De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons

De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons

by Robert Long

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Some of the twentieth century's most important artists and writers--from Jackson Pollock to Saul Steinberg, Frank O'Hara to Jean Stafford--lived and worked on the East End of Long Island years before it assumed an alternate identity as the Hamptons. The home they made there, and its effect on their work, is the subject of these searching, lyrical vignettes by the critic and poet Robert Long.

Pollock moved to Springs because he thought he wanted to stop drinking, but he found a connection to nature there that inspired some of the most significant paintings of our time. Others followed him. When Fairfield Porter bought a house in Southampton, the New York School suddenly had a new headquarters, and James Schuyler and Frank O'Hara found companionship and raw material for their poems on South Main Street and on the three-hour train ride between the city and the East End. Willem de Kooning rode his bike every day between his studio in the East Hampton woods and the bay, where the light informed every brushstroke he put to canvas from the early 1960s on.

In De Kooning's Bicycle, Long mixes storytelling with history to re-create the lives and events that shaped American art and literature as we know it today, in a landscape where town met country and the modern met America's rural past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429921695
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/16/2005
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Robert Long is the editor of Long Island Poets and author of De Kooning's Bicycle. He's contributed to The New Yorker and The Partisan Review, among other publications. He lives in East Hampton, New York.

Robert Long is the editor of Long Island Poets and author of De Kooning's Bicycle. He's contributed to The New Yorker and The Partisan Review, among other publications. He lives in East Hampton, New York.

Read an Excerpt

De Kooning's Bicycle

Artists and Writers in the Hamptons

By Robert Long

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Robert Long
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2169-5


On maps, Long Island resembles a whale that's swum across the Atlantic Ocean southwest from Ireland, grazing Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard and slamming its big blunt head against the island of Manhattan, nudging it that much closer to the mainland at Jersey City.

This whale stretches northeast for 120 miles. Its corroded flukes, known as the East End, split into North and South Forks and trail off into the ocean, the former running parallel with the south shore of Connecticut, which lies across Long Island Sound, the latter with a series of bays to the north and the ocean to the south.

No matter where you go on the South Fork, water is nearby. It plays tricks with the light, which seems both clear and soft. It permeates the woods and the potato fields, and you sense it as you walk the streets of the villages. More successfully than most painters, William Merritt Chase and Willem de Kooning caught something of its pastel evanescence; it is the primary subject of everything that came from de Kooning's brush from the mid-1960s on, informing figures as well as landscape.

The light may be the South Fork's principal aesthetic asset, but it is not the reason the area was settled in the mid-seventeenth century. People went there because they felt crowded, in any number of ways, at home. And there was real estate to be had, and money to be made. They go there for the same reasons today, and because it is close to New York City, and because rich and famous people go there, as they did in the nineteenth century.

The men and women who sailed to Southampton and East Hampton were part of the Puritan migration that had been making its way to the Eastern Seaboard since the settlement of Plymouth in 1620 and the signing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1629. In 1640, the Long Parliament promised tolerance of Puritans in their homeland, but by then it was too late, for over twenty-one thousand people had fled the Old World for New England.

The separation of church and state that had been lacking in England was lacking on the East End, too, but no one minded, because it was the Presbyterian Church, not the Church of England, that collected taxes from the townspeople for the next two centuries: "Everyone into the melting pot, just come out Presbyterian," as the urban historian and architect Robert A. M. Stern put it.

Upon arriving in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, many of these immigrants found that the place didn't exactly live up to its advance billing. Land was not as plentiful as advertised, and the soil was hardscrabble. So they made their way south, where the land was for the taking and the soil not as rocky.

With the Indians out of the way (they had been further quieted with liquor and laudanum), the East Enders set up shop. Most had come from the English countryside, and so reestablished themselves in agriculture. The men raised sheep and geese, planted, hunted, and fished. The women sewed, knit, quilted, gardened, spun, and churned. They cooked wild birds, venison, fish, and samp, a cornmeal porridge whose recipe the Indianstaught them. They built cedar- and cypress-shingled houses whose roofs sloped from two stories at the back to one at the front, a configuration that allowed them to avoid a tax on two-story structures imposed by the King.

The settlement was begun in a communal spirit, but a pecking order was soon established. Lion Gardiner came to America in the service of the King, who hoped to prevent the Dutch from claiming the territory, but he was a businessman, the seventeenth century's equivalent of a real estate speculator. Walt Whitman admired him, or the idea of him. "Tradition relates that Wyandance, the great chief of eastern Long Island, loved and obeyed Mr. Gardiner in a remarkable manner," he wrote. Having once sailed past it, Whitman conjured Gardiners Island as a kind of colonial Santa's Workshop:

Imagine the Arcadian simplicity and plenty of the situation, and of those times. Doubtless, among his workpeople, Mr. Gardiner had Indians, both men and women. Imagine the picturesqueness of the groups, at night in the large hall, or the kitchen — the mighty fire, the supper, the dignity and yet good humor of the heads of family, and the stalwart health of the brown-faced crowd around them. Imagine their simple pleasures, their interests, their occupations — how different from ours!

