When he was 10 years old in 1948, Rocco Liccardi — like others in his family — would tease his father about buying a piece of land in the Wickatuck hills near Noyac Bay and his decision to build a house there.
But the family did it, coming out to Long Beach Lane for days at a time, camping out in old Army tents on the property while Rocco’s father put the house together.
“There was a lumber yard at the corner of Brick Kiln Road,” he remembered in a recent interview. “Cement blocks were 25-cents each, which we needed, so every week we’d go down and buy a few. I remember helping to mix cement.”
It was Liccardi’s introduction to the East End and Sag Harbor, a simpler time and a place that he left occasionally, but to which he always returned. The artist, gallery owner and raconteur, who, as of this year, has had a shop on the village’s Main Street for six decades, will be the focus of an exhibit at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum that highlights pieces of his own work, and includes many pieces from other well-known local artists in his collection. And each comes with a recollection from those simpler times and of the artists themselves, all of whom Liccardi was friendly with.
When Liccardi graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1961, he decided he needed to set up a studio and a gallery where he could sell his art.
“In those days, there were no galleries in Sag Harbor,” said Liccardi. “Nobody here really cared. All the action was in East Hampton.”
“In East Hampton when I was there it was a mob scene,” he recalled. “Lee Krasner, Ossorio, de Kooning, they’d all party there on Friday nights. It was a lot of fun.”
Nevertheless, he found a small space in what is known as the Latham House on the east side of Main Street in Sag Harbor for $75 a month.
“My father was worried about me for the first time in my life,” Liccardi recalled. “He said, ‘Oh Rocco, you’re never going to sell any of your paintings, how are you going to afford the rent.’”
Liccardi proved his father wrong, to a degree. He did sell some paintings and managed to bump along at his gallery; but he finally conceded that the gallery was not a success, and soon turned to selling antiques to earn money.
After three years, Liccardi was wooed across the street by Arthur Spitz, the man who owned the building at the south end of Main Street on the west side, where Liccardi moved his studio and the business that was supporting him, Black Afghan Antiques, for a bargain $20 a month. It is from this perch that Liccardi has observed the comings and goings in Sag Harbor for nearly 60 years.
The early years were fairly desperate, and there was little foot traffic for many of the village’s shops.
“A few of us who owned shops got together and raised $300,” said Liccardi. The money was used to pay a Bridgehampton farmer for the use of a billboard on his property on Montauk Highway.
“As the artist, I was elected to paint the sign,” Liccardi laughed. “I painted a big sun, and something like ‘Come to Sag Harbor!’”
While there was not an art scene per se in Sag Harbor — “it was all rednecks,” said Liccardi, who added he doesn’t remember selling a single painting to a local person — there were quite a few artists who lived and worked here, or in the Sagaponack, Bridgehampton area, in whose spheres Liccardi traveled.
“Peter Blanc was here for many years,” said Liccardi of the painter and sculptor who achieved some renown in mid-century. “He had a house on the corner of Palmer Terrace and Jermain Avenue facing the cemetery.”
Without a gallery circuit, there was not a great social scene here for artists at the time, but Liccardi noted that Blanc would host a big summer party every year, “although I don’t remember ever going outside — everything seemed to be indoors.”
“And Elaine Haff had a little ice house that was converted into a home and studio where we’d buy ceramics,” he said.
And as Liccardi’s friendships with other artists grew, so did his collection of their work.
There was Syd Solomon, who split his time between East Hampton and Sarasota, Florida, where Liccardi also spent time. In the show will be a large painting by the abstract artist that Liccardi says features “interesting movement, interesting colors,” and notes that it’s big: “Who has a 6-foot Syd Solomon?” Liccardi says with a laugh.
There was Jimmy Ernst who, while Jimmy and Dallas Ernst and Liccardi were in Haiti at the same time, did a collage that will be included in the show.
Liccardi was having an exhibit at the American Embassy at the time, the artist recalled.
“I remember Betty Friedan, Ibram Lassaw and Sheila Isham being there,” he said. “The local newspaper had a picture of me with a hat that I brought from Thailand. Jimmy Ernst was also staying there at the time.
