The East Hampton retreat of the Dallas Art Fair’s Chris Byrne; a haven for artists

by | Jul 12, 2018 | Architecture, Design

The art of the escape

by CHRIS BYRNE | photographs by JESSICA TODD HARPER

In 1975, when artist Elaine de Kooning was reconciling with her artist husband, Willem, she purchased a traditional saltbox house on Alewive Brook Road in East Hampton, New York. Elaine later added the studio where she created her penultimate and last series of paintings, “Bacchus” and “Cave Walls,” respectively. During this time, she also made portraits of her sister, Brazilian soccer player Pelé and art dealer Aladar Marberger. Her work had been featured in the Museum of Modern Art–organized “Young American Painters (1956-58).” She continued to make portraits during a formative period of American postwar art when arguably, for the first time, the most radical new painting was happening in New York. I would imagine that, back then, the thought of an Abstract Expressionist concurrently adhering to a traditional genre would be considered taboo and the paintings themselves retrograde. Today, her studio practice seems prophetic: Many artists are able to create divergent bodies of work without the constraints of dogma or critical mandate.

After de Kooning’s death in 1989, at 68, one of the subsequent owners was the sculptor John Chamberlain. He, too, made changes and modifications to its design. In order to capture the light at a specific time of day, de Kooning would often work in the sunroom. Chamberlain used the ground-floor studio as a darkroom and for archival purposes. The main studio has 18-foot ceilings with angled skylights, a private entrance and is connected to the house. When I bought the house and studio in 2010, it seemed animated with stories about renowned artists from previous generations. De Kooning’s well-documented generosity toward young painters, curators and writers was legendary. My hope was to foster this spirit by making the space available to current artists, all while preserving the original structure and its history.

My girlfriend, the sculptor Amy Pilkington, moved into the ground-level studio last fall, making it her permanent space. Her work area is connected to the main house and has a separate entrance, which is accessed through a second driveway. Her presence has allowed each of the visiting artists to feel at home and become acclimated to their new environment quickly. (I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing her work develop and projects come to fruition.) While the house functions well as a residence, its main purpose has always been to provide a location for painters and sculptors to create their work. The Dallas Art Fair has served as a resource for many of the activities at the house. We have been honored to host the Dallas Museum of Art’s Junior Associates, the Dia Art Foundation, the Whitney Contemporaries and the trustees from the National Portrait Gallery. Beach Painting Club, a roving event gathering artists and friends to paint together during a weekend in August, followed by a cocktail reception at the house, has become an annual affair. Our guests have included the art historian Gail Levin, Jess Fuller, Eunice Golden, foundation director Helen Harrison, the collectors Anne and John Mullen, Laura Owens, Chuck Webster and the photographer Walter Weissman. I hope to continue the lineage that Elaine de Kooning initiated, by welcoming new artists in the future.

CHRIS BYRNE is a curator and the co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair and serves on the Dallas Contemporary’s board of directors as well as the American Folk Art Museum’s Council for the Study of Art Brut and the Self-Taught. He is the author of the 2013 limited-edition graphic novel The Magician (Marquand Books).


REQUIRED VIEWING To fully appreciate Elaine de Kooning’s range as a painter, I encourage you to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition “Elaine de Kooning: Portraits,” organized by Brandon Frame Fortune, chief curator and senior curator of painting and sculpture, on view in Washington through January 10, 2016. In addition, this summer the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center in East Hampton will open “Elaine de Kooning Portrayed.” The show, August 6 to October 31, will feature self-portraits and include works by many of de Kooning’s contemporaries: Robert De Niro Sr., Arshile Gorky, Paul Harris, Ray Johnson, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Joop Sanders, Hedda Sterne, Edvins Strautmanis, as well as her husband Willem de Kooning. —C.B.

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