In Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a fully wood-paneled apartment — complete with mid-century modern furniture, vibrant woven rugs, and wacky Surrealist art — is up for sale. The home evokes the neighborhood’s former identity as America’s bohemian capital, but as the two-bedroom condominium’s $1.795 million price tag suggests, Greenwich Village is now far too expensive to house young artists and wandering souls. And yet, near the bustle of Union Square, the home of late painter Sonja Alaimo remains tucked into the eighth floor of a brick post-war condominium building, thoroughly entrenched in the past.
Sonja Alaimo (formerly Sofia Backman) passed away on January 9 at the age of 96. Alaimo had lived in the apartment since 1968, making her one of the first homeowners in the newly constructed Village House Condominiums.
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Over 25 years earlier, Alaimo had fled with her Jewish family from Novi Sad, in then-Yugoslavia, to the island of Korčula in the Adriatic Sea, where the Backmans were interned under Italian occupation. They arrived in Italy in 1943 and moved to the United States four years later. (Alaimo later wrote an unpublished manuscript about her family’s exile which is now in the collection of Washington, DC’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.) Sonja eventually married Gino Alaimo, who ran a shipping business further downtown.
In 1968, before Alaimo transformed her new space, the apartment shared the same characteristics as other post-war housing projects in the city: square-tiled wooden floors, thick walls, a small kitchen, and relatively small windows. Alaimo coated every wall in wood paneling, built a curved bar in the entryway, attached moving wooden covers to the windows, turned one of them into stained glass, and covered the hardwood floors in patterned rugs. She also placed knickknacks and sculptures on nearly every horizontal surface and hung art on every wall. As a painter and sculptor working in the Surrealist vein, most of the art that Alaimo hung was her own.
In typical Surrealist style, Alaimo painted playing cards and clocks into her art, but she also conjured more personal imagery. One work depicts three women in chains, each wearing the Star of David, and another presents a map of Alaimo’s Italy and Yugoslavia overlayed on a woman’s body. Alaimo was also a ballerina, a pastime she wove into both her sculptures and paintings. Many of her works depict women’s bodies — often idealized and held in perfect posture — and her sculptures show dancers contorted into one-legged balance.
Another series of more tactile hanging works feature flora studded with beads, and several pieces show plants growing out of and on top of female forms.
Also hanging in the unconventional space are two paintings by Italian Surrealist contemporary Carlo Canevari, a number of Japanese woodblock prints, and an unsettling series of unsigned portraits of children, reminiscent of paintings by 19th-century Americana folk artists. Alaimo’s collection also included two Isamu Noguchi tables (although their authenticity has not been verified), and what appears to be a Tiffany lamp.
A recently published tribute describes Alaimo as “a smart, energetic, opinionated, optimistic whirlwind of a person,” highlighting her knowledge of six languages and the body of work she left behind, infused by her personal life, difficulties, passions, and experiences. The artist spent most of her final years at her second home in Long Island. She is not survived by close family, and her Long Island neighbors will inherit her eclectic, lovable, and wonderfully unique collection of objects.