Eye on Art: Montauk Highway III

Alfonso Ossorio, “Winter Colloquy,” 1950. Ink, wax and watercolor on illustration board, 16 x 21 inches.

For its third annual celebration of the artists who migrated to the South Fork in the years after World War II, the Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton has assembled a wide-ranging group of works, not all of which fit the bill. While many of the artists do have connections to the region, either as full-time or part-time residents, several do not. This not only dilutes the show’s premise, but also—like the spurious claim that Jackson Pollock played in the early artists’ and writers’ softball games—falsifies history.

Considering the wealth of talent with significant ties to the Hamptons, I wonder why it was necessary to insert artists who have little, if any, association with the area. Ernest Briggs visited Southampton at some point in his career, and his work was shown at East Hampton’s Signa Gallery in 1960, but he never lived or worked locally. Nor did Louise Nevelson, Seymour Lipton, Jack Tworkov, Corinne Michael West or Pat Passlof. Betty Parsons often traveled Montauk Highway to visit her artist friends out here, but her studio was in Southold, on the North Fork, where Theodoros Stamos was a neighbor.

Miriam Schapiro, “Mother and Child,” 1959. Oil on canvas, 59 ¼ x 49 ¼ inches.

Among those who really did drive on Route 27 to reach their studios, the sculptors Michael Lekakis, Philip Pavia, Costantino Nivola and Ibram Lassaw are represented by fine examples of their signature work. Lassaw’s “Ourania,” 1980, brilliantly illustrates his concept of open-space construction, using hammered and welded metal to create a symbolic homage to the muse of astronomy. Of three small but engaging pieces by Nivola, two were made using the sand-casting technique he pioneered on the beach near his studio in Springs. The third, an incised and painted cement panel, appears to depict a hawk, among other abstracted motifs perhaps inspired by the local environment.

Pavia’s “Battle Revisited,” an impressive marble carving from 1962, treats the mineral as if it were organic, curving and twisting on itself, seemingly engaged in an internal struggle. The artist’s reverence for the stone’s character did not prevent him from manipulating it to create such an ambiguous result. Lekakis, on the other hand, emphasizes the inherent nature of wood in “Spondilos,” yet likens it to the human spinal column by subtly incising it to suggest vertebrae.

There are also two sculptures and a major 1953 painting by Joseph Glasco, a protégé of Alfonso Ossorio, who spent time at The Creeks in the 1950s and returned to the South Fork some forty years later to visit Julian Schnabel in Montauk. Glasco’s canvas, “Marvello,” is typical of the highly stylized figural abstractions that earned him early recognition and inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1952 exhibition, “15 Americans,” which also featured Pollock, Rothko and Still. Ossorio’s “Winter Colloquy,” an ink, wax and watercolor on board, shows his masterful use of a resist technique to create layered effects, in which spectral figures occupy indefinite surroundings.

Costantino Nivola, Untitled, ca. 1956. Sandcasting with mosaic inlay, 24 x 11 x 2 ½ inches.

Outstanding paintings by Nicolas Carone, Perle Fine, Paul Brach, Miriam Schapiro, Charlotte Park and Kyle Morris represent these South Fork denizens well. In “Red + Purple,” Morris makes the colors dance across the canvas as if caught by an offshore breeze, while Fine’s aptly-titled “Blue-Chip Blue #1” animates a monochromatic field with a collage of acrobatic cut-out shapes. Park’s black and white 1956 abstraction uses textural variation and rhythmic structure to enliven the composition, a strategy taken to the extreme by Carone, whose heavily impastoed canvas writhes with surface tension. By contrast, in “Mother and Child,” Schapiro’s translucent paint application nearly dissolves the figures, which merge into a colorful, landscape-derived setting. There are also nature allusions in Brach’s untitled 1955 canvas, with its whorls of paint bunched like a floral bouquet.

Even the minor works by major figures like Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jimmy Ernst, Conrad Marca-Relli, Joan Mitchell and James Brooks fit nicely within the exhibition’s purview. And though it was painted decades before he came to the area, Peter Busa’s “Beauty and the Beast II,” an important example of his Indian Space imagery of the 1940s, is a justifiable inclusion. But let’s be clear: Montauk Highway doesn’t run all the way to Manhattan, and never did.