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Approaching Charles Balth’s house deep in the heart of Noyack is not unlike taking a journey into a mid-summer night’s dream…the impression of other-worldliness is enhanced by the dark, mysterious cavities of the house itself — shadowed, cluttered and embalmed in dust. And Charles Balth himself — 89 years of age, apple-cheeked and sprightly — emerges, not unlike a kindly folk-tale figure, an out-of-season Santa Claus, carried through life on the wings of one of his own fantastic chimerae.

— SunStorm, Summer, 1982

After I had met Charles Balth (a German carpenter who became an artist in his 70s) I began to see his whimsical plaster and shell creations in odd places, like the Seafood Shop in Wainscot, where he collected bones and shells for his work. In 1982, when I wrote about him for SunStorm Arts Magazine, he was considered a talented “outsider” artist and even Elaine Benson, of the renowned gallery of her name, exhibited his work. Since then, he is long gone and the delightful creature he gave me, fashioned from a chalky white body with eight crab’s pincers attached, has crumbled to dust.
Not so the Hamptons art scene, however, which, contrary to many expectations, gleams with new energy and spunk while retaining some of that older, more schooled tradition that gave the area its name for art in the first place. All you have to do is trail along Sagg Main Beach in the moonlight, or head out to Napeague, so singularly lonesome on a summer evening, lovely heathers gathered at the shore, or watch the dawn skies cream from midnight to rose from a bench on the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor to understand the marvel of light, subtle color and melting landscapes that capture the artist’s heart.

Once a week Willem de Kooning used to walk
across Accabonac Road in Springs
and visit Pollock’s grave
to make sure Jackson was still dead.
This is their light that bleeds
into the filter of the afternoon,
the light they captured
pure as shamans making weather.

From the poem AUGUST 10, 1996 by Max Blagg  

The light hasn’t changed and is still there for the taking. It’s what drew the Hudson River School painters, Winslow Homer, the famed Tile Club and Thomas Moran out East in the 1870s. What they saw out here became fractured, ripped apart and put together again by the Abstract Expressionists

waves.jpg Michael Knigin, Georgica Waves VI, photograph, 2009

like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning — that group of friends who came out East because it was cheap and they could work here undisturbed, live on nothing and cause painterly revolutions that echoed the world over. One of them is David Slivka, now 95, and leaning happily into the wind at an opening of his work at the newish Delaney Cooke Gallery in Sag Harbor. His paintings burst off the walls — yes, we have seen many like them over the years, but he was one of the first, never forget that — and now he’s one of the last surviving members of that abstract club. He knew them! Little chills chatter down my back. Lots of rather old people are milling about with their wine and cheese. I overhear one woman say to another: “Look at the date on this image, Doris. It’s from 2008! That man is still painting!”

Slivka probably knew James Brooks — one of the most widely celebrated painters of the 1950s New York School — whom I interviewed in his Springs studio back in the 80’s. Cheese and crackers on the screened porch. Light fading on the wide lawn, glow worms flickering at the edge of sight. His wife, Charlotte Park, gently shadowing her more famous husband. Me, then, wondering whether it is ever possible to look into the mind of an artist, or even desirable.


“My paintings start with a complication on the canvas surface, done with as much spontaneity and as little memory as possible,” Brooks said. “This then exists as the subject…It demands a long period of acquaintance during which it is observed innocently and shrewdly. Then it speaks, quietly, with its own peculiar logic.” Working creatively without memory, with only the medium at hand, might be the essence 

 

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Renee Dahl, Rainbow Ends in East Hampton, photograph, 2009

 

of abstract art: that no meaning is intended — just the image itself — yet meaning attaches itself insistently. “One can kill a painting,” Brooks said. “If you force it or are too willful, if you try to make it into something that it isn’t — that you aren’t — you can kill it.”

The light hasn’t changed, despite the raging development that is eating up our landscapes and vistas where vast, hideous houses stand empty and forlorn, like lost objects waiting to be found… maybe by a found objects manipulator like Sag Harbor’s David Slater. He might sling them all onto a kid’s pink plastic necklace, let them jingle from a walking stick and find in them some meaning, a satirical joke, a political statement — a work of art that would tell us something we don’t already know about these aberrations on the East End, make us sorrowful and make us laugh.

