The opening of the Beecher Residency in Litchfield is final proof that Northwestern Connecticut has become the secret epicenter of the contemporary art world.
During the endless hullabaloo at the start of the pandemic in 2020 about how all galleries were now relocating to Long Island and Floridian shores, the happy collectors, curators, critics and above all artists of Litchfield County just blithely carried on swimming across Cream Hill Lake, never doubting that they were in “the great good place,” as author James Thurber, a longtime resident, called it.
Thurber was only one of the many earlier artists in this blessed corner of New England, not least such fellow illustrators as Marc Simont, Robert Andrew Parker, and Arthur Getz, the most prolific New Yorker cover artist ever. Getz spent his last decades in the notably lovely village of Sharon, as did Katharine Rhoades the feminist painter-poet.
There was also Clarence Meier, the Cornwall postmaster-muralist, William Robinson Leigh’s paintings of Kent Falls and historic landscape work by Ben Foster and Theodore van Soelen. More recently came the abstractions of Cleve Gray.
Perhaps the archetypal Litchfield artist was Gray’s father-in-law, the mighty Alexander Liberman. Liberman was famed and feared as the longtime editorial director of Conde Nast, as well as being a photographer of his many artist friends — including Alexander Calder in nearby Roxbury — and a creator of monumental sculpture.
It must be admitted that artists in this lucky part of the world, like Liberman, are often deliciously “mondain” — while of course always denying any such thing — and infinitely well connected to the worlds of fashion, film, or high finance. Another example might be heiress Charlotte Bronson Hunnewell, who built “The Castle” in Cornwall whilst also being a writer and patron, even creating her own pottery where she hired Vincenzo Rondinone as her resident artist
The Beecher Residency, which began in May, is located in the Stillman House, a compound designed by Marcel Breuer between 1950 and 1953. It now belongs to two top collectors, art advisor Ed Tang and John Auerbach (recently appointed CEO of art storage giant UOVO) who have generously carved this creative haven within their modernist masterpiece. The eponymous original owners, Rufus and Leslie Stillman, were highly involved in the contemporary art of their own era, not least inviting their friend and neighbor Calder to design the pool mural, which still exists.
The Beecher Residency offers an 8-week stay to an artist twice a year and is only rivaled by the ambitious proposed plans of this area’s most important living artist, Jasper Johns. Johns, who has long been based in Sharon, in the NW corner of this NW corner state, has proposed to establish an artists’ retreat that will serve some 18 to 24 artists at a time, like a new McDowell or Yaddo, all housed on his sprawling estate.
Johns has his own loyal local team of friends and supporters, most prominently Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney chief curator and senior deputy director who orchestrated that utterly exemplary recent Johns double-museum-retrospective. Johns and Rothkopf make up an ultimate power trio with the revered patron and collector Agnes Gund, whose 100-acre estate is strewn with glory.
Nearby are artist Julian Lethbridge and his longtime partner, the late Anne Bass, whose selective masterpiece sale at Christie’s in May brought in $363 million for works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Mark Rothko, among others. Aside from the eye-popping sales figures, the auction did gave some sense of her life as a collector, dance historian, and horticulturist.
Bass was also a generous friend to everyone’s favorite critics, Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz who may or may not have been seen up here parading the main drag in Kent holding anti-Trump signs. Close by in West Cornwall lived two favorite Saltz artists, the sculptor Carl D’Alvia and abstract painter Jackie Saccoccio who recently built their own bucolic house and joint studio. Tragically, Saccoccio died in December 2020 just as their new home was completed and her heartbreakingly premature funeral proved, despite its obvious solemnity, a veritable who’s-who of the whole Litchfield scene.
West Cornwall is also home to that painter, draughtsman, diarist, and underground film-star Duncan Hannah who like surprisingly many in these parts used to run in the Warhol world while maintaining an unshakeable Anglophilia.
Litchfield has no shortage of Brits, resembling as it does some altogether English idyll, whether the aforementioned Lethbridge, the occasional Jamie Nares, or that Welsh mountain man Millree Hughes hiding out above Salisbury. It also boasts Sir John Richardson who created an estate near New Milford, complete with a Schinkel-style library pavilion. Appropriately, this scandalously tasty property now belongs to the international collector Stavros Niarchos, owner of a rich Warhol trove amongst much else.
Those varied villages called ‘Cornwall’ may not look anything like their wild and stormy British namesake but they similarly shelter a veritable artist’s colony, from such leading lights as Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons to the impressive studios of Philip Taaffe. Here may also be found the likes of Greg Goldberg and his wife, Artnet News senior reporter Katya Kazakina, writer and collector Robert Becker, and star photographer Todd Eberle and Judith Belzer, who live on an adorable five-acre farm. Even ARTnews Editor-In-Chief Sarah Douglas can be found nearby.
Just slightly further afield is the modernist mansion of the late writer and Warhol acolyte Glenn O’Brien, still occupied by his widow, the fabled PR Gina Nanni, throbbing nexus of many an art world jamboree. And nearby is the mysterious “Yelping Hill,” a colony founded one hundred years ago by Ivy League academics, which shelters such varied luminaries as Elisabeth Cunnick, founder of A/D artist furniture design, and our No.1 post-conceptualist Seth Price.
In fact there are so many creative folks hiding out in them thar rolling hills that one feels perversely like listing them all just for the pleasure of completion; whether much loved kinetic sculptor Tom Prentice, painter and Shelley-expert Jeff Joyce, Gary Komarin in Roxbury or Nathan Kernan of the Resnick Foundation who maintains a gorgeous garden along with his partner, book-designer Thomas Whitridge. Photography is also well represented, whether by David Strettell of Dashwood Books or Gerald Incandela who has made his studio in a massive converted building at Torrington. That same town is host to the forthcoming Torrington Project where the conecptual artist Tom Burr has taken over an expansive former factory and arranged examples from all phases of his work in a fluid, ongoing process.
The storied Litchfield family of Van Doren boasts both John, the veteran dealer, and his brother Adam, an esteemed watercolorist who also directed a doc on that legendary old-time Thurber. The cinematic-painter Judith Eisler divides her time between Vienna and Warren, whilst for the sake of extreme contrast one might mention Emily Buchanan, who created the White House holiday card.
Surprisingly, there are few actual galleries here, other than a small cluster in Kent, most notably James Barron who exhibits his wife’s work, the well-known photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron, and mounted a seminal survey show “Cornwall Bohemia” back in 2015. There are also regular exhibitions mounted at the estimable local libraries, with a cachet unimaginable back in Manhattan.
“NW CT” has become a secret art power center thanks to its truly beautiful countryside, its relative proximity to New York and its tradition of weekending bohos, many of whom make the inevitable, enviable switch to full-time resident.
But perhaps part of the appeal of Litchfield is precisely its lack of galleries and museums, the abolition of any obligation to go look at art, allowing full concentration on your latest canvas instead, studio doors wide open to the rolling green majesty beyond.