'The Vital Street' lives on

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The late artist Mari Lyons painted the scene at Broadway and 80th for nearly four decades, capturing a piece of New York history


  • “Thursday Afternoon on West 80th Street,” 2001. Photo courtesy of Nick Lyons

  • Mari Lyons, Self Portrait with Yellow Head Piece, 47x29 oil on paper. Image courtesy of Nick Lyons

if you go

WHERE: First Street Gallery, 526 West 26th St.

WHEN: Through Feb. 24

CONTACT: 646-336-8053. firststreetgallery.org

Click here to view the Virtual Tour

by Alizah Salario

On one particular Manhattan street corner, the artist Mari Lyons was able to stop time.

For nearly forty years, Lyons painted the scene outside her studio window at Broadway and 80th Street, just above the former H&H Bagels and across the street from Zabar's. She captured the changing storefronts, from the old Guys & Dolls pool hall and Woolworth's to the Filene's Basement that came in next, and the DSW that moved in after that. On canvas after canvas, Lyons, who passed away in 2016, pressed pause on a city in constant motion.

Now on display at Chelsea's First Street Gallery, “The Vital Street: Upper Broadway from Her Studio” showcases a vast selection of the late artist's cityscapes. The memorial show was curated by her husband, the writer and book publisher Nick Lyons, to “celebrate the vitality that Mari brought to painting, and her immense love for that scene outsider her window.”

“When she looked out the window she saw this enormous sense of activity ... the cars, the people, the changing seasons. She responded to it immediately,” he says.

Nick Lyons always adored his wife's work; she even illustrated five of his books. The couple met at Bard College in the '60s, where Lyons first spotted the tall young woman with frizzy hair who would become his wife. Not long after they started dating, he was posing nude for one of her paintings.

“I was crazy about her from the beginning,” says Lyons.

They spent time in California, where Mari studied art at Mills College and took classes with the legendary German expressionist Max Beckmann, who remained a profound influence on her work. They eventually came back to New York, had four children in five years, and lived a life immersed in the arts. Mari had various studios over the years, until settling in the one on Broadway and 80th in 1979.

“Mari always painted. It was the center of our life. When we went anywhere, it was always to go to some museums, or someplace like Montana where she painted plein air,” says Lyons.

Mari considered herself an “everyday painter” and always made time for her work. One of her great joys was taking the crosstown bus and going to the Met.

“She was there constantly,” says Lyons. “It satisfied her completely. There was always something to learn, and she saw her favorite painters — Cézanne, Beckmann and a whole raft of others.”

Mari also maintained a studio in Woodstock, where after her passing Lyons discovered nearly 60 paintings of the scene at Broadway and 80th Street that he'd never seen before. The view Mari returned to again and again was the one Lyons chose to showcase in his wife's memory at First Street Gallery, where she had fifteen one-person shows over the years.

“We were married 58 years and it was one of those great love affairs,” he says. “We just loved the world of art, and loved each other very much.”

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