Years ago, Slater’s wacky, life-sized tree covered in thousands of tiny metal and plastic objects decorated my front lawn as part of the Art Round Town (ART) exhibition that I organized with the late Candy Leigh. We got homeowners to lend us their front yards for sculpture and had some thirty pieces by known and unknown artists strung out all over the Hamptons,

graffiti.jpgAnother grafitti at the Watermill Center6 

causing sturm und drang, just as intended. It was a way to give people access to art without having to go to galleries or museums and to our minds, was a fairly revolutionary step on the Fuddy Duddy East End. It was a rebellion that exposed a lot of artists to the limelight who might otherwise have been cowering in the dark caves of anonymity. We got into a lot of trouble from the Building Inspector in Sag Harbor, who said we needed permits for these structures, but since they were only temporary, we got away with it. But what a delicious hoo ha it was! Oh, the public was involved, the New York Times wrote us up. People organized car tours to all the sites and had picnics along the way and children and dogs wagged their heads and talked about art.


 
 
  Picture 7.pngJob’s Lane, Grant Haffner of BonacTonic dogatsea.jpgDogs At Sea, Paton Miller  
 

Picture 3.jpgThe Silas Marder Gallery occupies an old barn at Marder’s Nursery in BridgehamptonHamptons Fine Art • Summer 2009 • 7

I remember Frank Wimberley’s muted circular wooden piece straddling an ancient Indian path on North Main Street. Someone pinned to it an envelope containing a twenty dollar note and a blue ribbon. Was that a prize? David Porter’s heavy metal abstract piece graced the deck at B. Smith’s Restaurant where a waiter claimed to have seen two men remove it by boat and dump it into the harbor in the dead of night. Richard Wands planted a soaring wooden piece on Henry Street in Sag Harbor, something to do with skinning whales. John Battle’s weird metal man loomed out of the woods on Division and Linda Scott’s giant heads gazed eternally skywards from a field on Butter Lane. Meanwhile, the tree in my yard rattled and squeaked deliriously in the slightest breeze, and from my upstairs office I could eavesdrop as passersby commented on the mad structure. “If my mother put something like this outside my house,” said one high school friend of my daughter’s, “I would kill myself.”
 

While the local art “scene” used to be focused around East Hampton and Southampton, and Elaine Benson’s Gallery in Bridgehampton, I do believe our little village of Sag Harbor is stealing the limelight with galleries that have survived, probably because this village has had the wisdom to retain its local charm and entrepreneurial atmosphere rather than

giving in to the Ralph Laurens, Tiffany’s and Coach Factories of our neighbors. “Save Sag Harbor”, that is our motto as CVS and other corporations hone in, trying to steal our light and our Main Street, but we fight back and lovely April Gornick, who knows all about light and paint, donates her work to our silent auction and can be seen at our meetings, working to keep the light, and the incidental communities that gather around it, for generations to come. So to Save Sag Harbor, we even have our own very posh annual Gallery Row Art Tour run by Rebecca Cooper of The Gallery and Tulla Booth of her own gallery that takes in Gallery B, Canio’s Books, the Delaney Cooke Gallery, the Grenning Gallery, Donna Karan’s Urban Zen, Gallery Merz, Sylvester & Co., and the Winter Tree Gallery.

The tour bypasses Christy’s Building Art Center, making me wonder what petty rivalries might be at work, whether this is considered a “real” gallery or not. Well, at the moment of my visit, probably not, because — yes! - a collection of motorbikes designed and manufactured by Billy Joel gleams with unleashed pizzazz, trapped within those brick walls. The Motorbike as Art and Icon, the announcements say. No soppy beach scenes here. Big men with big leather jackets, big stomachs and big hair wander in off the street, their mighty machines parked outside. Hi fives and a loud “Fuck me!” convey their delight. Now, have they come for the bikes or the art? That is the question that I am not asking. I adore this show just because it’s there, and those bikers are like a little graffiti on our otherwise pristine and sometimes prissy (although beloved) Main Street.


A search through local gallery listings in just one week reveals many familiar names from way back, like Frank Wimberley, Sheila Isham, Gabriele Raacke, Linda Alpern, William King, Laurie Lambrecht, John MacWhinnie, Connie Fox, Jennifer Cross, Camille Perottet and Christine Chew Smith, still out there, still working, still showing all over the Hamptons.


Carol Hunt recently showed at the Spanierman Gallery in East Hampton. Back in 1983, I found her disabled by MS and

 
 
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Billy Joel’s motorbikes, Christy, Sag Harbor      Carol Hunt, Pastel4, 2006 Pastel on paper, 20” x 26”, Spanierman Gallery, E. Hampton

 
 

training herself to “get in touch with nature mentally” since she could not go outdoors. I was mesmerized by her energetic yet superbly controlled abstract pieces, much influenced by her studies of math and science. Twenty-six years later, her energy remains undiminished, her works spun masterpieces. At the same gallery, Roy Nicholson’s explosive abstracts on the theme of “Gloaming” threaten to create their very own new color spectrum. Twenty-six years ago, when he was drawing multi-layered visions of fish in a pond, he told me that “time and change” are his main obsessions, and they still are.

