The wee hours of the morning—when the galleries were empty, quiet, and dim—were Greg Kwiatek’s favorite part of his 25 years as a night watchman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when he could spend hours staring at a single painting like El Greco’s. “Christ Carrying the Cross”, “Whalers” by Turner or “A Maid Asleep” by Vermeer.
Then, shortly after dawn, Kwiatek, now 74, went home to his rent-controlled flat in Hoboken ($557 a month) to work on his own paintings, which were often inspired by those he had been guarding at the museum.
Now Kwiatek’s work is on display through May 14 in a small group show at Fierman Gallery on the Lower East Side.
“He developed a very intimate relationship with much of the collection and a lot of that has really permeated his practice,” said Alissa Friedman, who hosted the “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” show, featuring work by artists Chonon Bensho and Amy Besson. “Some of his works are direct homages.”
Working at the Met taught Kwiatek how to look. For example, when the Met had a Francis Bacon retrospective in 2009, Kwiatek said he logged about 70 hours.
“You get an hour to do a route,” Kwiatek said in a recent interview in his cramped garment district studio, referring to one of the museum’s seven sections. “I would do a route in maybe 40 minutes, and then I would have 20 minutes to focus on one stretch. As a result, I got to know some of the paintings quite well.”
Kwiatek symbolizes a large but little-known swath of the art world – those who have never been famous and probably never will be, but stubbornly, passionately continue to do it anyway.
His paintings are calm and subdued. He often makes repeated versions of the same image – in particular a series inspired by a 1906 photograph of Cézanne wearing his paintings. The little ones go for about $5,000; the larger one for about $20,000. He also painstakingly sews embroidery images, many of which echo his paintings of the moon and sun.
Kwiatek, a tall, stocky man from a Polish Catholic family in Pittsburgh, exudes the taciturn intensity of an introvert who prefers to interact with paintings rather than people.
Indeed, this is what attracted Kwiatek to the night shift at the Met in 1987, where he worked until his retirement in 2011. “I’m not a people person,” Kwiatek said. “I thought that by working at night I wouldn’t have much to do with the public.”
The schedule wasn’t easy – working from 12:15 to 8:20 and then going home to paint meant he was always tired. But the lifestyle suited him. And he was proud of the work.
“My job was to walk at least four hours a night,” Kwiatek said. “You know every square inch of this building — you’re supervising. You cover every gallery, every catwalk, every roof, basement, offices, bathroom. You are looking for fire and water and so on.”
It’s been over a decade since Kwiatek last walked these trails, but the Met’s physical plant remains in its bones. “Route three includes European painting, painting conservation, Japanese art, musical instruments, weapons and armor,” he said. “The Rockefeller Wing, that would be Route Six. You look at all cases. You look at that boat hanging from the ceiling.
“We drink 20 cups of coffee a day. I slept for an hour on my 4 a.m. lunch break,” he continued. “You live with works of genius. And I’m not a genius. But I knew what I was allowed to guard was alien.’
Kwiatek was featured in Alexandra M. Isles’ 2011 documentary “Hidden Treasures: Stories from a Great Museum,” where she talked about the layers in El Greco’s “View of Toledo.”
“From this point of view, this modestly sized painting looks like a very large painting, the details are not clear – is it a landscape? Is it an abstraction? Maybe it’s a mirage,” Kwiatek says in the film. “The hidden subtleties will not reveal themselves unless one is willing to come back again and again and live with this work in a long-term relationship.”
Growing up near Polish Hill in Pittsburgh—where his father worked in the steel mill and his mother crocheted for soap operas—Kwiatek first encountered art at the historic Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, which was influenced by Baroque and Renaissance architecture .
“The whole church was a work of art,” he recalls.
After high school, he attended commercial art school and came to New York at the age of 21, where he lived in a YMCA, got a job pasting magazines and working on his own illustrations at night.
In 1969 he got an appointment with a successful illustrator for Gordon’s gin, who looked at his portfolio and told him, “You’re not an illustrator, you’re a painter,” Kwiatek recalled. “That changed my life.”
He spent two years at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and then went to work for the American Can Company in Easton, Pa. His landlady was a Sunday painter who suggested he visit the Van Gogh exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum.
“I knew I was seeing something,” Kwiatek said, “but I really didn’t quite get it.”
In 1977 he worked as a merchant marine, which brought him to Amsterdam for two months, where Kwiatek went daily to the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum.
After five semesters at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, Kwiatek applied to Carnegie Mellon, where he received his master’s degree in fine arts in 1979.
He met the gallery owner Alfred Kren, who decided to represent Kwiatek at his gallery in Cologne and set him up with an apartment and studio there, although the artist went back to the US when the two fell apart.
Dirk Schroeder, lawyer in Cologne, owns more than 60 paintings and drawings by Kwiatek; his first purchase takes pride of place over his dining room table, Schroeder said in an email, “so I can see it every day.”
Kwiatek’s “paintings are proof enough of how much he absorbed from the masters he studied in the museum at night,” he added. “His paintings grow on the viewer, not just in the short term, but over the years.”
He has won several grants along the way, including those from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
His work has been exhibited regularly, usually in group shows, including one last year at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts – where his studio is located – and one at Zwirner in 2008.
“He was an extremely nuanced colorist in his abstractions — they were very mysterious paintings,” said dealer David Zwirner, who owns several Kwiatek pieces. “There was such a maturity to the work and this kind of intensity. There is probably no other person who has looked at art longer than Greg.”
Kwiatek never married and had no children. His whole life has been art, aside from a preoccupation with classic films (he’s seen some 650 in the last three years – ‘The Third Man’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Roman Holiday’). His needs remain few; modest ambitions.
“I’d like to make enough money so I can afford to stay off the streets,” Kwiatek said. “Maybe buy a studio apartment.”
Everyone knows this is nowhere
Through May 14, Fierman Gallery, 19 Pike Street, Lower East Side/Chinatown, 917-593-4086; proudman.nyc.