I was supposed to pay,” Mr. Stewart said.

He added, “I don’t know where his demands came from. I met my obligations, and the last part was just him wanting something more. And I don’t know where he got that idea.”

The 113-115 Bank Street townhouse—three floors, eight bedrooms and 60 windows— became a site for parties thrown by Mr. Stewart, associates say, that featured some of the New York art world’s most notable figures. More than 30 Kabakov works were stored in the house, protected by an elaborate security system. “I’m paranoid,” Mr. Stewart told The Wall Street Journal in an article published on Oct. 13, 2000, referring to the hired security guards at the parties and his household ban on red wine (a move to minimize stains on his $4.5 million-plus collection). Heat sensors, motion detectors and a false wall were also installed in the house, according to the article.

Earlier this year, Mr. Stewart sold the home to star hedge-fund manager Daniel S. Loeb, the chief executive of Third Point Management, a Madison Avenue–based investment firm. Mr. Loeb, whose penchant for publicly dressing down wayward executives was recently documented in The New Yorker, is a notable art patron and collector who beat out more high-profile potential buyers for the deal. (Leo and Gwyneth were rumored to be interested.) Mr. Stewart was reportedly looking to sell to other artistically inclined folk. The Loebs plan to spend millions on renovating the townhouse, according to a source familiar with the deal. Repeated calls to Mr. Loeb were not returned.

Mr. Stewart has now shifted his real-estate focus from Manhattan to the Hudson Highlands, specifically trendy Beacon, N.Y., home to the monster Dia Foundation outpost.

Mr. Stewart is managing director of Tioronda L.L.C., which acquired Beacon’s Tioronda estate for $4 million in July 2003. (Mr. Wilson says he is part owner of the estate.) The acquisition is a 68-acre span of rolling lawns, verdant flora and Civil War–era Victorian architecture. It’s a beautiful property, landscaped by Henry Winthrop Sargent and featuring imported trees from Asia and Europe. And for decades now, it’s been home to the rich and crazy. “Totally appropriate for John,” said one prominent acquaintance.

A private mental hospital was established on the site in 1915, an institution meant to provide all the comforts of home for clients accustomed to a life of luxury. At Craig House, just because you’d lost it didn’t mean you couldn’t live in style. Facilities included first-class dining, a mahogany-paneled library and billiards room, a tennis court and a swimming pool, as well as skiing and skating. A pipe organ appears in one brochure photo. No less than Zelda Fitzgerald spent nine weeks here in the spring of 1934.

“I just bought it because it’s a very beautiful, historic property,” Mr. Stewart said. “It’s very rundown; it needs saving and protection.” He admits he’s hoping to make a “little bit of money in the process,” perhaps with a small residential development.

The company’s plans for the property include restoring the main mansion and creating a residential subdivision, according to Tioronda attorney Joshua A. Sabo. Beacon city assessor Thomas Logan said that Tioronda plans to make a single-family home on the residence, which may also be a home for an art collection. The zoning for the property is residential, according to Denise Hoffman, a landscape architect working on the property.

Last September, Tioronda sued the State of New York over a planned drainage system that would allegedly “adversely impact the historic value of the Craig House,” according to the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court. A preliminary injunction on the drainage system was granted to Tioronda in June.

“Basically, we feel the D.O.T. and the city are destroying the wetlands,” Mr. Stewart said.

Peter R. Stern, the well-known art attorney who represented Mr. Stevenson in his original complaint, had little to say about Mr. Stewart. “If you give me a few months, I might be able to think of something good to say about him,” he e-mailed. He has known Mr. Stewart for more than 20 years.

The posters remain an enigma, for now another unsolved case in the wacky, wonderful art world of New York.

Mr. Stewart seemed resigned to the rumors and truculent posters. “If my side of the story gets untold, that’s fine. It’s not going to, you know,” he added.

—Michael Grynbaum A Bomb Grows in Brooklyn