Book excerpt

De Kooning's Bicycle

Artists and Writers in the Hamptons

Robert Long

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

De Kooning's Bicycle
ONEOn maps, Long Island resembles a whale that's swum across the Atlantic Ocean southwest from Ireland, grazing Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard and slamming its big blunt head against the island of Manhattan, nudging it that much closer to the mainland at Jersey City.This whale stretches northeast for 120 miles. Its corroded flukes, known as the East End, split into North and South Forks and trail off into the ocean, the former running parallel with the south shore of Connecticut, which lies across Long Island Sound, the latter with a series of bays to the north and the ocean to the south.No matter where you go on the South Fork, water is nearby. It plays tricks with the light, which seems both clear and soft. It permeates the woods and the potato fields, and you sense it as you walk the streets of the villages. More successfully than most painters, William Merritt Chase and Willem de Kooning caught something of its pastel evanescence; it is the primary subject of everything that came from de Kooning's brush from the mid-1960s on, informing figures as well as landscape.The light may be the South Fork's principal aesthetic asset, but it is not the reason the area was settled in the mid-seventeenth century. People went there because they felt crowded, in any numberof ways, at home. And there was real estate to be had, and money to be made. They go there for the same reasons today, and because it is close to New York City, and because rich and famous people go there, as they did in the nineteenth century.The men and women who sailed to Southampton and East Hampton were part of the Puritan migration that had been making its way to the Eastern Seaboard since the settlement of Plymouth in 1620 and the signing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1629. In 1640, the Long Parliament promised tolerance of Puritans in their homeland, but by then it was too late, for over twenty-one thousand people had fled the Old World for New England.The separation of church and state that had been lacking in England was lacking on the East End, too, but no one minded, because it was the Presbyterian Church, not the Church of England, that collected taxes from the townspeople for the next two centuries: "Everyone into the melting pot, just come out Presbyterian," as the urban historian and architect Robert A. M. Stern put it.Upon arriving in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, many of these immigrants found that the place didn't exactly live up to its advance billing. Land was not as plentiful as advertised, and the soil was hardscrabble. So they made their way south, where the land was for the taking and the soil not as rocky.With the Indians out of the way (they had been further quieted with liquor and laudanum), the East Enders set up shop. Most had come from the English countryside, and so reestablished themselves in agriculture. The men raised sheep and geese, planted, hunted, and fished. The women sewed, knit, quilted, gardened, spun, and churned. They cooked wild birds, venison, fish, and samp, a cornmeal porridge whose recipe the Indianstaught them. They built cedar- and cypress-shingled houses whose roofs sloped from two stories at the back to one at the front, a configuration that allowed them to avoid a tax on two-story structures imposed by the King.The settlement was begun in a communal spirit, but a pecking order was soon established. Lion Gardiner came to America in the service of the King, who hoped to prevent the Dutch from claiming the territory, but he was a businessman, the seventeenth century's equivalent of a real estate speculator. Walt Whitman admired him, or the idea of him. "Tradition relates that Wyandance, the great chief of eastern Long Island, loved and obeyed Mr. Gardiner in a remarkable manner," he wrote. Having once sailed past it, Whitman conjured Gardiners Island as a kind of colonial Santa's Workshop:Imagine the Arcadian simplicity and plenty of the situation, and of those times. Doubtless, among his work-people, Mr. Gardiner had Indians, both men and women. Imagine the picturesqueness of the groups, at night in the large hall, or the kitchen--the mighty fire, the supper, the dignity and yet good humor of the heads of family, and the stalwart health of the brown-faced crowd around them. Imagine their simple pleasures, their interests, their occupations--how different from ours! 
