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Art Jocks

by Rachel Corbett
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Artists might be tough, hard-drinking even, and certainly uninhibited. But are they hardbodies? Do artists have firm abs, glutes and lats? Yes, indeed they do, if you ask Peter Hionas. The Tribeca fitness instructor is probably the only trainer on the planet whose clientele is comprised largely of artists.

His followers have included art writer Johanna Burton, MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss, New York Academy of Art president David Kratz, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, architect David Rockwell, and artists like Amir Baradaran, Dan Colen, Joanne Greenbaum, Donald Sultan and Terry Winters.

“He is very sympathetic to art and artists,” said sculptor and client Arlene Shechet, “and he loves talking about art, maybe even more than I do.”

Added David Rockwell, “I just love the idea of working out in a place that has changing works of art. It will definitely break up the monotony of working out, and will create even more layers of space to find inspiration to push myself.”  

On the wall of Hionas’ two-story gym at 89 Franklin Street, a black Formica sign reads “Free the Body,” a motto inspired by the 1976 performance Freeing the Body by Marina Abramovic -- another client. The queen of bodily discipline has been “a big catalyst for me for a long time,” said Hionas, who trained Abramovic for two years, in advance of her 50th birthday and a cover shoot for V Magazine. “I use her performances in my discussions with clients.”  

This summer, Hionas and his wife, Maria, have taken their hobby one step further and opened a gallery adjacent to the gym, in the building’s storefront space. Hionas says his goal is not so much to curate shows -- he brings in outside consultants for that -- but to give emerging artists the space and attention of a month-long solo exhibition. Hionas Gallery debuted with painter Loretta Mae Hirsch, whom Hionas met by visiting student shows at his client David Kratz’s New York Art Academy, followed by an exhibition from street artist Mr. Kaves in July. Most recently, the gallery partnered with the Korean Art Society to host painter Kiseok Kim, whose show “Plastics” is up Sept. 9-30, 2011.

Hionas got his start in the art world when he began training Sean Kelly in the late 1980s. He bought his first work from the dealer, a photograph from Ann Hamilton’s “body object” series, and soon Hionas had become a client. Over the years, Hionas began filling his Brooklyn townhouse with works by Kelly artists Callum Innes, Robert Mapplethorpe and small quartz sculptures by Abramovic. Later he started collecting Hong Seon Jang, Sol LeWitt, Tim Lokiec and Lyle Owerko.

“Peter was a lot more interested in art than I was back then -- I didn’t know Basquiat from Rauschenberg,” remembers former client Adam Sender, now a major contemporary collector. “So I’m not surprised he’s doing something like this.”

If art inspires Hionas’ athleticism, he thinks it can also work the other way around. “I’m a sculptor of the body,” he says. “If they’re a good artist, they have a great understanding of what it takes to make a picture. My job is to tell them, ‘your body is your next piece of art. Your paints are now your foods.’ Once they understand that, it’s not really about time, but about completing the canvas.”

Hionas loves metaphors like these. Here’s another: “The body is like a Damien Hirst sculpture, or a bubblegum painting; it’s a conservation nightmare. It’s a piece of artwork that’s a pain in the ass to preserve,” he said.

One of Hionas’ fondest success stories is training artist Dan Colen, who came to him last February ahead of his breakout show at Gagosian Gallery in September. When they started working together, Hionas promised Colen that he’d be so fit by fall, he could go shirtless for the opening. The next time they saw each other, Colen brought Hionas a copy of the catalogue for his recent show at Deitch Projects with the late Dash Snow, in which he had inscribed, “We got our work cut out for us. I’ve decided to definitely go shirtless in Sept.”

Ultimately, Colen attended his Gagosian show fully clothed. But, around that same time, Hionas remembers opening up a copy of the New York Times and there was Dan: muscular, tan… topless. “I was so proud,” Hionas said. “He is the best-built physical specimen in the art world. Well, Matthew Barney might give him some competition, but Dan looks phenomenal.”

It remains to be seen whether Hionas can transition full-time into the gallery world, which he hopes to do (“I’m 44, and no one wants an old trainer,” as he put it). But already, his A-list clientele has occasionally taken notice of the works in the gallery as they pass through on their way to the gym. According to Hionas, Rockwell spotted a geometric John Belardo sculpture of the Statue of Liberty’s face and said he’d like to buy one for an upcoming restaurant. The artist also caught the attention of celebrity chef Marc Murphy, who picked up one of the works.

For an upcoming show, Hionas hopes to make an even bigger splash. He’s installing a series of portraits of nude, tattooed women by South African fashion and celebrity photographer Warwick Saint. Hionas expects a big crowd. After all, doesn’t everyone, art scene included, prefer beautiful people?

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email