Home is where the art is
Works by artists who lived and created in the Hamptons, and sometimes captured it in wildly diverse styles, are on a visit to our locale.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published February 22, 2007
The Gulf Coast Museum of Art's latest exhibition hails from the Hamptons.
The Hamptons? Hallowed playground of unapologetic wealth, where Hummers clog the quaint, luxury-lined streets and lobster salad sells for $25 a pound?
Yes, those Hamptons.
"Guild Hall: An Adventure in the Arts" comes from Guild Hall, a museum and theater founded in 1931 by a wealthy philanthropist. Located in East Hampton, perhaps the toniest of those tony colonies on the southern spit of Long Island, it has amassed a solid collection of local art. "Local" art can be a yawn-inducing collecting mission. But long before the potato fields began to make room for McMansions, the Hamptons drew artists with its pastoral setting so close to New York, and, more important, the quality of its light. Many well-known artists frequented the Hamptons, beginning in the late 1800s; Thomas Moran lived there permanently, his studio a gathering place for visiting artists.
One of its most famous or notorious artists-in-residence was abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who moved there with his wife, Lee Krasner, in the 1950s because it was cheap, and later became rich and famous and crashed his car into a tree there after a drinking binge, killing himself and a young female companion.
Adieu, starving artist
Today artists continue to populate the Hamptons but, given real estate values, they're now big names whose work sells for big bucks.
Guild Hall was not always interested in its artsy locals - at least those considered avant-garde. Led by conservative blue bloods in its early decades, the museum tended toward genteel landscapes. But in the 1960s, its leaders acknowledged the remarkable concentration of artistic talent that has populated the Hamptons for more than a century. They refocused its mission on collecting the work of artists who had lived there, which opened up a virtual directory of modern and contemporary American art.
Once Guild Hall publicized its intentions and built a modern wing with industry-standard climate control, donors - including artists who donated their own work - became more generous. What resulted is a lot of what is on view at Gulf Coast Museum.
Moran (1837-1926) is represented by two lovely landscapes and his portrait by Howard Russell Butler. In Moran's and others' depictions of the countryside from the early 1900s, we see a terrain untouched by rampant development. Many of the scenes probably no longer exist.
Childe Hassam settled in East Hampton in 1917 and remained until his death in 1935. Like Moran, he was an active participant in community life, his impressionist paintings reflecting his affection for it.
Later artists also took the Hamptons as their subject, some with an obvious elegiac tone for its precarious natural beauty. April Gornik's 1991 aquatint captures the shifting clouds and ocean spray as a shimmering sea change. Saul Steinberg's slender snippets of land and sky are painted in watercolor, with text and postal stamps that suggest postcards.
Atypical, yet enjoyable
Much of the show, though, has nothing to do with the specificity of location. Pollock is represented by a silkscreen rather than one of his more famous (and valuable) drip paintings. Willem de Kooning created some of his greatest work in his Hamptons' studio. Guild Hall has in its collection a passable painting and a lovely drawing, Head of a Woman. There's a Jasper Johns screen print of his famous targets, an Andy Warhol Marilyn print and a sweet, early drawing of a cat and a slightly later one of a shoe (he did fashion illustrations before being discovered as a serious artist). More prints from Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Miriam Shapiro, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell and Audrey Flack. Small sculptures by Max Ernst and Ibram Lassaw. Very nice, very varied.
That's pretty much the dynamic of this exhibition: important names, but no really important examples. Guild Hall has benefited from its celebrated population more than most small regional museums, and has an impressive collection for its size. But even with such a high concentration of artists and wealthy people, it can't compete with the big guns in nearby New York; the great stuff understandably goes to the Met or MoMA.
But why quibble with such inevitabilities? The show doesn't oversell itself. Its charm is in its straightforward pride in and celebration of its locals. We should be so lucky.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
"Guild Hall: An Adventure in the Arts, Selections from the Permanent Collection" is at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through April 29. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors and $4 students. Children 6 and younger free. (727) 518-6833.
[Last modified February 21, 2007, 14:21:23]
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