Portrait of an A-List Artist
Stephen Hannock's landscapes have become highly prized by an elite clientele. So how come you've never heard of him?

(FORTUNE Magazine) – One Sunday morning last April, a somber, well-turned-out crowd of 100 or so gathered in Manhattan's Madison Square Park for a memorial service. It was a sunny day, and in an adjacent playground dads with laughing kids barely glanced up at the ceremony, except perhaps to notice a teary 4-year-old girl holding the hand of a handsome, stoic man. After some opening remarks someone with a guitar got up and began to sing. It was obviously a tribute to the deceased, and at first no one outside the group paid any attention. But wait a minute--wasn't that voice familiar? The dads strayed from their kids and moved closer to listen. It was Sting, singing "Fields of Gold":

So she took her love For to gaze awhile Upon the fields of barley In his arms she fell as her hair came down Among the fields of gold

Soon it seemed that everyone in the park was close to tears, the dads from the playground and the crowd of 100 mourners, which included notables like cosmetics mogul William Lauder, restaurateur Danny Meyer, and Joe Rose of the New York real estate family. Sting finished up, letting the final words seep out slowly, When we walked in the fields of gold, and the entire park went silent in a way that only a place as loud as New York can.

The man holding the hand of the little girl, the man who had lost his wife and the mother of that child, was Stephen Hannock, probably the most accomplished and well-connected painter you've never heard of. Hannock is an art-world maverick: He paints mostly landscapes, a genre out of favor for the last century or so. His work is short on irony and long on craftsmanship, in both of those ways out of step with current critical sensibilities (even some renowned critics don't know of him). "Because his works are so arresting and immediately accessible, much of the contemporary art world is deeply suspicious of him," says Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. "They think it's too pretty to be profound. It takes time to realize that there is real profundity and depth to his work."

Yet Hannock's canvases have become highly coveted by an elite clientele. Tom Brokaw has several. So do Sting, John McEnroe, Steve Tisch, Candice Bergen, and other wealthy collectors. His works have been displayed at New York's Lincoln Center and Knickerbocker Club, at the Gramercy Tavern--one of New York City's finest restaurants--and at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. A large painting of his hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The National Gallery in Washington just acquired one too. (Neither museum often collects paintings by living artists.)

How'd he do it? By breaking the rules of the contemporary art world and painting what he likes. "What is interesting is that Hannock has defied modernism," says Gary Tinterow, curator in charge of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum. "He isn't doing abstract painting, or painting according to critical demand. He painted what he wanted to make. The key to Hannock's work is that it is beautiful. Since the fall of modernism as an exclusive ideology, anything goes."

Hannock, 54, is not the kind of tortured artist who resents his wealthy patrons; on the contrary, he has befriended them and created an A-list network that would stand up to that of any CEO or Hollywood superagent. Hannock is pals with Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, hedge fund honcho Louis Bacon, and Robin Williams. (Did I mention that Hannock has won an Academy Award?) Yes, these folks admire Hannock's talent. Yes, he knows some of them because he attended a string of elite Northeastern schools. (Did I mention that he was a star hockey goalie?) But it's also that people are charmed by the man and his artistic vision. "There is a self-confidence, a kind of controlled flamboyance to him and his paintings that is very appealing," says Tom Brokaw. One of Brokaw's colleagues from NBC seems to agree. Recently Hannock and Katie Couric have been cautiously dating.

A TYPICAL PAINTING OF Hannock's evokes Hudson River School painters like Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole. In fact, Hannock's most famous painting is titled "The Oxbow: After Church, After Cole, Flooded." (That's the one hanging in the Metropolitan; it was donated by Louis Bacon of Moore Capital.) The work was done "in answer," as Hannock says, to a noted painting by Cole. But why redo a work that was painted 170 years ago, picturing an oxbow on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts?

"As artists, we are always responding to other works," Hannock says. "I live nearby, and it was a piece that I liked, but I always thought I could do better." Audacious, yes, but Hannock's "Oxbow" is far from a copy. On close inspection, rows of corn and other features in the landscape reveal themselves as lines of text. As in "This way to Deerfield," or "This is where the speed traps on Route 91 are." The surface of the painting is sanded and coated so as to seem glasslike. There are hints of rock-album cover art. The colors of the sky are pastoral but also a bit disturbing, which is not lost on Robin Williams, who starred in the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, which earned Hannock his Oscar (for special effects: he painted heaven in the film). "Oh yes, there's an apocalyptic feel to his work," Williams tells me. "It's like, 'Honey! There are four horseman coming, and I don't think they're bringing the mail!' "

Are Hannock's paintings too derivative? Too accessible? Certainly a devotee of the avant-garde would say so. And it's true that neither the Museum of Modern Art nor the Whitney, the two pantheons of contemporary art, have Hannock's paintings in their collections. Several prominent art critics contacted by FORTUNE either didn't want to talk about Hannock or hadn't heard of him. When I explained to the critic Robert Hughes that many wealthy collectors own Hannock's work, he responded, "The taste of the American rich is shit." Ah, well, that.

