Guild Hall Ends its 90th Anniversary Celebration with Highlight from the Permanent Collection

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Henri Cartier-Bresson “East Hampton,” 1968. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the artist. Courtesy Guild Hall.

Way back in 1931, when East Hampton’s Guild Hall first opened its doors as cultural center, among the works on view in the gallery was a portrait of artist Thomas Moran by American painter Howard Russell Butler. What made the painting particularly interesting was the fact that it was not in East Hampton on loan from some other institution or collector, but rather was a piece that actually belonged to Guild Hall.

At the time, in the midst of the depression, it was somewhat unusual to find a small, regional community cultural center that owned the artwork it showed. But for Guild Hall, the idea of building and fostering a permanent collection has only grown in the nine decades since its founding.

As Guild Hall’s 90th anniversary year celebration comes to an end, this week, the museum opens an exhibition highlighting some of the 2,500 pieces of art now contained in that collection — works that span more than a century and were created by the area’s most renowned and prolific artists — both past and present.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) “Untitled,” 1951. Photo by Gary Mamay. Courtesy Guild Hall.

Christina Mossaides Strassfield, Guild Hall’s longtime museum director and chief curator, assembled “90 Years: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” and in designing the show, she explained that she used Guild Hall’s Landau Traveling Exhibition “An Adventure in the Arts” as the jumping off point.

“Our Landau Traveling Exhibition, which started in the early ’80s as an exhibition at UBS in the city, has been traveling on and off all these years,” Strassfield said during a recent interview at Guild Hall. “There are 72 pieces in the exhibit and Jeffrey Landau, who runs it, takes it all over the United States and museums from all over the country have responded — Florida, Colorado, California. I often get letters from people saying ‘I didn’t realize you had an art colony.’

“It’s a wonderful response. Galleries are always blown away,” she added. “They think of this area as only having abstract expressionism, they don’t realize the surrealists, pop artists, the hard-edged painters and neo expressionist artists were here, too.”

In designing this 90th exhibition, Stassfield knew she had to narrow the field down from the thousands of works that were available to choose from in the permanent collection. Ultimately, she curated a show with 90 pieces of art — one for each year of Guild Hall’s existence. The work on view includes painting, sculpture and photography and it highlights the full expansive history of the East End’s artistic community. One of the oldest pieces on view is Thomas Moran’s 1878 oil painting “Approaching Storm, East Hampton,” while the newest is “The Worst of Times Are Best for Us,” a watercolor created earlier this year by Judith Hudson.

Roy Lichtenstein “Brushstroke Still Life with Coffee Pot,” 1997. 23 color screenprint on honeycomb-core aluminum panel. Gift of Dorothy Lichtenstein. Courtesy Guild Hall.

“It’s been wonderful. When we put the show together we wanted to highlight important pieces from the collection,” Strassfield explained. “I thought, let me use [the traveling exhibition] as the core. I took some things out and added some more contemporary things and switched the Pollock screenprint for our drawing. I also put in our Krasner piece, which is a fragile piece.

“I really wanted it to encompass the whole time period, up until the most recent,” she added. “We were just able to get the Judy Hudson piece, and Ross Bleckner just donated an Eric Freeman piece. It will be very present as well, and I wanted it to have that consistency.

Are there a lot of things left out? Yeah, because we can only show 90 pieces. There are so many more artists we would love to show, but we’ll be closing for a year and when we reopen will have another chance to show work from the permanent collection and perhaps recent acquisitions.

“But I really wanted to give everyone the flavor of all the different art movements that have been here and important artists who have made contributions.”

While the exhibition includes works by the biggest artistic names on the East End that you’d expect — including John Chamberlain, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Willem de Kooning, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, Andy Warhol and Jane Wilson — also represented in the show are works by artists whose names may be less well-known on the international stage, but who, nonetheless, have had a profound impact on the area’s art scene.

“Paton Miller is a really strong artist, and is an important community artist who is very supportive and does shows where he includes a lot of artists,” Strassfield said. “I felt including an artist like that in this show was really important.”

Gaines Ruger Donoho “Woodhouse Water Garden,” 1911. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse. Courtesy Guild Hall.

When looking back at the long history of the East End as a center for artistic movements, Strassfield points to the Tile Club as an early group that put the area on the map. Their work represents some of the earliest pieces in the exhibition and the art they created dates back to the days when the Long Island Rail Road first came out from New York City and was designed to promote the East End as a destination.