Well, yes and no.Wealth came to the settlers in a way that must have seemed like a biblical plague. One day, someone noticed that the fifty-foot-long, seventy-five-ton, glistening, reeking black carcass of a whale had washed up on the shore from the ocean. The creaturemay have been sick; it may have been disoriented or driven inland by an offshore storm. Such landings were common throughout the 1720s.The story of whaling on the East End is in outline the same as that found everywhere they have been hunted. At first, whales were abundant, washing up onshore or spotted close to land. A handful of men in a small boat set out in pursuit, and when the carcass was dragged ashore, it was divided among the townspeople. As the creatures decreased in number, it became necessary to sail farther from land to capture them. Eventually, they were sought on voyages of months or even years. Finally the expense of the ventures exceeded the revenue they yielded, and the industry collapsed.The Indians had been observed pursuing and killing whales as early as 1620. They cut up and cooked the blubber, using the rendered oil to preserve animal hides. The settlers realized that whales were valuable in manifold ways. Their oil was the most efficient fuel for illumination available, and everything from buggy whips and candles to corsets and collar stays could be fashioned from their bones and baleen. The economies of Southampton and East Hampton thereby flourished in a way no one had anticipated.The disposal of whales was at first a communal effort. Because time was of the essence whales rot quickly--everyone was expected to lend a hand in the unpleasant business of hacking up the smelly carcasses and cooking down the blubber. Children were even let out of school. Anyone who did not participate could be fined.The East Enders made the process as efficient as they could. Whaleboats patrolled the coast for weeks at a time. Onshore, a paid whale watcher alerted the town when he spotted a glossy black back breaking the ocean's skin. A crew of six--four rowers,a tiller, and a harpooner--piled into a twenty-foot cedar whaleboat, patterned after the Indians' dugout canoe. They chased down the creature, hoping to puncture its heart or lung. If the wound was made accurately, the whale could be towed to shore; if not, the whale dragged the men behind it for hours, until it tired, all the while snapping the boat in its wake like the tail of a kite.By the mid-1660s whaling had evolved into the private enterprise of a few fortunate families. It took capital to purchase a whaleboat, harpoons, the expensive iron kettle used to boil blubber, and special barrels for whale oil, and it was an investment most families could not afford to make. The Montaukett Indians, whose bartering arrangements with the settlers left them permanently in debt, entered into contracts in which they agreed to work for the whaling companies to settle those debts; in this way, they were bound to the English from year to year with little hope of paying all that they owed. The early whaling companies paid their employees with small amounts of cash and with whale bounty: the Indians were given fins, and the English received three-foot hunks of meat.The industry thus hastened the stratification of white society on the East End. And in a community that numbered about five hundred, resentments flourished, and were often played out in court, for the settlers and their early descendants were a litigious lot. Complaints were routinely filed over trivial matters, the most popular being slander and defamation of character.By 1700 Amagansett had become the main source for whale oil and whalebone on the Eastern Seaboard. A thriving market economy was now in place on the East End; social classes had been established. It was almost impossible to buy land unless you were descended from one of the settling families or extremely wealthy.And then the whales simply stopped coming. It would be years before the hunt for them resumed, this time in three-masted ships out of Sag Harbor. In the meantime, the East End lost its position on the front line of the economy, a victim of what later centuries would call overfishing. There was little reason for East Enders to maintain more than a tenuous connection with the rest of the world, and they reverted to obscurity.The families who had managed to get in on the whaling boom retained an aura of importance; they owned the most valuable land, in the hearts of the villages and along the ocean. Those who hadn't claimed a stake constituted the servant class and lived in outlying areas. The Long Island Rail Road tracks would come to mark the dividing line between the classes, then the Montauk Highway, when it became the more popular travel route; "south of the highway" still means class on the East End.As late as 1878, a visitor would describe East Hampton thus: "It is 5 miles from Sag Harbor, 15 from Greenport, and about 100 miles from New York. But from the way they are behind the times, should think they were about 5,000." Sag Harbor, however, had vitality; it was one of the most important whaling ports on the East Coast from the time of the Revolutionary War until 1857, when a financial crash killed off the industry for the second time. In any case, the discovery of petroleum a few years earlier meant that whale oil and spermaceti would soon be replaced by kerosene and paraffin.The most notable cultural presence on the East End until the end of the nineteenth century was that of a woodworking family, the Dominys. They were East Hampton farmers who in the off-seasons made about one thousand pieces of furniture over sixty-five years, handing down the craft through several generations. Nathaniel Dominy IV and his son and grandson ignored changing fashions and technological advances, but each added aspecialty to the family's arsenal, and they had a wide range of clients among the wealthier citizens of the East End. By the mid-nineteenth century the demand for their custom-made chairs, tables, desks, and bureaus had fallen as large companies began providing cheap, well-made furniture. But the Dominys had something else to offer, though it didn't fatten their purses. When hordes of painters descended upon East Hampton in the 1880s, the Dominy farmhouse, sagging with age, and its adjoining workshop became a popular subject. Nathaniel Dominy VII sometimes stepped outside to watch the artists work at their easels. "You fellows get a thousand dollars in York for a picture of my back door," he'd say, "and I get nothing." 