Well, yes and no.

Wealth came to the settlers in a way that must have seemed like a biblical plague. One day, someone noticed that the fifty-foot-long, seventy-five-ton, glistening, reeking black carcass of a whale had washed up on the shore from the ocean. The creature may have been sick; it may have been disoriented or driven inland by an offshore storm. Such landings were common throughout the 1720s.

The story of whaling on the East End is in outline the same as that found everywhere they have been hunted. At first, whales were abundant, washing up onshore or spotted close to land. A handful of men in a small boat set out in pursuit, and when the carcass was dragged ashore, it was divided among the townspeople. As the creatures decreased in number, it became necessary to sail farther from land to capture them. Eventually, they were sought on voyages of months or even years. Finally the expense of the ventures exceeded the revenue they yielded, and the industry collapsed.

The Indians had been observed pursuing and killing whales as early as 1620. They cut up and cooked the blubber, using the rendered oil to preserve animal hides. The settlers realized that whales were valuable in manifold ways. Their oil was the most efficient fuel for illumination available, and everything from buggy whips and candles to corsets and collar stays could be fashioned from their bones and baleen. The economies of Southampton and East Hampton thereby flourished in a way no one had anticipated.

The disposal of whales was at first a communal effort. Because time was of the essence whales rot quickly — everyone was expected to lend a hand in the unpleasant business of hacking up the smelly carcasses and cooking down the blubber. Children were even let out of school. Anyone who did not participate could be fined.

The East Enders made the process as efficient as they could. Whaleboats patrolled the coast for weeks at a time. Onshore, a paid whale watcher alerted the town when he spotted a glossy black back breaking the ocean's skin. A crew of six — four rowers,a tiller, and a harpooner — piled into a twenty-foot cedar whaleboat, patterned after the Indians' dugout canoe. They chased down the creature, hoping to puncture its heart or lung. If the wound was made accurately, the whale could be towed to shore; if not, the whale dragged the men behind it for hours, until it tired, all the while snapping the boat in its wake like the tail of a kite.

By the mid-1660s whaling had evolved into the private enterprise of a few fortunate families. It took capital to purchase a whaleboat, harpoons, the expensive iron kettle used to boil blubber, and special barrels for whale oil, and it was an investment most families could not afford to make. The Montaukett Indians, whose bartering arrangements with the settlers left them permanently in debt, entered into contracts in which they agreed to work for the whaling companies to settle those debts; in this way, they were bound to the English from year to year with little hope of paying all that they owed. The early whaling companies paid their employees with small amounts of cash and with whale bounty: the Indians were given fins, and the English received three-foot hunks of meat.

The industry thus hastened the stratification of white society on the East End. And in a community that numbered about five hundred, resentments flourished, and were often played out in court, for the settlers and their early descendants were a litigious lot. Complaints were routinely filed over trivial matters, the most popular being slander and defamation of character.

By 1700 Amagansett had become the main source for whale oil and whalebone on the Eastern Seaboard. A thriving market economy was now in place on the East End; social classes had been established. It was almost impossible to buy land unless you were descended from one of the settling families or extremely wealthy.

And then the whales simply stopped coming. It would be years before the hunt for them resumed, this time in three-masted ships out of Sag Harbor. In the meantime, the East End lost its position on the front line of the economy, a victim of what later centuries would call overfishing. There was little reason for East Enders to maintain more than a tenuous connection with the rest of the world, and they reverted to obscurity.

The families who had managed to get in on the whaling boom retained an aura of importance; they owned the most valuable land, in the hearts of the villages and along the ocean. Those who hadn't claimed a stake constituted the servant class and lived in outlying areas. The Long Island Rail Road tracks would come to mark the dividing line between the classes, then the Montauk Highway, when it became the more popular travel route; "south of the highway" still means class on the East End.

As late as 1878, a visitor would describe East Hampton thus: "It is 5 miles from Sag Harbor, 15 from Greenport, and about 100 miles from New York. But from the way they are behind the times, should think they were about 5,000." Sag Harbor, however, had vitality; it was one of the most important whaling ports on the East Coast from the time of the Revolutionary War until 1857, when a financial crash killed off the industry for the second time. In any case, the discovery of petroleum a few years earlier meant that whale oil and spermaceti would soon be replaced by kerosene and paraffin.

The most notable cultural presence on the East End until the end of the nineteenth century was that of a woodworking family, the Dominys. They were East Hampton farmers who in the off-seasons made about one thousand pieces of furniture over sixty-five years, handing down the craft through several generations. Nathaniel Dominy IV and his son and grandson ignored changing fashions and technological advances, but each added a specialty to the family's arsenal, and they had a wide range of clients among the wealthier citizens of the East End. By the mid-nineteenth century the demand for their custom-made chairs, tables, desks, and bureaus had fallen as large companies began providing cheap, well-made furniture. But the Dominys had something else to offer, though it didn't fatten their purses. When hordes of painters descended upon East Hampton in the 1880s, the Dominy farmhouse, sagging with age, and its adjoining workshop became a popular subject. Nathaniel Dominy VII sometimes stepped outside to watch the artists work at their easels. "You fellows get a thousand dollars in York for a picture of my back door," he'd say, "and I get nothing."