“The Tile Club was known as the American Barbizon, all these artists would come out and sketch and go back into the city and paint on tiles and make it really decorative,” said Strassfield. “Thomas Moran came out here and said this is the area for artists to come to and he created the first artist studio for himself and his family.”

Other early artists include American impressionists Childe Hassam and George Bellows, and landscape painter Gaines Ruger Donohoe, whose 1911 painting “Woodhouse Water Garden” is one of Stansfield’s favorite pieces in the collection. She also points to “Town Pond,” a 1920s painting by Arthur Turnbull Hill, as one that features a view of East Hampton that residents today would easily recognize.

“This community has really stayed true to itself,” she said. “There are many atmospheric pieces that capture the feel and beauty of the area.”

In the years that followed the pioneering artists, more came to the East End, including surrealists like Max Ernst, and the long list of abstract expressionists, including Pollock and de Kooning, followed by the pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein and then others like Rauschenberg, Motherwell, and the neo expressionists.

Even famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was out here for a time — his 1968 photo of a car driving past East Hampton’s burying ground is in the show, along with images by photographers like Hans Namuth and Rudy Burkhardt. Also represented are works by photorealists like Chuck Close and Audrey Flack, and work by contemporary artists like David Salle, Eric Fischl, Keith Sonnier, Cindy Sherman, Miriam Schapiro and Larry Rivers.

“There are also artists who don’t fit the mold, like Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas. Her sculptures are so amazing. There’s a lifetime’s body of work with that woman,” said Strassfield. “We also have Frank Wimberly, who has worked for years, and at 90 is getting recognition.

Darius Yektai “Cut, Sculpted, Sewn, Restretched,” 2002. Oil and twine on linen. Gift of the artist. Courtesy Guild Hall.

“In terms of younger artists, we have Darius Yektai. He had gone through a messy divorce, and it was painful for him. The piece he shows is of two figures cut in half and sewn back together,” said Strassfield. “It’s raw emotion and it reminds me of the German expressionists. There’s such angst and emotion and it was right on the surface. He hit the nail on the head with this piece.”

“We have very exciting pieces that tell unique stories.”

Strassfield notes that the key to Guild Hall’s success as a world-class exhibition venue came in the early 1970s when it was accredited as a museum through the American Alliance of Museums.

“Once we had that status, the level of the way you proceed with your work has to have more thought and planning,” Strassfield said. “I think artists then came to us because they saw the professionalism and wanted to show in that environment. Even our member’s show, people are surprised it’s non-juried, because of the layout and lighting and it really has been treated in the most professional manner possible.

“I think the artists have always responded as a result,” she added. “Artists want to have a show with us because of the more personal connection. We are their community museum, and they’re content, happy and honored to be here.”

By way of example, Strassfield points to artist Robert Longo, who was scheduled to have a solo show at Guild Hall in summer 2020, but gave up his exhibition slot in order to allow the museum to host “All For The Hall,” a fundraising art auction that helped sustain the organization in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He was thrilled to be such an integral part of the community,” said Strassfield, who notes that though Longo did have his exhibition this year at Guild Hall, there were no assurances at the time that would be possible. “That shows that community connection to Guild Hall and that support of Guild Hall on every level.”

“90 Years: Selections From The Permanent Collection,” along with a concurrent exhibition featuring the work of Jeff Muhs, winner of the 2018 artist members exhibition, will be the last pair of shows in the museum’s galleries for more than a year. After both exhibitions close on January 2, 2022, all of Guild Hall will shut down for a year of renovations.

But that doesn’t mean Stassfield will be sitting idle.

“It will give me time to do heavy duty research on the permanent collection,” she said. “I’ll have a year to focus on that and think about shows going forward — we usually plan three or four years in advance, so you can apply for grants and loans.

“We’re excited by that opportunity and to have a little bit of break that will allow us to refocus.”

“90 Years: Selections From The Permanent Collection” opens Saturday, October 30, with a Meet the Artists reception from 3-5 p.m. The show runs through January 2, 2022, and on Sunday, December 5, at 3 p.m., Christina Mossaides Strassfield leads a gallery tour of the exhibition.

Running concurrently will be “Jeff Muhs: The Uncanny Valley.” Other upcoming events include a gallery tour with Jeff Muhs on Friday, November 5, at 3 p.m. and on Saturday, December 11, at 3 p.m., a conversation between Muhs and Strassfield.

Guild Hall is at 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Gallery hours are Friday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Visit guildhall.org for more information.

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