BETTINA WERNER: The Queen of Salt

By Irene Silverman

The Queen of Salt lives in Water Mill, in a rejuvenated potato barn that has made an admirable transition from one bedrock use to another. In the half-buried studio-cellar where the potatoes used to be kept before being taken to market, she now stores, in great big galvanized-tin washtubs, the raw material for her art - translucent Sicilian sea salt, all shapes and textures from fine-grained to chunky, shipped to her from Italy by the ton each year.

Bettina Werner, the queen, Milan-born despite her last name ("faraway Austrian," she said dismissively), was a student at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts there 20 years ago when she stumbled across the medium that was to define her life's work.

"I wanted to find something that had never been used before," she explained, "not just a tool, but something that had already, itself, a powerful concept. And salt came in my mind, as intuition."

She paused over the word, wanting to be sure it was the right one. "An idea. They come quick, you don't know from where."

Ms. Werner's family thought she had gone mad - her father, a lawyer, was against her studying art at all - but she threw herself into learning about the chemistry and history of salt with an 18-year-old's stubbornness and an artist's passion.

In Russia, salt used to be sprinkled inside coffins, signifying purification, while in China, salt is still burned as part of the New Year's celebration to determine the year's luck. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with salt, a precious commodity (hence the word "salary").

The more she learned, the more certain she became that she had found her element - the fifth element, she now says, after earth, air, fire, and water, "a symbol of life and the most desirable qualities in the human personality." In Italian, a wise man or woman is said to have sale in zucca, salt in the head.

A painter and sculptor in the minimalist tradition, influenced by the artists and artisans of the Bauhaus School, Ms. Werner creates her abstract paintings on large panels that she encrusts in grains of salt and colors in lush monochromatic tones: bronze and beige, yellow and orange, red across the spectrum.

She would rather not describe the coloring process, being understandably possessive about something that she herself created, refined, and patented. There are other artists using salt as a medium today, she acknowledged, but "to color salt, this is my invention . . . I never saw someone use color; I would be very insulted!"

Her paintings frequently have multiple panels, with the colors and shapes of the salt crystals alternating to create a whole larger than their parts. Over the years some panels have been exhibited in the manner of land art, often in surprising and exotic places.

In 1990, a pair of red ones, one containing coarse salt, the other fine, were floated out into the middle of an Italian lake, where an appreciative reviewer declared that they resembled "lain down banners, on the smooth surface of the lake: two masses, catching the eye from afar and signaling the lake by their visual strength."

The next year the artist was invited to a sculpture symposium in Monaco, where her panels were displayed in front of the Sporting Club, and the year after to a show on a Greek island, where they half-covered a remote beach.

Meanwhile, Ms. Werner had discovered America. Her move to New York City in the early '90s was clearly a personal watershed.

"It was a great choice," she said, "because if I'd stayed in Italy, it would have been hard to find the right support. New York is the only place in the world where freedom - where they don't look at you as a woman, or as too young. Those were the two problems in my country. Here, they don't look at black, white, gay, woman. Only at your work. This is amazing."

Young, talented, engaged in avant-garde artmaking, brimming with enthusiasm and almost eerily good-looking, the artist was taken on within weeks of her arrival by an East 57th Street gallery, the Marisa Del Re, which gave her a one-woman show the next year.

There have been several others since, and Ms. Werner has now acquired an international circle of collectors, not to mention an American husband, Joe Del Vecchio, whom she met three years ago on a blind date (they were married in a helicopter high above Manhattan Island).

At some point she decided to style herself the Queen of Salt, and last year the queen established the Salt Queen Foundation, dedicated among other things to furthering the appreciation of salt and salt art.

A year or two ago, a Florida real estate man bought one of Ms. Werner's outdoor sculptures, a giant pair of "dice" - salt-filled Plexiglas cubes - to adorn a commercial building in Palm Beach. She had the dice, which weigh almost a ton, trucked south, but when she arrived to install them she found them back inside their crates.

It turned out that the building's major tenant, Merrill Lynch, had taken strong exception to having a symbol of risk at its very door - all the more so since, on the day the dice were uncrated, the stock market had taken a dive.

Remembering it, Ms. Werner laughed merrily. Her sculpture, she said, "had been treated like a naked woman: 'Cover it! Cover it!' "

"And," she added slowly, as if the thought had just occurred, "the brokers probably didn't even know that salt brings good luck."

But the local media jumped on the story (a Florida museum showed her work afterward), and she gave the disappointed landlord a four-panel yellow, beige, blue, and green salt painting for his lobby instead. Since then another client has commissioned a similar set of dice, for $15,000; the original cubes are back on the artist's Water Mill lawn, where they will remain.

While some of Ms. Werner's salt pieces, like the dice, are purely decorative, others are unexpectedly functional. For example, her Apple iBook laptop (white as salt, of course) looks exactly right sitting atop a sculptured plexiglass stand cut to size and filled with coarse salt.

At dinner, the stand joins several others and morphs into a placemat. Smaller sculptural salt mats run the length of the dining table, with a centerpiece of votive candles in a bed of salt, a minimalist's iconic table setting.

The artist and her husband hosted a backgammon benefit on Saturday night and were expecting a few people to stay over afterward. The backgammon table, a large, colorful salt sculpture when shown in a gallery, was to have a duvet or two tossed over it after the party to become a guest bed. "Art goes into life," she said with a smile.

"Less is more" is another of her favorite sayings. It took two years to renovate the old potato barn, and "of course, we put in a new Boffi Italian kitchen" - all gleaming stainless steel. "Less is more," Ms. Werner said with satisfaction. "It goes very well with my art."

Friends of Venice, the beneficiary of Saturday's event, was established in 1966 after a devastating flood. It is among a number of worthy causes that Ms. Werner supports. "Saltwater is the enemy of Venice," she explained, "but salt can also be a good thing. I am hosting this event to bring back the karma - to save Venice from the saltiness."

The first prize at the tournament was one of her backgammon-table salt sculptures, valued at $4,000; the second prize was a Ferragamo leather backgammon set. Massimo Ferragamo, the president of Ferragamo United States, "collects me," said the Queen of Salt.

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