On a Tuesday evening last month, just before Thanksgiving, artist Ted Hartley was at a dinner to celebrate his recently exhibition of new paintings at Keyes Gallery in Sag Harbor, New York. As the dozen oysters he’d ordered were laid out in front of him, he was prompted to explain the inspiration for his latest body of work.
“It’s about walls,” Hartley said. “When you run into a wall you either have to get over it, go under it, get around it, or break it down. Life is about dealing with walls. It’s about not letting fear get the better of you” he said. After a moment to himself, he picked an oyster, swallowed it down, and placed its shell upside down on the tray of crushed ice.
Apart from its zip code, an exhibition opening in Sag Harbor is not unlike one at a smaller gallery in Tribeca or Chelsea, or any in Brooklyn. The main difference, however, is the complete lack of pretense or cynicism, noticeable upon entering the gallery.
The atmosphere was quite nonchalant for one of the chicest enclaves on Long Island, and by proxy in all of New York State. About 20 people filled the room, for a night full of conversation, appreciation, and very good wine served out of thin plastic flutes.
On view in the exhibition, which runs until December 5, was Hartley’s “Ukraine Series,” a collection of three punchy abstract works in blue, red, black, and yellow that bring together the influences of Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.
“Paintings have to start with an impulse, with something that lets you play around with it,” Hartley said. “Like trying to eat a new kind of a noodle. How do you want to go about this? And then you build around that feeling. You build layer upon layer upon layer.”
The exhibition’s grand dame was Kyiv: Pro Patria, in which slivers of red, yellow, and blue race toward the center of the painting and collide, bouncing off each other, before fragmenting and becoming wisps. The colors at first seem divided, the top of the picture consists mainly of shades of red while the lower half is primarily blue and yellow. But with a closer look, the yellow and blue are creeping upwards. They are gaining ground.
Another look at the title and the analogy is clear. The painting is an abstraction of the Battle of Kyiv, which began in late February 2022 when Russian forces attack Kyiv’s Hostomel airport as part of the country’s invasion of Ukraine; it ended on March 29 when a Ukrainian counter-offensive that forced a Russian withdrawal. In Hartley’s view, the Ukrainians saw their wall, then they broke through it.
Kyiv: Pro Patria sold for $50,000 with the proceeds for to the Red Cross in Ukraine and two smaller civilian charities. Proceeds for the similarly priced other two works from the series, Red Flight from Izium and Retreat from Snake Island, are earmarked for the Olena Zelenska Foundation, a charity formed by the First Lady of Ukraine.
In his own life, Hartley, too, has seen his share of walls. When he arrived at the gallery, he was on forearm crutches, the result of a recent surgery, meant “to repair some old flying wounds.” That’s Hartley’s way of describing the end of his career as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, during which time he was a fighter pilot, a congressional liaison for the Pentagon, and a White House aide during both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
“I have a lot of respect for them in Ukraine, I’m so behind them,” Hartley said. “If it were 30 or 40 years ago, I’d be over there in an airplane fighting with them.” In 1964, an accident while landing his F9F-8 fighter jet on aircraft carrier in heavy rain left him with a broken back.
Forced into disability retirement, Hartley chose to go to Harvard Business School after a period of recuperation that lead him first to a second career in investment banking and then, after a chance meeting in Los Angeles, a third one in Hollywood. He started out in the ’60s as a regular on the soap opera, Payton Place, landed film roles alongside Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood, and in the ’70s starred in the police drama Chopper One. In 1989, with his wife, actress and philanthropist Dina Merill, he secured a controlling interest in RKO Pictures, a staple studio in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The painting came later in life. In the late aughts, Merrill became ill, and to keep her spirits up, Hartley began hosting painting classes for her and her friends twice a week in their East Hampton home. After she passed, in 2017, Hartley continued to paint, and had his first solo show was at Keyes in 2019.
“He has the hand of a much younger man,” French author and textile wizard Olivier Nourry told me during the opening. Nourry moved close to a canvas depicting lush green pines, one of the few works in the gallery that were not purely abstract. “This one, you see? There is life in these trees. Strength. You can almost smell the bark, no?”
Speaking of his late-in-life turn to art, Hartley said at the dinner, “It comes down to fear. Fear comes into every decision we make. What if I’m wrong? What if it doesn’t work this way? What if I am gonna look stupid? If we can give up that fear of failure, we can do better things.”
After taking a sip of his vodka Manhattan, he added, “But what do I know, I’m an optimist.”