William Lauder, a serious collector whose father, Leonard, just happens to be chairman of the Whitney, has a blunt message for critics: "I don't care what they say. I like Steve's work a great deal. I don't buy paintings to make the critics happy."

WHEN HANNOCK BEGAN his career as a painter he was living a life of impoverished, hippie bliss in western Massachusetts. It was the mid-1970s, and Hannock, a terrific athlete, supported himself partly by putting on Frisbee exhibitions. He lived and worked in a section of an old typesetting plant in Northampton. Rent was $100 a month. At that point he was working with black-light paint in the dark, and the perplexed typesetters would call into the gloom, "Hey, Rembrandt! Whatcha doin'?"

In the ceiling above Hannock's loft lived a colony of raccoons that would pee down on the artist. Hannock figured they needed some behavior modification. "I took some wire and dipped it into a clump of phosphorescent paint," he says. He would hold the wire up to a light and then shove it up into the raccoons' den and wave it around." This served to flush the coons out of their lair and send them scampering out onto an exterior drainpipe. Hannock would then dash outside and nail them with Frisbees. In short order, the raccoons learned to go in a certain section of their space, beneath which Hannock had fashioned an aqueduct system of plastic sheeting that would drain their urine into old mayonnaise jars. "There is no question," says cinematographer Buddy Squires, "that Steve Hannock is the greatest Frisbee-playing artist the world has ever known."

Hannock drew some as a boy and remembers being spellbound by Fantasia, but mostly he played hockey. He grew up outside Albany, N.Y., where his late father, Marshal Hannock, an ex-Marine and a friend of Andy Rooney's (who's from up that way) built bowling alleys. Young Steve chose to be a goalie, not because he couldn't skate well but because he had lightning-quick hands. (Hannock is ambidextrous and paints with both hands.) Mildly dyslexic, Hannock attended a series of prep schools, first Albany Academy, then Trinity Pawling, and finally Deerfield Academy, which was then all male and very old-school.

"Steve was the guy everyone liked," recalls classmate Jeff Bewkes, now chairman of the Entertainment and Networks Group of Time Warner. "He was the hockey goalie, but he was never mean or hurtful, like some of the others. As for his art, I didn't take it very seriously at that point," chuckles Bewkes. Neither did anyone else at first. "Don't take art," whispered some of the administrators. "It'll look like you're padding your grades." Hannock shakes his head: "The whole deal was to play hockey and get into a good college. Fortunately I had one teacher, Dan Hodermarsky, who told me to just go out and draw, and I did."

But hockey was still Hannock's ticket, and he was accepted at Bowdoin College in Maine, class of 1974, where he was expected to tend net for the Polar Bears. And at first he did, but art was tugging at him. Bowdoin, which had only recently turned co-ed, didn't have much of an art program then (art being for girls, you see). So Hannock decided to take a semester at Smith College, which had plenty of girls--only girls, in fact--and also a highly regarded art department, headed by the renowned artist Leonard Baskin. The Bowdoin hockey coach kept asking Hannock when he was coming back, and Hannock kept assuring him that he would eventually, but soon it became clear that eventually had turned to never: Hannock had traded in hockey for art. "My parents were concerned," he says. "They thought they were going to have to support me." And there was another problem too. "I couldn't pass the physical to get a degree from Smith."

So Hannock sought a degree from nearby Hampshire College, a new, experimental school with a vibrant arts program that counted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, among others, as a student. It seemed ideal, but academic pettiness nearly tripped Hannock up. Hampshire professors, apparently unhappy that he favored Baskin at Smith over them, failed Hannock on some fundamental art courses, even though at age 26 he was about to be granted a one-man show at the Smith College Museum. Eventually a Hampshire administrator intervened, and Hannock was granted a degree under the auspices of a scientist who had worked with him doing research on phosphorescent paint pigments.

A DEEP UNDERSTANDING of the chemistry of his craft has served Hannock well. The materials that Hannock uses begin with canvas and synthetic alkyd/oil paints but also include resins, modeling paste, wet-dry sandpaper, inks, and even paper and photographs that appear as ghostly elements beneath layers of paint and gloss. "Steve is so multitalented. He paints, he draws, and he does photography," says Bill Belichick, a pal of Hannock's going back to days when they were young bucks tearing around Nantucket. "I remember when I was coaching in Cleveland and we were playing the Giants. He did a really cool photo collage that transitioned from one team to another. I also remember he built a lemonade stand with my kids that was terrific."

