Greg Kwiatek, a night guard for 25 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, likes the early hours when the galleries are empty, quiet and dim, and he can spend hours looking at a painting like El Greco. The painting “Christ Carrying the Cross”, Turner’s “The Whaler” or Vermeer’s “The Sleeping Maid”.
Then, shortly after sunrise, Kwiatek, 74, returns to his rent-regulated railroad apartment in Hoboken ($557 a month) and begins working on his own paintings, often inspired by those he guards at museums .
Now Kwiatek’s work is on view in a small group show at Fierman Gallery on the Lower East Side through May 14.
“He developed a very intimate relationship with most of the collection, and a lot of it really permeated his practice,” said Alissa Friedman, organizer of the exhibition “Everybody Knows It’s Going Nowhere,” which included artist Chonon Bensho and Amy Besson. “Some of his work is a direct homage.”
Working at the Met taught Kwiatek how to see things. For example, when the Met held a Francis Bacon retrospective in 2009, Kwiatek said he logged about 70 hours.
“You have 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 might do a route in 40 minutes, and then I’ll have 20 minutes to focus on one piece. By doing that, I get a really good look at some of the paintings.”
Kwiatek is part of a legion of lesser-known icons of the art world—people who were never famous and probably never will be, but who persevere doggedly and passionately anyway.
His paintings are quiet and understated. He often repeated multiple versions of the same image – notably a series inspired by a 1906 photograph of Cézanne carrying his paintings. Small ones sell for around $5,000; larger ones around $20,000. He also painstakingly sewed needlework patterns, many of which echoed his moon and sun paintings.
Tall and wiry from a Polish family in Pittsburgh, Kwiatek exuded an introverted reticence who would rather communicate with paintings than with people.
In fact, that’s why Kwiatek worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1987 until his retirement in 2011. “I’m not a sociable person,” Kwiatek said. “I think by working at night, I don’t have to deal with the public.”
The schedule wasn’t easy – working from 12:15am to 8:20am and then coming home to paint meant he was always tired. But this lifestyle suits him. He is proud of this work.
“My job is to walk at least four hours a night,” Kwiatek said. “You know every inch of the building—you’re watching. You cover every gallery, every runway, every roof, cellar, office, bathroom. You’re looking for fire and water and all that stuff.”
It’s been more than a decade since Kwiatek last walked those routes, but the physical factory of the Met is still in his bones. “Route three includes European paintings, painting conservation, Japanese art, musical instruments, weapons and armor,” he said. “Rockefeller flank, that’s Route 6. You’re looking at all the cases. You’re looking at the boat hanging from the ceiling.
“We drank 20 cups of coffee a day. I would sleep for an hour during my 4 a.m. lunch break,” he continued. “You live in the work of genius. And I’m not a genius. But I know what I’ve been blessed to protect—and it’s otherworldly.”
Kwiatek, who starred in Alexandra M. Isles’ 2011 documentary “Hidden Treasures: Stories from the Great Museum,” talks about the layers in El Greco’s “Landscape of Toledo.”
“From this angle, the small portrait looks like a large painting with unclear details—is it a landscape? Is it an abstraction? Maybe it’s a mirage,” Kwiatek says in the film. “Unless one is willing to come back again and again and live with the work in a long-term relationship, the hidden subtleties don’t come to light.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood—his father worked in a steel mill and his mother crocheted before soap operas—Kwiatek’s first exposure to art came at the historic Church of the Immaculate Conception, influenced by Baroque and Renaissance influenced architecture.
“The whole church was a work of art,” he recalls.
After high school, he went to commercial art school, and at 21 came to New York, where he lived at the YMCA, got a job collaging magazines, and created his own illustrations at night.
In 1969, he met with a successful Gordon’s Gin illustrator, who looked at his portfolio and told him, “‘You’re not an illustrator, you’re a painter,'” Kwiatek recalls. “That changed my life.”
He spent two years at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, then went to work for the American Canning Company in Easton, Pennsylvania. His landlady, a Sunday painter, suggested he visit the Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I knew what I saw,” Kwiatek said, “but I really didn’t fully understand it.”
In 1975, he traveled for two months to Amsterdam, where Kwiatek visited the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum every day. In 1977, he spent a year as a merchant mariner on an oil tanker.
After completing five semesters at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, Kwiatek applied to Carnegie Mellon University, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1979.
He met gallerist Alfred Kren, who decided to represent Kwiatek at his Cologne gallery and arranged for him an apartment and studio there, but after the two fell out, the Kwiatek The artist moved back to the United States.
Cologne-based lawyer Dirk Schroeder owns more than 60 paintings and drawings by Kwiatek; his first purchase was on his dining table, Schroeder said in an email Take a seat, “so I can see it every day.”
Kwiatek’s “paintings amply testify to the knowledge of the masters he studied in the museum at night,” he added. “His paintings grow in viewers not only in the short term, but also over the years.”
Along the way, he has received several grants, including grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
His work is shown regularly, mostly in group shows, including a show last year at the Elizabeth Arts Foundation, where his studio is located, and a 2008 show at Zwirner Gallery.
“His abstract paintings are a very nuanced colorist — they are very mysterious paintings,” said David Zwirner, a dealer who owns several Kwiatek pieces. “The work is so mature, with such intensity. Probably no one has been looking at art longer than Greg.”
Kwiatek has never been married and has no children. Aside from his obsession with classic movies, his whole life has been art (he’s seen about 650 over the past three years—The Third Man, Casablanca, Roman Holiday). His needs are still few; his ambitions are modest.
“I wanted to make enough money so I could afford to stay off the streets,” Kwiatek said. “Maybe buy a studio apartment.”
everybody knows it’s going nowhere
Through May 14, Fierman Gallery, 19 Pike Street, Lower East SIde/Chinatown, 917-593-4086; fierman.nyc.