By Michelle Trauring
Together, they were witty, modest, intellectual and gutsy. They loved a good joke and, even more, a good prank. They had the same diet, they shared a love for music they ran in the same circle of friends.
Their legs were even the same length—despite his towering a full head above hers.
But as individuals, they were extremely independent. Connie Fox is a painter. William King, who died last year, was a sculptor. Their work existed independently from one another, but to anyone who visited their East Hampton studios—or examined their complete bodies of work, as did art historian and biographer Gail Levin—it is clear they are intertwined.
“I have long been interested in artist couples, the personal side of things and how that affects the art that’s made,” explained Ms. Levin, who curated “Connie Fox and William King: An Artist Couple,” opening Sunday at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“I spoke to both of them about this show—Bill, of course, was still alive—and I think they were both a little skeptical about the idea,” she continued. “Bill hasn’t seen it come to fruition, but Connie has, and I think she’s rather pleased. The show is very much about them as an artist couple and their life in East Hampton—and it’s not just about the work of two artists. It links the work together in interesting ways.”
The couple’s points of commonality transcend their artwork. They were both born in 1925, moved in together when they were both 58, and were both previously married with children. It was their fiddle playing that initially brought them together—they started dating while performing in Audrey Flack’s bluegrass band, “The Art Attacks”—and it would be their mutual love, respect and support that would never tear them apart.
They lived and worked in harmony, exchanging ideas and sharing enthusiasms, simultaneously encouraging the other—both artistically and otherwise. Once, when Mr. King noticed his wife’s interest in meditation, he collected his copper scraps and built her a small, seated Buddha, according to the exhibition’s catalogue.
“I think it’s a very unusual show in the sense that it has many levels to perceive it,” Ms. Levin said. “You could go in and not read the labels and just enjoy the work for visual splendor, but there’s a lot of meaning and connection if you want to look for it.”
It starts before the pair even met, in their shared admiration of and appreciation for Marcel Duchamp—though it came out more in Mr. King’s work once he met Ms. Fox, Ms. Levin reported. The couple, much like Duchamp, enjoyed experimenting with guises and alter egos, whether it was depicting themselves as other people, things, even food—in Mr. King’s case, a BLT—or exploring opposite sides of their personalities.
Ms. Fox identified with a flower motif, as seen in “Self Portrait as a Flower” in 1955, which would continue in her later work. But for Mr. King, it often meant variations of his own long-limbed figure—“Self as Barbara Hepworth,” “Bill as Nefertiti” and “Petit Danseur de 72 Ans,” in which he appears as a ballerina, to name a few.
This androgyny also translated to his physical life, Ms. Levin said. Occasionally, they would participate in a little gender bending—usually for social occasions, and often for a laugh.
“How many people would dress up for a masquerade and change genders?” Ms. Levin said. “Connie went as the man, Bill went as the woman. They both loved jest. I have a snapshot of them in costume in the catalogue and the exhibition.”
Duchamp’s influence carries through to Mr. Fox’s recent works—a series of large paintings inspired by her favorite swimming spot, Sammy’s Beach, in East Hampton. A cursory look at each wouldn’t reveal recognizable elements of the bay beach, but a closer inspection would show a conceptual understanding of the water, the wind, the waves and the feel of the sand, Ms. Levin explained, and the impact this specific place had on the artist over a long period of time.
It was a place they frequented often, and an experience they sometimes shared with their friend Elaine de Kooning, who had a studio nearby. They would walk their dogs together on the beach, and later, Mr. King produced the small sculpture “Jolies Fleurs” in painted balsa wood, showing Ms. Fox and himself in their swimsuits at the beach. It was based on a photo of the couple on the beach, taken in the same span of time as another photo that includes Ms. de Kooning—implying that she could have been the one who framed and snapped the photo behind “Jolies Fleurs,” according to the catalogue.
In a sea of larger-than-life names and artistic reputations on the East End, it can be easy to get swept up in the mythos of it all, Ms. Levin said. But this exhibit brings the artistic community back down to earth, showing the locality of both Fox and King, their roots and the relationship between them, she said.
“I have two violinists by Bill—one called ‘Talent,” the other called ‘Debut.’ One is taller and skinnier than the other, but both have long legs, as Bill and Connie both did and do,” Ms. Levin said. “They’re going to be together playing with each other, playing violins in the corner together, representing Bill and Connie.”
“This isn’t just about an artist couple,” she added. “It’s about two artists’ lives.”
“Connie Fox and Bill King: An Artist Couple” will open with a talk by Gail Levin with Connie Fox on Sunday, October 23, at 2 p.m., followed by a reception at 3 p.m., at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The exhibition will remain on view through December 31. For more information, visit guildhall.org.