I’m feeling rebellious. Enough of beach scenes and landscapes and flowers and photographs. Enough of painting. Give me something conceptual, something young and apocalyptic. Different. The beautiful young James Salomon, for example, a co-director of the Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan, brings urban minimalist chic to a warehouse gallery in an industrial park off Route 114 — hiding away there so that no one can just pop in and really, you’re supposed to make an appointment, which makes me feel a little like hoping the bouncer at the in-club will let me in without too much humiliation. But when I arrive, just before closing time, a handsome, green-eyed, dark-haired young man — he must be an artist — aspiring artist? — says that he “sees much more white light out here than in New England, where it is more golden — golden light everywhere.” On show are Ned Smythe’s constructions of interesting stones, twigs, roots — perfectly balanced harmonies in carefully organized spatial relationships. In his accompanying essay to this exhibition, Edward Albee says that “it is how we see as

much as it is what we see,” and further: “These pieces are not about something, they are something.” Indeed, they are. Thanks, Ed. The mood continues at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, called A 21st -Century Academy, housed in an old factory, magnificently converted to studios where his work is developed, and a museum that houses his arbitrary collections of chairs and other objects, hiding away there in the woods on Watermill Town Road. There is a free community event there — a “multi-media performance” by some very young, disabled artists from Manhattan. One young man is blind. Another is autistic. A pretty young woman is hunchbacked, twisted, her body severely malformed. There is an audience of sorts, mostly oddities like myself who seek out the new and absurd in the cotton-wool Hamptons. The show is appalling — inaudible, incomprehensible, unintelligible, even for an avant-garde stalwart like myself. The best thing about it are the slogans painted on the walls — remnants of a previous installation.gabriele.jpg But I’m glad it’s there, glad that Wilson has seen fit to open his doors to young people with strange visions and that even I, should I so choose, might perform there and be considered equally daft or possibly, endowed with genius.

Gabriele Raacke uses recycled glass objects for her witty series of art boxes. This one is called Windows Vista8
 
 
 
  rwilson.jpg    Picture 10.jpgObjects in Robert Wilson’s collection                                                                                                                  Berryl Bernay at Ashawagh Hall  
 

Like an amoeba, the East End art scene spreads its billowing arms further and further afield, bringing artists and studios and galleries even to Shelter Island, formerly a cultural desert but now boasting several interesting spaces, like the old church on Route 114. It’s now the Mosquito Hawk Gallery, run by a young lady called Alexis who is showing the works of Isabelle and Marshall Weber, who just happen to be father-and-daughter tenants in my Sag Harbor house. Isabelle is thirteen years old. She lives in my attic, where my daughter spent her teenage years drawing and painting, and it became my own beloved space where I have written books and scripts and love letters, and Isabelle has filled it with oddities, paper flowers, antique books, postcards from nowhere, little curiosities, stuffed toys — a girl on the verge of womanhood with a mind prone to death and mayhem, and the show is called The Murder Fantastic and Other tales of Woe. It’s suitably dark, with images reminiscent of Edward Gory’s ghoulish Victorian humor, cleverly drawn and manipulated with Photoshop. I note that Isabelle has sold several pieces, while no one seems much interested in her father’s fascinating rubbings of tombstones.

Even in Greenport on the North Fork, Amy Worth, owner of the South Street Gallery, tells me that new galleries are opening up along with a sushi restaurant, a raw bar, a new hotel — and they, too, run a monthly gallery walk. Visitors to the Hamptons may soon witness weary, bug-eyed art lovers tramping from Greenport to Southampton, wine glass in hand, cheese dripping in the sun, as they complete the obligatory tours. Camping on the way. Or painting plein air. A jolly crowd in tweeds and britches and sensible shoes.

They might come to Amy Worth’s gallery to see Paton Miller’s paintings of dogs — devilish, turbulent, passionate, not necessarily friendly or funny, definitely animals with their own agenda. His color palette and subject matter are influenced by many years in Hawaii and travels in Costa Rica, South America and Bali. Ochre, deep red, bright yellow, turquoise, people in purposeful action, their hair blowing — an emotional world full of story and you want to know what happened before and what will happen next. I love his paintings at the New Paradise Café in Sag Harbor, where some claim that they aid in digestion, and others, that they do not.

