Art on the Walls of History at Ashawagh Hall

Jean Hoffmann, Ernestine Lassaw, and Abby Abrams, left to right, were honored at a benefit preview for this year’s Artists of the Springs Invitational Exhibition last Thursday evening.

    It was a sunny and breezy summer afternoon on Aug. 3 as some 100 artists from Springs and its immediate environs pulled small canvases and sculptures out of their cars and trundled them up on the porch and into Ashawagh Hall.
    The exercise had a slight air of pomp, but mostly it was a social event, with artists warmly greeting one another and catching up on the latest news and gossip in small groups. It could have been for any of dozens of shows that happen each week at this art and community space, but this particular show is different and carries a weight and meaning far beyond any other held there.
    When the artists of Springs and neighboring areas filed in one by one to surrender their art and coveted invitations to the volunteer registrars, they were following a tradition that is thought to have been formalized in 1968 and that stretches back even further in history in a more organic fashion.
    According to the book “Springs: A Celebration,” Josephine Little organized the first “Art on the Wall” show at Ashawagh in 1958. It was a forerunner of what became the invitational show a decade later. When the first show was mounted in 1968, always around the time of the Fisherman’s Fair, The Star wrote that just about every well-known artist in Springs participated. There were always others, however, such as Harriet Vicente of Bridgehampton, who took part. She was one of the members of the first planning committee.
    According to Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, the artists’ participation in the fair goes back even further. Citing a home movie that was made in 1953, she said Lee Krasner is visible walking around the fair with one of Jackson Pollock’s screen prints. She added that an old story about Pollock and the fair has him offering his prints at the rate of three for $50. The book also notes that Krasner gave the Springs Improvement Society one of Pollock’s prints, but it was stolen from the attic and never recovered.
    The Museum of Modern Art and Victor D’Amico rented out the space for four years beginning in 1956, but Ms. Harrison said they always cleared out the day of the fair.
    The latest edition of the society’s annual Artists of the Springs Invitational Exhibition opened last week and will be on view through Aug. 21. It features 110 artists selected by this year’s curator, Esperanza Leon, an independent curator and proprietor of Solar, a gallery in East Hampton Village. She too has cast her net a bit wider than Springs, bringing in artists such as Roy Nicholson, Jim Gemake, Carolyn Conrad, Dan Welden, and others not strictly living or working within the confines of the recognized Springs boundaries.
    Last week, three women’s contributions to the show and to the society were honored at a special preview benefit. Ernestine Lassaw, Jean Hoffmann, and Abby Abrams were given plaques and gift bags as the assembled group applauded.
    Ms. Abrams was on the porch that afternoon as the work was being brought in. A resident of Springs since 1990, she said she began working with the society 12 to 15 years ago, serving as second in command to Ellen Peterson, who had been in charge for many years, and then taking over after she died. Ms. Abrams stayed on as the director of the show until she became ill with lung cancer and had to step down. “It takes two committees to do what I did myself,” she said with a wry smile.
    Each year she would choose a curator for that year’s show and work with them to do whatever they wanted — finding names and addresses of new artists, giving them lists of the old ones, and bringing in a committee to hang the show as is still done today.
    While 100-plus artists may sound like a lot, in the Springs and greater East Hampton area, where it is widely observed that “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an artist,” that number doesn’t cover as many of the potential candidates as might be imagined. Each year, when someone who has previously been overlooked is included, someone else finds himself without an invitation. It is not something that is taken lightly.
    David Slater, who participated in some of the earliest shows, stopped by on the porch and said he remembered when that first and second generation of Abstract Expressionists still showed there, such as Herman Cherry and James Brooks. Both artists also contributed posters that advertised the invitational and can be purchased at the Fisherman’s Fair on Saturday. Other artists who designed posters included Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Costantino Nivola, Ilya Bolotowsky, Bill King, Carol Hunt, and John Little.
    Also stopping by to say hi and drop off her work was Tracy Harris, who recalled that the late Charlotte Park, an artist who was married to James Brooks, told her that she and Krasner had shucked clams for clam pies during the first show. Krasner and Pollock could also be counted on to contribute apple pies for the Fisherman’s Fair, but it is open to debate as to who actually baked them.
    Mr. Slater said that as one of the youngest artists in the early fairs, it was an honor to be included with those titans. But the hardest thing for an artist is the year when there is no invitation. “One year you’re in, then a different curator decides you’re out.” While many may grumble, he said, “it’s the juror’s choice. You can’t argue. Everybody wants to be in it.”
    Ms. Abrams remembered seeing a lot of tears over the years. Inclusion is a point of pride, an affirmation from one’s peers, and an important social marker.
    According to Ms. Lassaw, who ran the show for many of its early years, it was her or Betty Franey’s idea to bring in an outside curator to take the heat for the selections. It has been a time-honored tradition ever since. “When I was told to take care of the invitational, I knew that I couldn’t bear to be the one to not invite anybody. I did it for 20 years, I think, and every year I invited a new curator.”
    She remembered one year when the curator she selected decided two weeks before the show not to do it. She asked an artist to do it last minute (she would not divulge the name), and he or she took the longstanding list of artists who had participated and threw it away. “A lot of information disappeared. After that I quit.”
    Ms. Leon was well aware of the weight each selection carried and yet she said she felt that it was important to include some long-overlooked artists, even if some with a long history of participation had to be dropped. “I started with a list of past participants and worked with that to bring in new names,” she said. She was told by those who asked for her participation that “their wish was for it to be revitalized and have different people represented.”
    She said it was a balancing act and that she knew that when others in the past had tried to shake things up, there was “discord and unhappiness,” with some curators getting accused of being ageist for “taking out the older crew and trying to bring in younger blood, but that hasn’t been the case,” she said, with the artists she chose. Natalie Edgar, for example, a painter who has not been included previously, was married to Philip Pavia and friends with most of the first wave of artistic settlers in Springs, where she and her family also came to live.
    “It’s really an iconic show,” Ms. Leon said. “It has a weight and legacy out here.” She said hanging the show was a daunting task since she had not seen most of the work prior to the day of its arrival. The job was completed by 8 that night, she said. “It just all came together in those last two hours.”
    While there are always some prima donnas, Ms. Abrams said most people behaved themselves. “Out of 100 artists, 85 will follow instructions and do everything right, no trouble at all. Then 14 out of 100 will need extra help — they lost the instructions or can’t be here on time.” But, she said, there is typically one person who will make their presence known in some demanding or disruptive way. Being part of a small community helps discourage such behavior but rarely quashes it entirely.
    Still, she said, the Springs artistic community is full of wonderful people. “It’s a very special experience. It’s why I continue to do it year after year.”
    The show is open Sundays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tonight at 7, there will be a presentation of poetry and performance called “Ashawagh Speaks” for a donation of $10. On Aug. 20 at 4:30 p.m., Ms. Leon will give a tour of the exhibit.
    The 78th annual Fisherman’s Fair will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.