“He did a painting of a mermaid,” recalls Liccardi, “and put the photograph of my head on it with a straw hat and beard.”
Liccardi remembers meeting Jimmy Ernst — son of famed surrealist Max Ernst — in the early ’60s when the couple had a home in the estate section of East Hampton.
“They always had great dinner parties and I met all sorts of people, including Big and Little Edie Beale.”
Later, the Ernsts bought a house in North Haven.
There was Esteban Vicente, the Spanish-born painter who was part of the first generation of abstract expressionists in the Hamptons. When Liccardi was a young man, he worked for a while as a gardener for the artist.
“The painting in the show was a gift from him to me,” said Liccardi. “My brother Carlo would remove waste for them. I told him, ‘If you ever find any art in one of the dumpsters keep it, it’s very valuable.’”
And there was Francesco Bologna, the painter from East Hampton.
“We knew each other and became friends over the years, and one day he asked me to model for him at one of his portrait classes and he gave me the painting later — but he didn’t sign it because he said I didn’t pay for it.
“You know, life is funny how it comes back to you. When he got Alzheimer’s, his children would take him to East Hampton, put him on Main Street on one of the benches so that he could talk to people that went by. I just happened to be there, and there’s Frank sitting on the bench.
“I said, ‘Frank, it’s Rocco. Do you remember me?’ ‘Oh, Rocco sit down. Blah, blah, blah …’ I said, ‘Frank, you know, I still have some energy. I want to pick you up at your house, and I’m going to take you to my house for lunch.’ A thousand years ago I did that, and he said, ‘This is the best lunch I ever had.’ I said, ‘Well, we could do it again. I’ll pick you up. You could spend a couple of hours with me. We’ll talk about the old times and all that stuff.’ Know what he said to me? ‘I know why you want me to come. You want me to sign the painting.’
“Can you imagine? This is maybe 40 years later. That’s not even Italian. That’s Sicilian.”
The artist Alfonso Ossorio would frequently send his partner, Ted Dragon, to pick through Liccardi’s shop.
“In those days, everyone went to the dump to find stuff,” said Liccardi.
Dragon would show up in a big truck with an eagle on the hood, Liccardi remembered.
“He’d buy anything that was broken,” he laughed. “You know he made all those assemblages with broken pieces.”
In the years Liccardi has been on Main Street, he’s seen his share of celebrities and notable people come through his doors. In the ’60s, singer John Sebastian and members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, all who lived in North Haven for a while, would stop by.
“John Steinbeck would stop in on his way down to the Black Buoy,” he remembered. Liccardi said the author would occasionally sign copies of his books for him, and he would then sell them for $20 each.
In more recent times, he remembers Tommy Mottola, the then CEO and chairman of SONY Music and married to singer Mariah Carrey, coming in to buy some iron garden furniture for his house in North Haven. The executive picked out so much he sent out a truck the following day to pick it up.
Simpler times, maybe, but each week shop owners had to be creative in what they were able to sell, and in many ways the coming of celebrities indicated a change in fortunes for the sleepy little village Liccardi first came to in the late 1940s.
He remembers how the shop owners on Main Street would get together and talk about business and what notable they may have seen in town.
“We would go down to Anthony’s Restaurant and we’d all bring a bottle of wine and talk about who we had seen,” he said.
Once, they were all excited to hear that Barbra Streisand was in town, “and we all talked about whose shops she had been in and if she bought anything,” said Liccardi.
Not long after, Liccardi remembers looking in on Ned Parkhouse, a music seller who was nearly blind and who leased a shop from Liccardi next to Black Afghan.
Parkhouse complained that there was a problem with the toilet in the shop. Liccardi replaced it and was walking out of the shop with the old toilet seat in his hand.
“Ned calls out to me, ‘Hey, where are you going with that?’ And I said, ‘What, the toilet seat? It’s broken, I’m going to throw it out.’”
“But wait,” argued Parkhouse, “Barbra Streisand sat on that.”
The exhibit “Rocco Remembers” opens at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, 200 Main Street, on Friday, September 17. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 18, from 6 to 8 p.m.