Arts Magazine: Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace: In a multimedia exhibition, artist Judith Yourman explores Leona Helmsley's persona, her trial for tax evasion, and the spectacle of media coverage

Once Leona and Harry Helmsley had amassed a hefty chunk of Manhattan, they appointed Leona as Queen. Her kingdom-a chain of regal hotels called the Helmsley Palace; her subjects-"the little people." In a series of now-famous advertisements, she even wore a crown.

When Leona Helmsley was indicted in the late-1980s for tax evasion, she became the focus of the nation and the Marie Antoinette of the 20th century. Through the magnifying lens of the media, Helmsley looked like the Queen of Mean.

In "Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace, a multimedia exhibition on display in the Minnesota Gallery from December 18, 1992 until January 31, 1993 artist Judith Yourman examines Leona Helmsley with yet another lens-art.

"It's not my intention to judge Leona Helmsley," explains Yourman, who has exhibited her art across the country and screened her film and video work in national and international festivals. "I'm more interested in how she has been judged." The exhibition is the culmination of nearly seven years of an on-going exploration of Helmsley's persona, her trial and its coverage. The installation features giant projections of Leona, documentary footage of the Helmsley trial, video, sound, computer and film animation, paintings, lithographs and faux hotel lobby furniture.

Yourman is a native New Yorker who has lived in Minnesota six years. A self-described "news-junkie," she avidly followed the politics of New York real estate in the early 1980s, paying particular attention to the Helmsleys. Leona Helmsley first became subject matter for Yourman in the mid-1980s. Inspired by the weekly advertisements, Yourman examined Helmsley as an icon of power and influence. In one painting, Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace, Helmsley's regal poise is momentarily suspended when teacups cascade from the sky, perhaps a portent of her impending fall from grace.

Once Yourman completed the series of portraits, she became intrigued with the idea of animating them. First she had to learn both video and film animation. The exhibition integrates the portraits with the animated versions. In one animation, Helmsley laughs at the breaking teacups: her head flung back, she is still defiant.

When Helmsley was indicted for tax evasion and racketeering in 1989, Yourman decided to travel to New York to attend the trial and record it with Super-8 camera. "I actually imagined I would be a neutral observer, that it would be like reading the news but with a lot of extra detail," she admits.

Yourman did anticipate the attention she would attract with her old-fashioned Super-8. "I watched the lawyers, they watched me back," says Yourman. "I stared at Leona Helmsley, she stared back. I became part of the process of news making.

Yourman, with camera in hand, soon discovered it was impossible to remain neutral. She was forced to confront the implications of her role as both artist and participant. In a series of video loops and lithographs made from the Super-8 footage of the trial, Yourman documents the process of self-implication.

Among the most compelling images in the exhibition is Self-portrait with Leona Helmsley, an eight-foot computer-generated laser print from the television footage of the trial shot by one of the major networks. Helmsley's aristocratic profile dominates the foreground: in the background are observers-one of them is Yourman, filming the trial with her Super-8.

In total, the exhibition explores much more than Helmsley's fall from grace. It ultimately addresses the spectacle of such media events and warns us that trials have become potent forms of entertainment, now as easily available as sporting events and soap operas.

"Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace" also chronicles Yourman's creative journey. It's as if the artist, who began with paintbrush in hand, eventually found her own image painted into the canvas.

Judith Yourman is the recipient of a 1992-93 MCAD/McKnight Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship. "Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace" will travel to the Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston, South Carolina in February 1993, where it will be presented with Yourman's series on the trial of Joel Steinberg.

An opening reception for "Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace." free and open to the public, will be held Thursday, December 17, 1992 from 7 until 9 p.m.

Citaiton: Kira Obolensky, "Nightmare at the Helmsley Palace: In a multimedia exhibition, artist Judith Yourman explores Leona Helmsley's persona, her trial for tax evasion, and the spectacle of media coverage," Arts 15, no.12 (December 1992): 8-10.