Let me take you on a beach trip.
I have a reading list for you, a bunch of books that together make for one really epic beach trip. I’m taking you to the Hamptons, not just any beach. For artists in the US, there’s Provincetown, various surfing nooks and crannies, and there’s the mythic, paint-splattered Hamptons. In their book, Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach, Helen Harrison and Constance Denne briefly recall “Artists and Writers Softball,” an annual competition that started probably in 1954 and continued into the 1980’s. Franz Kline played. The Dutchman, Willem de Kooning, was apparently terrible at this American game. I wish I could say: “Remember that summer I struck out Edward Albee and Kurt Vonnegut?” And I wish I could have gone to a bar after. Truman Capote, I imagine would have been there...
So I suggest you re-locate from the sofa to a beach chair. Here’s this summer’s Hamptons-inspired reading list, and some related ruminations.
De Kooning, by Richard Prince (Gagosian Gallery, 2011)
I’m guessing Richard Prince’s 4-million dollar beach house in Southhampton isn’t a bad spot to summer. Maybe it was there Prince decided to try to take on de Kooning. In this exquisitely constructed catalogue--an artist’s book really--we see Prince engaging with de Kooning’s imagery, working over the material, and maintaining something akin to de Kooning’s slap-in-the-face style. Prince, for his part, appears more explicit, raunchier or perhaps just more photo-reliant. Prince adds in mesh-panties, penises, raised fists, cigarette butts, sailor tattoos, clunky feet. Prince puts in decidedly more male parts, supplanting the vaginas of some of de Kooning’s scrawled, agitated, toothy female figures, making pictures of women, men, and transgender women-to-men. Your interpretation of the content here will depend in part on your interpretation of de Kooning’s originals. I tend to recoil from de Kooning’s representations of women. Prince appropriates and updates them; Prince is more de Kooning than de Kooning. Do you recoil? Do these inkjet-and-acrylics amount to nothing more than locker room dirty jokes? Or, because Prince is playing, wearing a de Kooning mask, is there more to this?
De Kooning: An American Master, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (A. A. Knopf, 2004)
For the last decades of his life, de Kooning worked in a resplendent Hamptons studio; he was famous, his paintings soaringly sellable. But de Kooning was a slow burn; he was forty-four years old in 1948 when he had his first solo show, and that show wasn’t a strong seller. De Kooning was not well known outside art circles until later in his life. In 1964, De Kooning had made a few big sales, but paying to build an airy studio in East Hampton was still a big gamble for the artist. Many of the New York painters of de Kooning’s generation lived humbly or in abject poverty. Their early moves back and forth from the grime of downtown Manhattan to the dirt roads and makeshift studios of the Hamptons were as much motivated by the desire for oceanside retreat as by the appeal of sharing extremely low-rent cottages with other artists in a little fishing village. In their massive book, Stevens and Swan expose de Kooning’s binges and his messy relationships, but somehow still manage to lionize this brusque man: restless, fretting over a small canvas for an entire summer--a yellow, pink, white, orange, light green painting. I get swept up in the Modernist swirl.
William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902, by D. Scot Atkinson and Nicolai Cikovsky (National Gallery of Art, 1987) and The End of the Hamptons: Scenes from the Class Struggle in America’s Paradise, by Corey Dolgon (NYU Press, 2005).
Sit down with William Merritt Chase’s lush leaves, red toy pails, and parasols. Feel vivacious, a breeze on your legs. Gather yellow-orange daffodils by the dunes... It is hard to reconcile Chase’s lace-and-corset oils and pastels with today’s sunscreen spray, loud beach towels and SUV’s peeling out. Corey Dolgon provides welcome excavation of the Hamptons, starting with the Native American settlers. Then he shows that the Hamptons today look much like almost everywhere else: there is a growing low-wage Latino workforce and outsourcing has led to labor issues at the local University. None of this should be a surprise, I guess.
Modern Art, by Evelyn Toynton (Delphinium Books, 2000)
The lives of the most famous Modern artists are now some of our best contemporary myths. Toynton’s characters are historical-ish, plausible. Toynton takes us to the Hamptons, to the last days of another artist, a fictional painter named Belle Prokoff, who in some ways resembles Lee Krasner, the American artist, who, in my eyes, invented, with her husband Jackson Pollock, the large, all-over, busy surface and completely abstract composition usually credited mostly to him. Belle Prokoff is tormented by a Pollock/de Kooning type of her own, the fictional Clay Madden... I think myths should be re-told, re-invented. I say: the way things were, write them anew, fictionalize, re-create them every which way.
(Image on top: William Merritt Chase, Idle Hours, 1894, Oil on canvas, 25 x 35 inches; Courtesy Amon Carter Museum Fort Worth Texas.)