Dispatches

Casa de Kooning: An Afternoon at East Hampton’s New Artist Colony

The Elaine de Kooning house, photographed on May 23, 2015.KATHERINE MCMAHON

The Elaine de Kooning house, photographed on May 23, 2015.KATHERINE MCMAHON

In 1975, Elaine de Kooning bought a modest house on Alewive Brook Road in East Hampton, New York. The town had long served as an artist colony; Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner produced some of their best-known works there and it was a productive retreat for artists including Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning, Elaine’s husband. The house is a classic example of mid-century architecture—polygonal, glass-window plated, retro-futuristic—set in a woodsy area. The nearby town boasts both quaint, peeling little general stores and a Lilly Pulitzer outpost. “There’s nothing that compares to the light here, because there’s water on both sides,” said Chris Byrne, owner and cofounder of the Dallas Art Fair, who bought the Elaine de Kooning house in 2010. “I think that’s why the postwar artists came out here—the migration mirrored the big move from cities to suburbs.”

Byrne liberally gives the house over to artists as a more or less permanent residency with a rotating cast. Instead of offering a stipend, he offers a large studio with its own entrance, two hours from New York City, and the auspicious memory of Elaine de Kooning, who died in 1989 at the age of 70. After her death, the house passed to the sculptor John Chamberlain, and then to the painter Richmond Burton. Byrne bought it for fear that someone else would buy it and “rip everything out to install a pool.” During my day-long visit, Byrne reminded me at least a few times that nothing has been altered since he bought the house, once saying, “It would be sacrilegious to change anything.”

“I didn’t really have a sense of what to do when I first got [the house],” he said. “I ran into my smart friend José Lerma and he said he was getting ready for his first museum show. His space is in Williamsburg and he was having a hard time because he wanted to do large-scale paintings and his studio was so small. I was like, ‘Oh, I have this studio, why don’t you use it?’ He was out here for nine months, on and off. He was kind of a guinea pig for this.”

Since then, Lizzi Bougatsos, Joe Bradley, Chris Duncan, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, Kim “Mudman” Jones, Laura and Rachel Lancaster, Sadie Laska, Liz Markus, Scott and Tyson Reeder, and Michael Williams have added to what has become a formidable alumni list. Byrne commissioned the Hamptons-based photographer Walter Weissman, who once took a photo of Elaine herself, to take a picture of each artist in residence, which Byrne laid out on a table for me like a horizontal hall of fame.

Byrne travels between Dallas, New York City, and the Hamptons, but his girlfriend, Australian-born artist Amy Pilkington, lives in the Elaine de Kooning house year-round. It can get crowded. Byrne said when Freeman and Lowe were staying at the house, there were “14 people in every room.”

Byrne excused himself to go to the bathroom (“He’s going to go smoke a cigar,” Pilkington whispered) and I asked her what it was like to live with a changing group of roommates.

José Lerma was the first artist in residence at the Elaine de Kooning house, since Chris Byrne bought the property.WALTER WEISSMAN/COURTESY CHRIS BYRNE

José Lerma was the first artist in residence at the Elaine de Kooning house, since Chris Byrne bought the property.WALTER WEISSMAN/COURTESY CHRIS BYRNE

[Laura and Rachel Lancaster’s] gallerist actually asked me, ‘Are they normal?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, they’re normal!’ ” Pilkington laughed, lighting a cigarette. We were sitting outside on the curb of the gravel driveway. “It was snowing the whole time they were here, back in February and March, and we would always have tea time in the afternoon and [I would] make them a martini at six in the evening, when I could tell they needed a break. It was nice, and very familial. I’d come up and have my robe on and I’d be making coffee and my hair would be insane and I didn’t care. But some of the other artists have not been—well, they’re more in their own world, which is totally fine. I mean, they’re here to make art, not to talk to me.”

The living room is fairly bare, with only a few works of art, a coffee-table book (on Willem de Kooning), a postmodern edition of Camus’s The Stranger (retold in a cryptic series of dots), and a guest book near the front door, next to a small blank chalkboard and a glass cup of chalk. The kitchen, which features a shiny, black cast-iron stove (from Elaine’s time), is the most densely populated area, stocked with wine, cheese, nuts, fruit—nothing very substantial. A rather severe-looking self-portrait of Elaine hangs on a wall nearby. “Her eyes follow you,” Byrne warned me. One of Chris Duncan’s sun-bleached black sheets—the most recent fruit of this residency—hangs in the foyer. Due to the house’s low-ceilinged sparseness, a normal walk through the interior gives one the feeling of zooming forward.

Lisa de Kooning, Willem’s daughter by the illustrator Joan Ward, once referred to a cupboard her father built in the ceiling of her East Hampton childhood home as “the door that leads to nowhere.” That was a different house, but the same sort of subtle M. C. Escher quality is present in Elaine de Kooning’s home—the result of many different owners and their respective imprints. “I know the house now,” Byrne remarked, “but even after I bought it, I would think ‘Where am I again?’ ”

The architecture that made perfect sense as Byrne led me from one room to the other became difficult to visualize as a conventional whole later on, in a way not unlike Elaine de Kooning’s paintings, where specific features are defined by expression. Pilkington recalled a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where video interviews of Elaine were on display: “She was like, ‘I was always happy with that line or that form,’ talking about a jacket and a shirt. She would always fall in love with parts of it. She would look at her old drawings and say, ‘There’s enough information here that I can make a painting from it.’ ”

The studio, a large, light, slanting room with a concrete floor, flows seamlessly into the main house but has its own separate entrance. Toward the end of the room the floor drops off to reveal a basement area below, where Elaine’s assistants could transfer the art to and from storage. Nearby, a staircase leads to the artist’s bedroom upstairs, a simple, Amish-looking room with a bathroom equipped with a Jacuzzi and a nice big window. “It’s much lower-key, right?” Byrne said. “When people think of East Hampton, they think of the Kardashians or something. But if you go to the Pollock/Krasner house, for example, it’s super modest as well—I think their whole generation was kind of like that.”

ALL PHOTOS: KATHERINE MCMAHON

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 34 under the title “House Party.”

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