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How The Hamptons Inspired Artists in the 1950s and 60s

  • Lee Krasner - Present Conditional, 1976
August 2, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

Artists have long gathered in the Hamptons, the local landscape serving as both a source of inspiration and as a place away from the busy New York City and beyond.

The Hamptons has been attracting artists since the 19th century, but with the emergence of the New York School in the mid-20th century, its legendary participants started increasingly journeying east for summer, establishing homes and studios there, gathering on the beach, in local bars, and at the artist-run galleries. In the 1950s and 60s, the place became one of the most significant meeting grounds of like-minded artists who extended their vanguard artistic activities and experimentations beyond their hometown.

This rich and layered history, which contributed to an artistic heritage that lingers to this day, will be explored for the second time at Eric Firestone Gallery. Titled Montauk Highway II, the exhibition will feature more than thirty artists who played an important role in the Hamptons scene and had studios in the area, including Mary Abbott, Paul Jenkins, Ray Parker, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Miriam Schapiro, among others, showing that this community was bigger and more varied than the few well-known names.

Conrad Marca-Relli - Untitled, 1958
Conrad Marca-Relli – Untitled, 1958. Oil and collage on canvas, 38 x 47 1/2 in

The Vibrant Art Scene in the Hamptons

For New York artists of the 1950s and 1960s, the East End represented a refuge from the pressures of the city.

Jackson Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, were among the earliest artists of the scene to decamp to the Hamptons, moving there in 1945. First coming to the Hamptons in 1948 to visit the artist couple, Miriam Schapiro and her husband Paul Brach bought a house in 1953 in Wainscott, where they initially used to spend summers before permanently moving there. Experiencing freedom from the “center” of the art world which New York represented, Schapiro started developing her independent voice and established herself as a pioneering feminist artist. The painter Alfonso Ossorio and his partner Ted Dragon also visited Pollock and Krasner in the summer of 1949, only to be encouraged to move to the Hamptons by Pollock in 1951, where Ossorio lived until his death in 1990.

The first wave of artist migration also saw the arrival of the sculptor Constantino Nivola and his wife Ruth, whose 35-acre property and home in the Springs became one of the gathering places, which was also visited by Le Corbusier who painted a mural in their living room.

Al Held and his wife, sculptor Sylvia Stone spent two summers living near Sag Harbor, where Held would paint outside and nail his paintings to the trees. The influence of the landscape and the connection to it can be seen in his works of the time, which will be on view at the exhibition.

Willem and Elaine de Kooning spent two summers in the early 1950s living at the home of Leo Castelli and his wife Ileana Sonnabend in East Hampton, one of the early gathering places of the scene, before establishing his own home in the Springs soon after. Working on the Women series at the time, de Kooning started using a lighter palette at the time, allowing the sea and water to infiltrate into his paintings. Paintings such as Montauk Highway from 1958, Clam Diggers and Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point from 1963 were all named or inspired by the surrounding landscape.

Then chairman of Guild Hall‘s art committee, East Hampton’s center for visual and performing arts, included Pollock, Krasner, and Balcomb Greene in a 1949 exhibition of regional art, although other museum supporters expressed more reserves towards the new artists. Over time, the museum began to include more work by the abstractionists in group shows. However, some member of the local community were protesting the “bohemian” activity and “undesirable” people who, they claimed were attracted by and gathered at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall.

© Tony Vaccaro, William DeKooning, East Hampton, 1953
© Tony Vaccaro – William De Kooning, East Hampton, 1953. Black and white photo. Courtesy of Tony Vaccaro Studio

The Impact of the Hamptons on the Artists’ Practices

Uncluttered sight lines and expansive fields by the sea define the landscape of the East End, particularly so in the 1950s, having a great influence on the work of the artists who occupied it at the time. As Milton Resnick said,

Painting is a correspondence between what you are and what you see. It’s a moment when something is holding together in such a way that it is a universe in itself.

The sculptor Philip Pavia, who lived in the Hamptons from 1965 until his death in 2005, created sculptures comprised of grouped pieces of rough-hewn marble which appear as if stones encountered, utilizing and reflecting the natural landscape around him. This aesthetic, of individuated, curving segments organized across a field, is especially present in paintings by Nicolas Carone, Ray Parker, and Giorgio Cavallon. Their work is a lyrical response to the landscape characterized by scattered elements punctuating flat expanses.

Elaine de Kooning - Squeeze Play, 1957, James Brooks - Berl, 1956
Left: Elaine de Kooning – Squeeze Play, 1957. Iil on canvas, 30 x 30 in / Right: James Brooks – Berl, 1956. Oil on canvas, 62 x 66 in.

Montauk Highway II at Eric Firestone Gallery

The environment of the Hamptons became the backdrop for a lively exchange between the artists, deeply affecting their art practices. Linked by the aesthetic of biomorphic and lyrical forms, works in the show evoke a sense of home and expansiveness, but are also fractured and elegiac. Becoming the backdrop for a lively exchange among artists,

The exhibition Montauk Highway II: Postwar Abstraction in the Hamptons will be on view at Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton from August 4th until September 23rd, 2018. The opening reception will be held on Saturday, August 4th, from 5 to 8 pm.

The Panel Discussion with Barbara Rose, Lana Jokel, and Gail Levin, moderated by Jennifer Samet, will be held on Saturday, August 11th, at 4 p.m.

Featured image: Lee Krasner – Present Conditional, 1976. Collage on canvas, 72 x 108 inches; Lee Krasner – Present Conditional, 1976. Collage on canvas, 72 x 108 inches. All images courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery.