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When the Hamptons Had Art

Helen A. Harrison and Constance Ayers Deane
Foreword by Edward Albee
Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2002, $40

Most of us are aware that the Hamptons was once a thriving artists’ community, long before the nouveau riche took the place over. And some of us still find it immensely difficult to think that Jackson Pollock and Jean Stafford have given way to Billy Joel and Steven Spielberg. But no matter which figure comes to mind, they share in common with all of us a strong affinity for the Hamptons’ sea.
As Helen A. Harrison and Constance Ayers Deane point our in their introduction to Hamptons Bohemia, the place’s location was “near enough to be readily accessible by road, rail, and air, [but] farther away than suburbs; not so remote that one feels cut off, but distance enough for perspective.” Filled with archival photos and reproductions of artists’ work, as well as rich anecdotes and a wonderful foreword by Edward Albee, Hamptons Bohemia is a handsome and valuable account of how this particular beach resort originally became a vibrant community for artists and writers.

The book begins chronologically with its 19th century Yankee settlers. The literary society in Sag Harbor was founded in 1807 during the Beecher family’s tenure, and a decade later the local whaling trade attracted James Fenimore Cooper to purchase a whaling ship; while in the area, Cooper would produce two novels, The Water Witch and The Sea Lions. Winslow Homer would later paint many wonderful canvases of bathers and strollers on the ocean’s beach; and both Walt Whitman, a native Long Islander, and Herman Melville, would form strong connections to the eastern end of Long Island.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the American Barbizon and Impressionist artists, from Charles Yardley Turner and Thomas Moran, to William Merritt Chase and Frederick Childe Hassam, expressed their fondness for the farmland and coastline. During the First World War, the whole Surrealist circle frequented the Murpheys’s. By the later 1940s, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and many of the other leading Abstract Expressionist painters made their home in East Hampton. Meanwhile, South Hampton became an extended family of artists and poets from the younger generations such as Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

From the 1960s, ’70s, and onwards until in recent years, the list goes on with Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Julian Schnabel, and many more. Besides the Pollock-Krasner House, the Dan Flavin Institute, Robert Wilson’s Water Mill Center, and Edward F. Albee Foundation building contribute to the area’s current allure. I can only wonder what they will do with the Warhol estate in Montauk!


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