Lange Eylandt, as the Dutch labeled it on maps, is sediment left by a glacier that plowed south as it melted for thousands of years, part of its detritus the South Fork, a hilly, scrubby ridge that slopes off to bays on the north, the ocean on the south. Like bubbles in pancake batter, pockets formed in the glacial sediment, kettle holes that held meltwater in the form of bays, ponds, harbors, and creeks.Because the Dutch wanted eastern Long Island, Lion Gardiner was sent there in the early 1630s to keep them from having it. He did so by building and commanding a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River, north of Long Island. The fort also was meant to subdue the Pequot Indians, who had their own plans for the East End. In 1637, the nation was all but wiped out when Gardiner's men set fire to the Indian fort. Those who fled the inferno were shot or hacked up with swords.The Montaukett Indians, who had been paying protection money to the Pequots, began paying off the English instead. In a deal struck with Gardiner by Wyandance, the Montaukett chief,the English were granted exclusive trading rights with the tribe. With a continuous source of wampum, Gardiner could trade shells for whatever his heart desired, including beaver skins, which London merchants coveted. In this manner he acquired Gardiners Island, which he named the Isle of Wight on taking ownership of it in 1639. About a decade later, the English governors of the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies bought what is now East Hampton Town for a pile of looking glasses, hatchets, and knives, twenty coats, and a hundred muxes--the small metal drills used to string wampum on leather strips. Two years later they resold East Hampton to Gardiner for $30,000.At about the same time, the English acquired Southampton from the Shinnecocks in return for protecting them from the Narragansetts, and promptly segregated the Indians in Shinnecock Hills, where the golf club bearing their name, and designed by Stanford White, would be erected 250 years later.The Indians who sold the East End to the British thought they retained the right to hunt and fish where they liked, which was all they cared about. But the agreement was restrictive in a way that they could not have anticipated. Although an Indian was allowed to hunt "up and downe in the woods without Molestation," if he killed a deer, for example, he could keep the skin but was required to turn the body over to the English. The settlers shunted the Indians from one place to another, making it clear that they were not welcome in the village center unless on official business; those who did venture there were closely watched.By the mid-nineteenth century the Montauketts, whose population had been drastically reduced by smallpox and tuberculosis, were planted in an area just north of East Hampton Village called Freetown; the name can still be seen on maps. They sued to regain title to their former property in Montauk, but the suitwas dismissed in 1910, and an appeal was thrown out in 1918, when the court found that the Montauketts, by then even further diminished in number, no longer existed. A movement to reclaim the land in recent years has thus far failed to cohere.At the time Thomas Moran arrived in the late 1870s, East Hampton was a sleepy backwater whose charms were all but unknown to most New Yorkers; his presence there would help to draw attention to the area. Coinciding with his arrival was a vogue for plein-air painting, and the East End offered a limitless choice of subjects for painters who found inspiration in direct observation of nature. 