Today Hannock still does some small pieces and some work with photography, but mostly he works on expansive canvases in his studio in an old factory in North Adams, Mass. He begins by applying modeling paste. He then layers on pigment to etch out his subject--a flooded river, mountains in Yellowstone, or the China Sea, for instance. After he paints with his alkyds, he'll apply coats of resin. Which kinds? How much? "You know, some of this is kind of a secret, so I don't want to get into it," he says. You mean proprietary? "Yeah," he says, a grin of realization spreading across his face.

Hannock's works are hardly slapdash. These are huge endeavors that require months of toil. "One of the dirtiest words in the art world today is 'craft,' " says Chuck Close, who mentored Hannock early in his career. "Steve is clearly interested in handcrafting his work, which is absolutely the worst thing you can do. We live in a slacker time; everyone is trying to show how much they don't care. If you want to do something compulsive, the art world will accept it. What he does is really anachronistic."

Hannock developed some of his craft by accident. In the early 1980s he was finishing a painting of Northampton, Mass., called "New England City," which he liked, except that he had streaked the sky with brush strokes and quick-dry resin. Annoyed, he grabbed a power sander and went to work, intending to repaint the sky. But after sanding for a time he had a eureka moment. "The painting was perfect. The sky had no glare, and it seemed to emanate light." From then on, sanding--he ultimately turned to a random-orbit sander with 220-grit wet-dry paper--became his standard practice. Hannock will sand and apply paint and resin and then sand again. This gives his paintings a glassy sheen that makes them seem like flat-screen TVs. "I heard that Bill Gates admired one of my paintings, and I wondered if it was because the surface can look like a plasma screen," Hannock says.

In the 1990s, Hannock began adding other significant elements to his work. He calls them diaries--writing, pieces of notes, even magazines that he inserts into an undercoat. The diaries are invisible at a distance of, say, 20 feet, but as you move in close, they begin to appear. Like Hannock's sanding technique, the idea for the diaries came serendipitously. "I was using an envelope to sop up a blob of paint," he says. "Then I looked at the envelope and thought, Hmm, this is more interesting than the painting." Initially Hannock simply wrote in his pieces, as with "Oxbow." But a more recent piece entitled "Kaaterskill Falls" contains tiny figures, notes, and a Sports Illustrated cover of Lance Armstrong. What does any of that have to do with a waterfall, you might ask?

"Landscapes to me are first vehicles for light--to explore how it works and falls. But landscapes are also about people--the people in my life and the people connected to the topography." In "Kaaterskill Falls," Hannock pays tribute to his old prep-school teacher, Dan Hodermarsky; to the late Frank Moore, an artist who died of AIDS; and to a cycling friend (hence Lance Armstrong). "It's very personal stuff," says Franklin Kelly, a senior curator at the National Gallery. "You see openness in the creative process. Notes about what he was thinking. He isn't falling back on irony. I guess that makes his paintings honest. Even sincere."

EVEN WHILE HANNOCK was up in Massachusetts living with his friends the raccoons, he was beginning to attract attention. A family friend agreed to pay him a stipend in exchange for paintings. He came to know and was guided by a pair of sisters prominent in the New England art scene: Agnes Mongan, director of Harvard's Fogg Museum, and her sister Elizabeth, a curator at Smith's museum. In 1981 he was a visiting artist at Harvard. The Mongan sisters urged him to go to the big city, and Hannock moved to New York in 1983.

The 1980s art scene in Manhattan was sizzling. Wall Street suits would troll the East Village looking for the next new thing. Graffiti art, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat were red-hot. Stephen Hannock was not. "A lot of other artists were looking to get in People magazine, which they did. I was putting my head down, doing my own thing." Hannock, who has always worked like a demon, soldiered on, modeling clothes for a designer friend in exchange for studio space. In 1984 he got his first show. It was in a gallery below an escort service on 17th Street. Slowly he attracted a few influential collectors, like Ashton Hawkins, then a lawyer for the Metropolitan Museum; Sting; and the Lauders. I e-mailed Sting to ask what drew him to Hannock's work. He replied, " 'What is reality?' seems to be the obsessive puzzle plaguing the modern mind. Stephen's work begs the same question, and yet it has the confidence to represent 'a point of view' in much the same way as his antecedents, and I'm talking about Constable and Turner here." The rock star, who owns a half-dozen of Hannock's works, has enlisted the artist to contribute a painting for a celebration of Sting's hometown of Newcastle, England.

In the mid-1990s, William Lauder--who today counts Hannock as one of his golfing buddies--commissioned him to paint a massive 50-foot Hudson River--style mural for the dining room of his home in upstate New York. "I saw a picture of that mural in Architectural Digest," says Louis Bacon, the reclusive head of hedge fund Moore Capital, "and I thought, Hmm, that's intriguing. The quality of light is really neat. So I made some inquiries and began collecting." Bacon would later commission his own huge mural for his stunning house on Robins Island, his private isle off Long Island. In 2001, Bacon donated the "Oxbow" painting to the Metropolitan.

