Elaine de Kooning never had her due during her lifetime. So how did his Hamptons home become a hub for young artists?
Elaine de Kooning lived an exciting life marked by travel, lovers, late nights and an innate strength that brought her into the midst of the Abstract Expressionist movement. She never wanted to be tied down, but in 1975 she bought a house at 55 Alewive Brook Road, East Hampton, Long Island. She was well into her career as a painter and was drawn to the property, sharing with a friend: “In short, I bought a basement with a nice brand new house above it.”
At this time in her life, she and her husband, artist Willem de Kooning, had been living apart for many years. Their relationship was complicated: as Lee Hall’s daring story points out, Elaine and Bill, Portrait of a Wedding (1993), the two married in 1943 but continued their own entanglements, which culminated in 1957 when they separated, but did not divorce. Her home was near the Pollock-Krasner house on Fireplace Road, and Elaine acquired her abode a short drive away. Willem was deep in his alcoholism and Elaine, also a heavy drinker, took on the role of caretaker under another roof. Late last year, after a concerted effort by the current owner, this structure has now been recognized by the National Park Service as a place of historic significance.
Elaine built a connected studio on the site and worked there for the rest of her life. She reveled in maintaining the home as her separate sphere, where she had complete independence and friends like artist Connie Fox nearby. She paints rigorously in the studio, cigarette in hand, often on a ladder, while her studio assistants spread large-scale canvases below. It was here that she created some of her most recognizable and monumental paintings, including the series cave walls and cave paintings (1985–88), inspired by a trip to Lascaux, France.
After Elaine’s death, the house was owned by sculptor John Chamberlain from 1994 to 1998. When Chamberlain moved, preferring to live and work on Shelter Island, the house was used by painter Richmond Burton. That is, until 2010, when entrepreneur Chris Byrne learned the home was on the market and he decided to buy it.
Byrne, who divides her time between the East End of Long Island, Manhattan and Dallas, recently told Artnet News, “Today Elaine’s studio practice feels prophetic. We intend to continue to cultivate this spirit by making the space available to artists and the public, while preserving the original structure and its history. Recognizing the importance of maintaining the site and its significance to the region, two years ago Byrne put out a bid to have the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the Department of the Interior said. the United States. He achieved this status at the end of last year; the official plaque was installed this month. (The house is currently open to visitors by appointment only.)
Byrne saw the potential for contemporary artists to reawaken creative energies that had lain dormant. He had studied art in his youth and published an artist’s book entitled The magician in 2013. Although he never practiced art full time, he had a network of artists and soon realized he could allow them to use Elaine’s studio in a kind of informal residence. The first artist he invited was Jose Lerma, for the summer and fall of 2011. Since then, Byrne has hosted 28 artists, including Joe Bradley, Sadie Laska, Katherine Bernhardt, Keith Mayerson and Eric Haze, among others. In 2020, Lonnie Holley produced an exhibition of new paintings, works on paper and sculpture, which were shown last year at the nearby Parrish Museum of Art in ‘Lonnie Holley at Elaine de Kooning House: All That Doesn’t was not white”.
Currently, the house is home to sculptor Frank Benson and multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson, who produces large-scale paintings. Artists have full access to the property and the ability to live and work on site. There is no official schedule, nor official rules as to how it operates, nor a requirement as to how often artists use the studio. “We don’t like to be too prescriptive,” Byrne said. “What comes out is always better than I could imagine or come up with.”
Benson, for example, shared that since being at the studio he has “spent weeks spraying acrylic paint on paper while listening [the audiobook] Ninth Street Women, by Marie-Gabriel. It was like a full sensory immersive course in abstract expressionism. The decor also seems to have rubbed off on his art. “Currently, I’m using artificial intelligence software to generate images influenced by the AbEx story of East Hampton,” he explained.
In her lifetime, Elaine de Kooning never received as much attention or success as her husband and his famous circle. But recent scholarship has shifted attention to de Kooning and her female peers, including a landmark exhibition curated by Gwen Chanzit, “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which debuted at the Denver Art Museum in 2016 and has toured. in North Carolina and California. After the publication of Gabriel Ninth Street Women in 2018, which chronicled the contributions of Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, the market bore more fruit. One of de Kooning’s “cave paintings” from studio Alewive, Red Bison/Blue Horse (1985/86), sold in March 2021 for $562,500, a new artist record. Hartigan’s Beginning of November (1959) grossed $1.4 million as of May 2022, while Mitchell’s Blueberry (1969) grossed $16.6 million as of May 2018. While de Kooning’s awards remain lower than some of her peers, her vision lives on in the hands of others, now working in the studio she was built and left with love 33 years ago. Thanks to Byrne’s efforts, the proof now lives in a sign visible to all who pass by.
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