Lange Eylandt, as the Dutch labeled it on maps, is sediment left by a glacier that plowed south as it melted for thousands of years, part of its detritus the South Fork, a hilly, scrubby ridge that slopes off to bays on the north, the ocean on the south. Like bubbles in pancake batter, pockets formed in the glacial sediment, kettle holes that held meltwater in the form of bays, ponds, harbors, and creeks.

Because the Dutch wanted eastern Long Island, Lion Gardiner was sent there in the early 1630s to keep them from having it. He did so by building and commanding a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River, north of Long Island. The fort also was meant to subdue the Pequot Indians, who had their own plans for the East End. In 1637, the nation was all but wiped out when Gardiner's men set fire to the Indian fort. Those who fled the inferno were shot or hacked up with swords.

The Montaukett Indians, who had been paying protection money to the Pequots, began paying off the English instead. In a deal struck with Gardiner by Wyandance, the Montaukett chief, the English were granted exclusive trading rights with the tribe. With a continuous source of wampum, Gardiner could trade shells for whatever his heart desired, including beaver skins, which London merchants coveted. In this manner he acquired Gardiners Island, which he named the Isle of Wight on taking ownership of it in 1639. About a decade later, the English governors of the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies bought what is now East Hampton Town for a pile of looking glasses, hatchets, and knives, twenty coats, and a hundred muxes — the small metal drills used to string wampum on leather strips. Two years later they resold East Hampton to Gardiner for $30,000.

At about the same time, the English acquired Southampton from the Shinnecocks in return for protecting them from the Narragansetts, and promptly segregated the Indians in Shinnecock Hills, where the golf club bearing their name, and designed by Stanford White, would be erected 250 years later.

The Indians who sold the East End to the British thought they retained the right to hunt and fish where they liked, which was all they cared about. But the agreement was restrictive in a way that they could not have anticipated. Although an Indian was allowed to hunt "up and downe in the woods without Molestation," if he killed a deer, for example, he could keep the skin but was required to turn the body over to the English. The settlers shunted the Indians from one place to another, making it clear that they were not welcome in the village center unless on official business; those who did venture there were closely watched.

By the mid-nineteenth century the Montauketts, whose population had been drastically reduced by smallpox and tuberculosis, were planted in an area just north of East Hampton Village called Freetown; the name can still be seen on maps. They sued to regain title to their former property in Montauk, but the suit was dismissed in 1910, and an appeal was thrown out in 1918, when the court found that the Montauketts, by then even further diminished in number, no longer existed. A movement to reclaim the land in recent years has thus far failed to cohere.

At the time Thomas Moran arrived in the late 1870s, East Hampton was a sleepy backwater whose charms were all but unknown to most New Yorkers; his presence there would help to draw attention to the area. Coinciding with his arrival was a vogue for plein-air painting, and the East End offered a limitless choice of subjects for painters who found inspiration in direct observation of nature.

Moran was the first significant artist to call the East End home and to memorably translate its late-nineteenth-century landscape into oil paint and scratches on a copper plate. An English-born traditionalist who was admired and encouraged by a fellow Lancashireman, John Ruskin, he rejected Impressionism as a distortion of God's handiwork. At his best, Moran was a relaxed literalist, and his pictures of East Hampton are his plainest and most affecting; they do not suffer, as his more famous paintings of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon sometimes do, from the tendency to overstatement that Ruskin chided him for.

Moran's friends who had sailed the south coast of Long Island told him that it was a paradise for painters, as full of subjects as any place he'd been, including Europe. So why look to the West, or to the Continent, when such material was close at hand? European artists saw plenty to paint in their own backyards; why couldn't Americans?

One day Moran and his wife, Mary, and their children left Newark at dawn, on a ferry that pitched in the wake of a dozen other vessels as it traced the southern tip of Manhattan, plowinggray water to Long Island City, where a gray train waited under a wooden shed.

The train lurched, then slid forward, the window filling with field and sky. Five hours later the family descended metal steps onto a wooden platform, then climbed into a carriage with hard springs. The road east was a pair of ruts and a blanket of dust. The air smelled of hay. When, after an hour, they turned sharply left for the first time, there suddenly appeared a big green pond set in a thick bright green lawn blotched here and there with white geese, copper beeches rustling overhead. A shingled two-story boardinghouse with a smoking chimney faced the pond, and they got out there, on East Hampton's Main Street.


Excerpted from De Kooning's Bicycle by Robert Long. Copyright © 2005 Robert Long. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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