The P&L of an artist is something usually not discussed. While Hannock isn't anxious to open up his bankbook, he acknowledges that he paints some 25 pieces a year, with the big ones selling for between $100,000 and $240,000. His galleries take as much as 40% of that. If you have a hankering for one of his works, better take a number. There is a two-year waiting list, and the paintings almost never show up on the secondary market. Did Hannock ever imagine he would be making that much money simply using his hands and his mind? "It's wild to think about," he says. "I was able to buy my folks a house. That was great."

One of the most fruitful connections Hannock has made is with restaurateur Danny Meyer, who has his paintings in several of his establishments. Instead of paying Hannock full price, Meyer worked out a deal in which he paid him mostly money and allowed him to eat some meals. Hannock got to enjoy many a fabulous dish, and Meyer's restaurants, especially Gramercy Tavern and 11 Madison Park, have exposed his work to the endless parade of high-end customers who patronize them. That's how Candice Bergen, for instance, discovered Hannock.

The deepest connection that Hannock made in New York was through Meyer as well. Hannock first met Meyer's assistant Bridget Watkins in 1998 at 11 Madison Park. "We were renovating the space, and I was talking to Steve about doing some paintings for the restaurant. I remember walking to another restaurant, and those two were 50 yards behind me talking. I knew something was up." Bridget was a dynamo who headed the effort to restore Madison Square Park, which is across the street from 11 Madison Park. They were married in 2000 at the restaurant, with two of Stephen's huge, majestic paintings on the walls as a backdrop. Meredith and Tom Brokaw, Meyer, and Kim and James Taylor were in attendance. Later, when Bridget was pregnant, Chuck Close photographed the couple nude. "They looked like Adam and Eve," Close says sadly. Their daughter, Georgia, was born later that year.

During her pregnancy Bridget complained about double vision, which the doctors dismissed as a byproduct of her condition. When it persisted after she gave birth, she went for tests. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the couple watched from their Greenwich Village apartment as the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center. "I was about to run outside to get cash and water because I knew something was up," recalls Hannock. Five minutes after the plane hit, the phone rang. Bridget answered it and became hysterical. She told Steve it was the lab calling with her test results--something was very wrong and they had to see a neurologist right away. "You could say it was a very bad day," sighs Hannock.

The next three years were agony. It turned out that Bridget had a brain tumor. She had radiation treatments, which seemed to work. But then she required surgery, during which she suffered a stroke. The tumor grew back. Bridget wanted to leave New York, so the family decamped for western Massachusetts. Last year, at 43, Bridget died.

The memorial where Sting sang was in the same park that Bridget had helped to renovate--there is a garden there now in her name--and across the street from the restaurant where they were married. "Georgia and I talk about her mommy all the time," says Hannock. "I talk about it with Katie sometimes too. She understands. She knows I miss my wife." Couric lost her husband to cancer seven years ago.

All of us suffer terrible personal losses, but how many of us have work where that loss can be explored or revealed or put on display? How Bridget's death will affect Hannock's work isn't clear yet. "Steve was so stoic for so long--he always had his game face," says Danny Meyer. "I think Bridget's death will ultimately give him the strength to know that it is safe to express more of what's inside. He's being more honest in his painting; you can see the feeling and the hurting. I think he has the courage to use the art to show that there's a great deal to him."

Will Stephen Hannock's paintings be considered significant work 100 years from now? He himself thinks as much about the past as he does about the future. "I often ask myself, 'What would Turner do?' Ultimately, you've got to just keep doing your own voodoo," he says. Yes, Hannock paints to please his collectors, his patrons, and the museums, but ultimately he paints to please himself. He's a bit of an anomaly, a 21st-century American landscape painter, and a good one too. As for what folks in the 22nd century will think of him, who knows? Maybe landscapes will be back in style.


No less eclectic than some of Hannock's works are the rich and famous people who collect them.


Fishing/lacrosse/ cycling pal. "Steve is so creative, sometimes I think he could paint with his eyes closed."


She has one in her dining room. "His work is so appealing. It's like having a tiny hearth in your room."


Mr. "You cannot be serious" is a serious art coll-ector. He and wife Patty own several Hannock paintings.


At Brokaw's Montana ranch, "Steve saw our white horse, Ghost, and he did this exquisite painting."


"I have his painting up next to my old fuzzy posters. Just kidding. Obviously, his work is beautiful."


(by e-mail): Q: Will future generations value these works? A: Mine are going to be buried with me, so who knows?


"I sent my kids down to watch him paint just to let them know that an ordinary guy can be a great artist."


He has Hannock's number in his speed dial. "He's a great guy to hang out with on the weekend."

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