Moran was the first significant artist to call the East End home and to memorably translate its late-nineteenth-century landscape into oil paint and scratches on a copper plate. An English-born traditionalist who was admired and encouraged by a fellow Lancashireman, John Ruskin, he rejected Impressionism as a distortion of God's handiwork. At his best, Moran was a relaxed literalist, and his pictures of East Hampton are his plainest and most affecting; they do not suffer, as his more famous paintings of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon sometimes do, from the tendency to overstatement that Ruskin chided him for.Moran's friends who had sailed the south coast of Long Island told him that it was a paradise for painters, as full of subjects as any place he'd been, including Europe. So why look to the West, or to the Continent, when such material was close at hand? European artists saw plenty to paint in their own backyards; why couldn't Americans?One day Moran and his wife, Mary, and their children left Newark at dawn, on a ferry that pitched in the wake of a dozen other vessels as it traced the southern tip of Manhattan, plowinggray water to Long Island City, where a gray train waited under a wooden shed.The train lurched, then slid forward, the window filling with field and sky. Five hours later the family descended metal steps onto a wooden platform, then climbed into a carriage with hard springs. The road east was a pair of ruts and a blanket of dust. The air smelled of hay. When, after an hour, they turned sharply left for the first time, there suddenly appeared a big green pond set in a thick bright green lawn blotched here and there with white geese, copper beeches rustling overhead. A shingled two-story boardinghouse with a smoking chimney faced the pond, and they got out there, on East Hampton's Main Street.Night was falling. They were served bluefish in crisp cornmeal coats, crumbly biscuits. A chocolate layer cake rested on the sideboard. There were no other lodgers. They were led up to rooms where they looked out at the pond's dim glow beyond massed clouds of beech leaves. Something like a tree frog sounded. The smell of the sea carried faintly.As he sat in the mornings at the pond or set out with sketchbook, pencils, and a knife, Moran thought that this could be his Fontainebleau. There was a different subject everywhere he looked; he felt he could spend his life circumnavigating the pond. At Hook Pond, a five-minute walk from Main Street, he could hear the surf pound on the other side of the dunes. There were patches of heather along the pond's marshy rim, and nervous quail burst from stands of reeds. An egret stood on straw legs.In the stillness it felt like the countryside beyond the mill town in Lancashire where he was born and the forest at Wissahickon, along the banks of the Schuylkill, in Philadelphia, where he had grown up.Trips to Yellowstone had given him pictures that made him famous, but he came to like the softer beauties of this place. Thiswas a quieter world. There was forest and seashore. He rode to Montauk and caught sea bass from the surf, off the rock jetties at the ocean.There he came to understand Ruskin's counsel. "Please in some degree attend to what I wrote of the necessity of giving up the flare and splash," Ruskin had written. "Force yourself to show leaves and stones--such as God means us all to be shaded by, and to walk on--and be buried under--till you can see the daily beauty of them and make others see it." 
Moran set out very early each summer day so as to be back home before the blanket of mid-afternoon heat settled. The night's rain evaporated quickly, but the air would still be damp. He rode along Main Street past the sheep pound with its white fence, upon which sat a boy in a hat, past the soundlessly turning sails of Hook Mill, north toward Springs, where the fishermen and farmers collected scallops and salt hay and the Indians camped, the road narrower and the ruts deeper now, a forest of skinny scrub oak to either side, trees with scaly bark that crumbled to sawdust in his hand.He pulled off into a clearing at Soak Hides, a mile and a half north of the village, and tied the horse to a birch tree. He shoved through a fence of reeds whose stems broke like kindling snapping in a fire. The sandy path was studded with shards of scallop shells, and here and there it turned gray with the ashes of centuries of banked fires, a summer camp for the Montauketts. There were trees with red berries called shadblow--they flowered when the shad were running.He plowed through the last of the reeds onto a path to the shore at the head of Three Mile Harbor, which opened in the distance as it made its lazy way north toward Gardiners Bay. Two boats were moored on the far shore, and storm clouds, slowly breaking apart, were piled like fists above them in the gray blue sky. He sat on a large, flattish rock, took out his book, and began to draw. There was a small breeze in the oaks. He listened to the tide. 