Paton has shown at Ashawagh Hall in Springs, which was set aside decades ago as an artist’s space where Jackson Pollock et al often exhibited their work. The tradition continues every weekend, and so popular is the place that one must book it a year ahead. So I find the East End Photographers Group

(no apostrophe — that just drives me crazy) in full blast one weekend, with an eclectic show by several artists, one of whom is Beryl Bernay, a lady who, she says, “is too old to reveal her age.” In her lifetime, she has been a photographer, actress, TV host and United Nations correspondent and now she stands before some modest photographs that one must study closely to see their painterly maturity and scope. She talks about the old days, and misses “that spirit of companionship, appreciation and support” that was apparently evident among her peers - artists like Ibram Lassow, David Porter and Claus and Helen Hoie. “No one talked about money,” she says, “or what a painting was worth. We were interested only in the quality of the art, nothing else.” Now, Beryl claims, artists talk only about being in “the Hamptons” instead of coming from a specific village, and they are much more concerned with whether their art will sell or not. “There is no real discourse about art,” Beryl says.

Well, she might be right and she might be wrong. Paton Miller tells me that Hawaii was “the north pole” as far as art was concerned and that he was twenty-five years old when he moved out East in 1974. “Out here,” he says, “I found a place where you can live in the country by the ocean, but enjoy a sophisticated, cosmopolitan community where there’s feedback about art. I could embrace all the experimentation, which was so important for a young artist.” He was also able to rent a house for one hundred and fifty dollars a month, get a free studio and do several odd jobs, like truck driving, to survive — jobs that have now been taken over by immigrant labor. “So today, just surviving out here as an emerging artist is impossible unless you have money or live with your parents.”

Thirty-year-old artist Grant Haffner, who works at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, recently sold enough of his own work on a regular basis to move out of his parent’s home where the basement was his studio, and give up one of his three jobs. Just like generations before, he, too, is influenced by local landscape and light, but in a 21st-century, modernistic way, his flat paintings of receding telephone poles and electric wires precise and mathematical, images that could never have been produced by a pre-digital generation, perhaps representing a cutting-edge evolution in how we see what we see.

Along with Scott Gibbons, who sews entire installations of odd creatures, and several other artists between the ages of 24 and 30, Grant co-founded Bonac Tonic, a loose association of talented young people who show their work several times a year at

 
 
 
 

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Photograph by Evan Thomas, East End Photographers Group  &  Balcomb Greene, The Island, 1969, Oil on canvas, 56” x 48”, Spanierman Galleries, E. Hampton & NYC

 
 

Ashawagh Hall. “It was too hard to get into local galleries,” says Scott, “so we did our own thing and now the local galleries are a little upset with us because they see we’re doing something right.” Well, yes. They must be, because over two hundred people show up at their openings and each of the original artists now boasts their own collectors. Their first show made ten thousand dollars and everyone walked away with money in their pockets. Are they thinking about money? I would imagine so, although Grant’s and Scott’s passion for the work, for the shows and for the collaborations is evident.

These emerging artists are not newcomers or immigrants to the East End. Most of them were born and raised here, attended local schools, like the Springs school where they were taken to the Jackson Pollock House on field trips and made very much aware of the local art legacy. According to Grant, they did not have good basic art training in school. “We made a lot of fish prints,” he recalls. So they are all untrained, “outsider” artists with big shoes to fill, possibly to go down in history as the next big wave on the East End, continuing that earlier legacy of experimentation.

Well, it depends on your outlook, I suppose. Abstract Expressionist Balcomb Greene lived for many years in Montauk, where I visited him in 1985

An old man stares out over the purple waves, coffee cup in hand, the almost white sky throwing ominous reflections off the water, off the large window pane, off white hair and deep blue eyes. Reflections mirrored in wall paintings, where heavy-set cliffs, massive rock formations and, of course, graveled beaches, surround or are a part of his lone human figures.


Valerie Peterson of ARTnews said his work expressed “murderous grandiloquence.” Vivian Raynor of Arts wrote, “More lightning than light, he uses light to blind you.” Ah, that light again. Malcolm Preston of the Christian Science Monitor felt his work was “a blend of reason and emotion” and Ralph Brem of The Pittsburgh Press wrote under the headline: “Greene’s Art A Voice, Not An Echo.”


“To hell with the critics!” Balcomb cried, old and crusty and impatient as we ate at a noisy Montauk sea-food restaurant where a band played “Roll Out the Barrel” very loudly and a plump, pink-cheeked couple danced breathlessly. “These days, greatness is no longer possible. People confuse greatness with success. People don’t want to be in the minority with their choices, they’re afraid to be alone. Even the museums and galleries have lost the ability to discern between ‘great’ and ‘successful.’ Bah! Everyone is alone, basically.”

—SunStorm, Summer, 1985

 
 
Hamptons Fine Art • Summer 2009