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A New York Loft Where the Art Comes First

by Marko Florentino
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IN THE 1960S and ’70s, clearing out and refinishing a downtown loft was a rite of passage for New York artists, who were drawn by cheap rent and ample studio space to the postindustrial buildings of SoHo and TriBeCa. Today, of course, those same addresses are luxury real estate, but the loft hasn’t lost its appeal in the art world. The difference: Potential buyers are now more likely to be seeking ideal places in which to display art, not create it.

That was the case for the art dealer Peter Freeman, 67 — whose namesake gallery on Grand Street is best known for contemporary and postwar minimalist works — and his wife, the art conservator Lluïsa Sàrries Zgonc, 61, when, in 2020, they purchased a 2,600-square-foot apartment on Warren Street in TriBeCa. Occupying the entire fourth floor of a marble-clad, Italianate-style former warehouse, it hadn’t been touched since its 1990s condo conversion. But the space was rare. Constructed in 1854, the building is wider and shallower than most in the neighborhood, meaning the loft is “a square, not a shoe box,” as Freeman puts it, with just one hallway, copious open space, high ceilings and plenty of light.

To oversee the renovation, which took seven months, the couple turned to the architect Landon Brown, who was previously the studio director at Toshiko Mori Architect, the firm that designed Freeman’s gallery. Brown eliminated a coat closet and moved an electrical panel to create two walls big enough for sizable paintings; narrowed two of the guest rooms (one of which Sàrries Zgonc, a cellist, uses as a practice space) in order to widen the third and turn it into a library; and overhauled the kitchen, installing an ultradurable end-grain oak floor similar to those Sàrries Zgonc had admired in the factories of her native Barcelona. Facing the marble countertop are two original teak stools by the Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret, designed around 1965 for the science lab at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India, a city planned from the ground up by the Swiss French architect Le Corbusier.

THE MAJORITY OF the loft’s furnishings reflect the couple’s many decades of collecting, which for Freeman began in 1976, when, as an art history student at Harvard, he got a dealer to agree to a $20-a-month installment plan for a pair of Sol LeWitt rip drawings. (They’re currently in storage.) The library includes a full set of the art theory journal October — dating back to its first issue, released in 1976 — as well as a black walnut desk designed by Donald Judd in 1978. In the entryway, three subtle, matte gray tin wall works by Richard Tuttle hang over the elevator door. The main living space is dominated by two outsize pieces, both by artists with connections to Freeman’s gallery. The German visual artist Thomas Schütte’s 2002 “Gelber Kopf” (“Yellow Head”) perches between two of the front windows. Freeman acquired the sculpture, which is acid bright and nearly six feet tall, from Schütte’s show that same year at Galerie Nelson in Paris. (After the death of the gallery’s owner, Philip Nelson, in 2006, the space became Freeman’s Paris outpost.) In the adjacent living area, between a pair of bookcases, is a 6½-by-13-foot 2016 white-and-yellow diptych of an Italian locomotive by Matt Mullican, another of Freeman’s artists. “It looks normal there,” says Freeman, “but it’s actually a giant painting.”

While far smaller in scale, the pieces that occupy the sideboard below Mullican’s work provide the clearest picture of Freeman’s affinity for visual puns and trickery. There’s an antique iron paperweight shaped like three cigars — “I discovered that [the poet] Elizabeth Bishop had one, too,” he says — and a group of full-scale cast-bronze animals, including lizards from Italy and a turtle from Japan. What appears to be a pair of stones is actually a piece by the Spanish sculptor Xavier Corberó. “It’s something he gave me,” says Freeman, “a rock, and then the same rock cast in bronze.”

Elsewhere in the apartment, Freeman and Sàrries Zgonc’s shared taste for slippery material transmutations is reflected in a plaster candy bar — one of the faux snacks available in the Swedish American Pop Art sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 “The Store” — positioned on a chest of drawers by the Danish architect Mogens Koch. Nearby, a chair-shaped sculpture by Elisabetta Benassi (“Any Italian would recognize [the form as] their childhood school chair,” says Freeman) bristles with ferocious vertical spikes. And on the windowsill of the primary bedroom is a painted bronze cast of a corncob by the American sculptor David Adamo. “It was corn that was eaten by his young child, and then he sent it to the foundry,” Freeman says.

Much of their furniture is similarly playful. One of the guest rooms contains an upholstered daybed by the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread that’s a disorienting blend of negative and positive shapes, with open shafts where the legs should be. And in the primary bedroom sits one of the Dutch designer Tejo Remy’s bureaus, each of which is a jumble of mismatched boxes and drawers held together by a single strap. The piece, constructed in 2021, is juxtaposed with the much older work that hangs beside it: a 1747 painting with an illusionistic rendering of a broken pane in the frame — referencing, Freeman says, the practice of putting art behind glass, which was relatively new in the 18th century. It’s part of the couple’s cache of trompe l’oeil paintings, another of which, by the 19th-century American John Frederick Peto, includes a hyperrealistic depiction in oil of a heavily faded photograph. The message, according to Freeman: While new technology comes and goes, “paintings last forever.”

Photo assistant: Paul Fittipaldi

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