Two years before, in the fall of 1877, a half-dozen painters and one journalist gathered to chat in a studio above a grocery store at Fourteenth Street and Broadway in New York. The group, which grew to include about forty painters, writers, musicians, and architects, socialized on Wednesday evenings, at first at a different member's studio each week, and later at a place they rented on West Tenth Street. The painters, inspired by William Morris and the English decorative arts movement, amused themselves by painting designs on clay tiles; the tiles were fired, andthen presented to that week's host for his trouble. William Merritt Chase was an early member, but Moran, though he dropped in now and then, never officially joined.The men talked, wrote, drew, painted, sang, played music and cards, and went on excursions together. Because the membership was remarkable (Stanford White, John Henry Twachtman, Winslow Homer), publicity, much of it self-generated, soon attached to their activities.In the late spring of 1878, the Tile Club spent a fortnight touring the south coast of Long Island on a sloop paid for by Charles Scribner. In return they were to send him a story about the adventure, illustrated by club artists. Long Island was fresh territory; New York artists until then preferred to escape to the Adirondacks or the coast of Maine. Scribner liked the story and spread it over two issues of his magazine."The Tile Club at Work," published in January 1879, led to an unprecedented invasion of the East End, particularly East Hampton, by people who wanted to draw its windmills, saltbox houses, wandering flocks of geese, and rustic inhabitants. Not least among the invaders was Moran. Chase, too, would return, though not for another decade.According to the story, East Hampton "consisted of a single street, and the street was a lawn. An immense tapis vert of rich grass, green with June, and set with tapering poplar trees, was bordered on either side of its broad expanse with ancestral cottages, shingled to the ground with mossy squares of old gray 'shakes'--the primitive split shingles of antiquity."The club members stayed at boardinghouses in the vicinity of Main Street and made a sport of scandalizing the locals. One group of artists, wrote the East Hampton historian Jeannette Edwards Rattray, "indulged in the reprehensible habit of painting nudes out of doors." The artists were easy to spot in their velvetsuits and berets. In the 1880s, farmers "could hardly get out to their own barnyards to milk the cows, the easels and mushroom-like umbrellas were so thick," Rattray reported. But they were admired and imitated by some of the younger members of the community who were fascinated by their sophisticated chatter and bohemian aura; young women, caught up in the spirit of things, "covered the parlor wall with watercolors."The Morans helped organize a tennis club, whose members first played in an apple orchard. In 1884 the family made East Hampton their permanent summer home when Moran designed and oversaw the construction of a two-story house and studio near the entrance to the village, not far from the house where they had stayed on their first visit. The front door opened onto Moran's big studio, which he furnished with Persian and Afghan rugs and "fragrant, moth-eaten robes from old Rome." The young people of the village came there and "nearly danced it down" to Moran's fiddling, according to the Moran biographer Thurman Wilkins.Moran's residence on the East End coincided with the beginning of a cultural revolution that would pay dividends to some of the artists who followed in his wake. At the end of the nineteenth century the United States was turning from agriculture to industry, and a wealthy class of industrialists had become patrons of the arts. They liked to have their portraits painted, and they liked to buy pictures of the French countryside. American artists learned to satisfy them, not only by acting as middlemen between collectors and European artists, but also by painting the kinds of pictures rich people wanted. The wealthier and further from their rural roots the ruling class grew, the more they were afflicted by nostalgie de la boue.Before the summer people came there were cattle. Around Memorial Day each year, from the mid-nineteenth century to the1920s, East Hamptoners drove about ten thousand cows, horses, and sheep from the town's outlying reaches to the main drag--what is now Montauk Highway--and released them to graze in the pastures that stretched from the east end of Amagansett Village to windy Montauk Point. Come Labor Day, the animals were funneled back through the villages to their winter homes. The highway was a ribbon of dirt that froze in the winter and turned to a river of almost impassable mud each spring. When the last of the late-winter frost had evaporated and spring's perfume tinged the air, hundreds of geese resumed their daily morning waddle down East Hampton's Main Street to bathe in Town Pond, like tourists making their way to the ocean. 
