By Michelle Trauring
At age 82, Hans Van de Bovenkamp has a twinkle in his eye. Shades of gray tease at the sides of his full, shaggy hair, but it holds its color. His sense of adventure is sharp, his laughter contagious, his creative mind vibrant.
Even still, “Now, I’m the old guy,” the sculptor said with a laugh from his longtime home and studio in Sagaponack.
He is referring to the once abundant cohort of abstract expressionists who established the East End as an art center in the mid-20th century. Despite their 20- to 30-year age gap, they were his friends — Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Conrad Marca-Rellito, to name a few — and an artistic home far from his native Holland.
Through his own property, he keeps their legacy alive — its 7½ acres dotted with 50 of his large pieces in what has become known as the Sagaponack Sculpture Farm, the last of nine stops along “A Hamptons Sculpture Tour,” presented by Louis K. Meisel Gallery through Labor Day 2021.
The socially distanced driving exhibition features over a dozen outdoor bronze and stainless steel sculptures on public view, as they were originally intended, in front of residences and businesses from Water Mill to Bridgehampton to Sagaponack.
“Hans is a true abstract sculptor and he’s using the materials that last. It’s forever,” explained Meisel, who owns some of the commercial buildings where the artist’s sculptures have been placed. “It’s beautiful, it reflects the sunlight, and the bronze has a real classic look. They just look beautiful along the highway. The ones that are in front of my buildings are just gonna be there forever.”
Internationally known as an artist-mystic who heightens fantasy, imagination and discovery through his work, Van de Bovenkamp took just one sculpture course while studying architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Upon graduation in 1961, he packed up his belongings into an old Buick and drove straight to New York.
“I was gonna stay with people, but the first night when I came, I said, ‘Well I want to enter New York in the daylight,’” he said. “So I parked my car on 72nd Street and Riverside Drive, and I slept in the car and I listened to the sounds of New York at night and in the morning.”
The young sculptor immersed himself in the avant-garde 10th Street Scene while living in his first studio, conveniently located on 10th Street and Avenue C in Alphabet City.
“I was able to get a loft for $75, but I had to chase the pigeons out and lock up the windows,” he said. “I had a potbelly stove and I got from my neighbor, who I knew, an extension cord that came out of his window, hung it from the building, and then into my window, so that was my basic beginning.”
In time, Van de Bovenkamp would upgrade, first moving 12 blocks over to a street-entrance studio in Greenwich Village, and then again to a former primary school building, where he founded “New York’s 10 Downtown Project” and first crossed paths with Meisel.
“There were 10 artists and they opened their studios to the public for three weekends, and Hans was one of the organizers,” Meisel said. “I went around on this tour and I met him. And the deal was that each year, the 10 would each choose an artist to be the next year’s ‘10 Downtown,’ and so on and so forth.”
The annual event snared media attention, splashing the group across a 10-page spread in ARTNews and twice in the New York Times, though one review by art critic John Canaday was not favorable.
“He saw a faceless clock in my studio and a barber chair, and those are the two things he noticed, and he said, ‘Van de Bovenkamp is not really an artist. He has a faceless clock and a barber chair in his studio,’” he said. “And once again, I was mentioned. In advertising and articles, whether you get panned or you get praised, people read it and they say, ‘Well, if the guy is that bad, let’s go check it out.’ He basically helped me out, this art critic. That’s the only bad article I’ve ever had in my life, and it helped my success.”
After achieving considerable prominence — he developed sculptural ideas for the windows of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue and more than 5,000 limited edition fountains worldwide — Van de Bovenkamp moved to a farm in upstate New York, splitting his time between there, the city and the East End artists scene as he ventured into powerful, large-scale sculpture inspired by mythology, symbolism and nature.
“I had a friend who had the hugest scrap yard, and he would call me up and say, ‘Hans, I’ve got some beautiful metal for you,’” he said. “So I would race over there with some helpers and we picked up the metal. I said, ‘I have no money,’ so he said, ‘Oh okay, don’t worry about it. I’ll write it in my book. One of these days, I’ll come and get a sculpture.’”
For 20 years, Van de Bovenkamp built up his inventory there, earning a reputation for designing, fabricating and installing over 100 unique commissioned sculptures — some soaring up to 40 feet high — in collaboration with architects, cities, museums and private collectors, which include the Estate of Nelson Rockefeller in New York, the State Capital Plaza in Lansing, Michigan, City Hall in Voorhees, New Jersey, and the Jing’an Sculpture Park in Shanghai, China.
“I go from rags to riches three times a year,” he said. “Then I have no money and nobody’s buying my work, and I’m just making work anyway. It’s not dependent on whether I sell or not, I just make work. Every morning we start and we produce.”
The Sagaponack farm, its horses and chickens and wide-open spaces, its sprawling studio with huge glass doors that open to accommodate a crane, is the beating heart of Van de Bovenkamp’s present-day artistic journey. “Now, instead of a potbelly stove, which I had 60 years ago, I have a little light switch to turn on the heating system,” he said. “So life has become very glamorous.”
Here, he has explored his relationship with what he calls “transformative portals,” a reoccurring theme in his work that references Greek mythology and Eastern teachings. They beckon to be passed through, the artist explained.
“When you stand in front of a portal, you are who you are right now, with your present consciousness,” he said. “Symbolically, when you walk through the portal, you break that plane of the sculpture, and the other side, symbolically, you are in the spiritual world. So the portal is about transformation.”
A portal is the key piece in a recent commission titled, “58 Fallen Angels,” a memorial for the victims of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre that marks the largest project of Van de Bovenkamp’s career. The sheer scale of the endeavor, and the mysteriousness of the desert, inspired he and his partner, Denise Moore, to have a home there, too, which has provided them access to the vast parklands in Nevada and Utah.
“We go to Bryce Canyon and you see these columns with these big blocks on top, and you squint your eyes and it looks like you see ancient cities,” he said. “We go to parks where there’s nobody, and we walk the whole day and we climb in crevices. It is just like it was thousands of years ago.”
But Van de Bovenkamp hasn’t visited Las Vegas, or Moore, in seven months, after COVID-19 grounded the project and stress-free travel for the foreseeable future.
“There are disappointments, but you know, you’re on this journey and you have rainy days, you have sunny days, you have windy days, and you just keep traveling in your creative vision,” he said. “And that is what’s so wonderful. Even now, I have this farm here, I have sculptures sitting all around and I see them every day. And I can see the light moving around and I can see the sculpture change with the light or in the rain.”
He sighed deeply to himself.
“I was brought up very religious, but I’m more of a humanist,” he continued. “A humanist is a person who feels spirit and things in nature. I feel it in the trees, in the sound of the frogs at night, the wild turkeys that walk around here, the deer, the winds, the sun, the light. All of these things are magic and that keeps on going.”