By Jennifer Henn
In the space between strict Abstract Expressionism, where shapes are born of emotion and imagination, and the familiar, if provocative, imagery of pop art, there existed Jack Youngerman’s work.
At least that’s how his archivist, Janet Goleas, sees it. And what a wonderful space it was, she said.
Goleas and others in the East End art world reflected on Youngerman’s evolution, his early influences and his body of work recently, in the days after his unexpected death on February 19, at the age of 93, from complications due to a fall. The well-known artist lived and worked in Bridgehampton for the last four decades of his life and locally, has had works on display at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill and both Guild Hall and Longhouse Reserve in East Hampton.
“Jack’s pieces were always abstract, but often referencing budding flowers or the wings of a bird or the way a shadow cut across a room,” Goleas said. “All these images became like symbols in his visual language and he returned to them over and over and over.
“I think his work stands out as one of the missing links in art history between Abstract Expressionism and pop art.”
Youngerman created art — paintings, sketches, reliefs and sculptures — consistently for more than 70 years. The longevity of his career is in stark contrast to the fact that he hadn’t even seen a piece of fine art until he was 19 years old, Goleas said.
“It was in Paris in the late ’40s and early ’50s that his life just blossomed. He made friends with some of the greatest artists of our time, traveled, married, had a son, and began exhibiting his work,” the archivist and art historian said. “It set his career, and his life, really, in motion.”
Born in Missouri, raised in Kentucky and later drafted by the U.S. Navy, Youngerman was introduced to fine art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1947, with the help of the GI Bill, a 21-year-old Youngerman made his way to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts until 1949.
He stayed in the City of Light another six years, during which time he forged important friendships with fellow artists including Ellsworth Kelly. He also married actress Delphine Seyrig, whose father was Henri Seyrig, an art connoisseur who would become the director of the Musées de France.
The couple had a son, Duncan.
Youngerman also traveled through Europe — discovering the works of Matisse and Picasso, among many others — and the Near and Middle East during that period. The exposure to such varied works of art and culture inspired him to turn his focus to a color saturated, shape-driven, and at times geometric aesthetic. That influence was obvious in his earliest work, and manifested itself in later phases of his career, according to Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish.
“His early screens were examples of work drawn from his travels in the Near East,” Longwell said.
Youngerman produced several series of screens on linen and wood in the 1970s, some of which were exhibited at the Parrish in 2005.
“What he saw then had a real influence on him,” she added.
Return to the U.S.
New York gallerist Betty Parsons is widely credited with convincing Youngerman to return to America in 1956 to participate in the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. The nexus of that movement was lower Manhattan, at Coenties Slip, where artists including Kelly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Agnes Martin had taken over vacant industrial space to create studios and lofts.
“They did what artists typically do, go to the worst neighborhoods where you can get the most space for the least amount of money and make art,” Goleas said. “Because at the time there was no art market for what they were doing. They had to work with what they could get their hands on.
“Sometimes they had to use house paint,” she said.
In 1959, Youngerman’s work was featured along with several of his contemporaries’ in the “Sixteen Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Collectively, the group came to be referred to as the New York School, but Youngerman’s style was unique in scale — smaller than Johns’ and Pollock’s, for example — and focused on shape and geometric elements, according to a biography on the Guggenheim Museum’s website.
Evolution and Experimentation
Youngerman did not relegate himself to painting. Throughout his career, he worked in sculpture as well, most often in wood and fiberglass.
“He was an artist who took abstraction in all its forms and used many types of media to express himself, all with such wonderfully organic shapes,” said Christina Mossaides Strassfield, museum director and chief curator at Guild Hall. “He was an artist who gained a lot of recognition early on, but he worked and kept moving in new directions throughout his life.”
In the 1970s, Youngerman was carving wood sculptures by hand.
“Pieces like columns, wood fashioned and twisted, that seemed to grow out of the ground in natural formation,” Strassfield recalled. “They are wonderfully organic.”
Next, the artist began experimenting with a less natural medium — cast fiberglass — to create freestanding sculpture. Several of those works were showcased at the Longhouse Reserve in East Hampton in 2013. The sizable pieces, in black and white, have an imposing presence, but give the effect of wispy movement.
“He became interested in these flowing forms and began to create sculptures that … well, they looked a little like taking a napkin and pinching it,” Goleas said. “They are huge and heavy, but look like you could blow them away.”
Later, Youngerman turned his attention to creating dynamic painted wood reliefs in his Bridgehampton studio. He gifted one to Guild Hall in 2006 for the museum’s 75th anniversary. The electric blue piece is not a recognizable shape, per se, but as is the case with most Youngerman work, individual perspective can find familiarity in it.
“To me, I almost see a seahorse in it, but I know Jack wasn’t interested in specific representation and I’m sure he had no intention to depict any one thing,” Strassfield said. “It’s biomorphic and the carved elements give a depth and shadow that makes it come alive.”
Youngerman’s “Conflux 2,” an oil on carved Baltic birch plywood relief done in 2003, is on permanent display at the Parrish.
“It’s a prime example of Jack continuing to explore the fertile territory between painting and sculpture, the ambient idea of painting into sculpture and form for form’s sake,” Longwell said. “Objects didn’t interest him, although one often sees things in his work … Shapes and the universal idea of the possibilities of shapes were his world.”
Recognition Near and Far
Among his many solo shows, Youngerman saw his work celebrated in a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1986. He also received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1976 and a National Endowment for the Arts Award in 1984.
Locally, he had solo shows at the Parrish twice, in 1976 and 2004 and received Guild Hall’s Academy of the Arts lifetime achievement award in 2003.
“He was highly respected in the community at large, not only the arts community,” Guild Hall’s curator noted. “He lived and worked here and I think his environment influenced some of his later work.”
Youngerman’s archivist, an artist herself, agreed.
“Bridgehampton was so idyllic for him, especially at the time he first came here, when there really weren’t that many other houses around and there was so much open space,” Goleas said. “To me, I think that environment informed a lot of his later sculptures.”
Youngerman became a full-time resident of Bridgehampton in 1995. The artist’s last show was held at The Drawing Room, a small gallery in East Hampton, last year.
The Artist as a Man
One of the most remarkable things about Youngerman in his later years, according to his archivist, was his willingness to engage with other artists, and his work ethic.
“Jack was always possessed of such humility and elegance … and he was so articulate and full of stories to tell,” Goleas said. “In fact, in order for him to work he needed complete solitude. If I was on the property working on cataloging or condition reports, nowhere near his actual studio, he would be so distracted wondering if I needed anything or if he should be helping me or checking on me that he could not work.”
And work he did, Goleas said. The artist was creating new work until just a few weeks before his death.
“I began working for him 13 years ago and I only saw him sick once,” she said. “Most days he was in his studio by 5:45 or 6:45 a.m. every day.”
Though Youngerman’s first marriage ended in divorce, he met and married his second wife, East End artist Hilary Helfant, and together they had a son, Milo Daniel, in 1990.
Youngerman’s influence and contribution to American art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, has been the subject of many essays and articles in fine arts magazines though the years.
Checkerboard Film Foundation, a non-profit based in New York City that produces films and videos about “those making unique and important contributions to the American arts,” is reportedly working on a film about him, according to its website.
None of the attention comes as a surprise to those interviewed who knew and appreciated Youngerman’s work.
“His work, throughout his career, has a pretty extraordinary symmetry, beginning to end … possessing a core that good artists can occupy for a lifetime if they take it to heart, so to speak,” Longwell said. “Jack certainly did.”