In the 1820s, a trip from East Hampton to New York by stagecoach took two days. Travelers departed the Union Hotel in Sag Harbor at 6:00 a.m., breakfasted in Westhampton, stayed the night in Patchogue, paused for nourishment in Babylon, and climbed from the coach that evening in Brooklyn. The cost was $5.By the early 1960s, the drive from the city to East Hampton took about three and a half hours, in a pale green 1958 Ford station wagon my parents had bought for that purpose. It took us on warm Friday afternoons to a small unheated cottage in Springs, the working-class hamlet outside of East Hampton Village, several miles north of the Montauk Highway, in a marshy neighborhood near Gardiners Bay called Maidstone Park, one of the Montauketts' fishing grounds. It was just down the road from the places where Jackson Pollock died, Frank O'Hara drank gimlets, Jean Stafford stared out her study window, and Willem de Kooning rode his Royce Union three-speed, white hair and work shirt flapping. Most people there had heard ofde Kooning and Pollock, but their celebrity was minor. The art world was largely irrelevant to anyone but artists; the idea of investing in art at any level was unheard of. Those who did keep an eye on the art world said that de Kooning, who by then was over sixty, was past his prime; the pastel landscapes he was making lacked the aggressive psychodrama of the paintings of women that had made him famous. Lee Krasner, Pollock's widow, was guarding the work her husband had left behind, doing what she could to help its value increase. Hardly anyone even knew she was a painter, nor would they have cared.Dan Miller, who had taken Pollock for scary rides in his Cessna, still ran the general store where Jackson had chatted away hours, but the small painting he'd accepted in trade for groceries had been sold. Miller sat at his desk in the little office off the one-room grocery where the Pollock had hung, tall, barrel-chested, in white shirtsleeves and brown slacks, with a big expressionless face and a shock of white hair. Children who dropped their bikes in his gravel lot and banged through the screen door for root beer and candy on hot afternoons grew respectful and quiet when he rose slowly from his chair, eyeing them silently, and made his way behind the waist-high, varnished wooden counter. His wife, a slight woman with lank gray hair, smiled at the children behind his back as she darted in and out of sight in a flowered shift.There were still working farms in Springs; Jean Stafford lived across the road from one. She liked seeing the horses, which reminded her of her Colorado childhood, and the small flock of sheep that gathered each morning at the fence.There's a startlingly truthful moment in the movie Pollock, when Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, playing Jackson and Lee, step into the Pollocks' actual backyard, a field facing Accabonac Harbor, and the whir of cicadas fills the air. It's thesound that the Pollocks heard every warm night from their little upstairs bedrooms, the thin white curtains hanging straight in the still air. De Kooning heard it, too, a half mile away, in the trees around his house, when he'd climb onto his bike for a ride to Louse Point. Even Thomas Moran had once heard it, three miles south, in the village. Pollock called one of his synesthetic masterpieces Sounds in the Grass.By the time Jackson and Lee made their way to the East End in the mid-1940s, it was no longer uncharted wilderness, but it was still cheap--even they could afford to buy a small, rundown farmhouse. The East End was being rediscovered then, and it would again begin to assume a glamorous aspect in the public imagination. It had already passed through such a period, fifty years earlier; this time, it would stick.That first wave of artists and writers was unleashed in earnest when a well-dressed, bearded, very short man, sometimes trailed by a tall black manservant, took up residence in a shingled house in Shinnecock Hills. Chase's outsize personality and talent for self-promotion made him an influential figure on the art scene, as a teacher and as a promoter of American art and artists. The trajectory of his career coincided with the Gilded Age and with the beginnings of an identifiably American movement in art.Copyright © 2005 by Robert Long Robert Long is the editor of Long Island Poets and a contributor to The New Yorker and The Partisan Review, among other publications. He lives in East Hampton, New York.