The Ghosts of Montauk Highway

The unsung and rather forgotten peers of the New York School
Works by Ibram Lassaw, Nick Carone, Norman Bluhm, Sidney Geist, and Alfonso Ossorio, left to right, are at Eric Firestone.

Given the South Fork’s vibrant and talented artistic community, it seems indulgent to keep harking back to the glory days of midcentury titans like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell, aside from breathlessly reporting their stratospheric auction prices. 

There are, however, unsung and rather forgotten peers of the New York School, who still deserve their due. In the last few years, art dealers have done much rediscovering of some of the brighter lights of former decades, whose torch never managed to pass into more recent years.

Eric Firestone has been on a unique quest for a South Fork art dealer. While most of the interest in such artists as Norman Bluhm, John Little, Charlotte Park, James Brooks, Costantino Nivola, and Kyle Morris, is coming from galleries in the city or completely outside of the region, he has mounted a treasure hunt from his base in East Hampton. Some of the gems he has unearthed so far are on view for the next few weeks in “Montauk Highway: Postwar Abstraction in the Hamptons.”

Concentrating on the 1950s and 1960s, the show includes examples from the giants and the unsung (or not lately sung) from the period. Quite a number of them are female, whose exclusion from the mainstream history of the period has been a blight until very recently. Years of demand for works by the top 10 artists in the marketplace have given what is available a picked-over quality, which has forced dealers to look beyond them to the best canvases of artists who are not household names.

Morris, represented in the show by a relatively small painting from 1953, surprises with thick palette knife strokes of rosy pink, corals, and reds imbued with black marks from under-painting along with flashes of sky, aqua, and gray. It’s a feminine palette, and the circular swirls suggest a floral garden. Its energy is quite wonderful, as is the powerful push-pull of its tones. Morris, a longtime East Hampton resident who died in 1979 at the age of 61, was an instructor at Cooper Union among other schools and was a visiting critic at Yale University’s graduate school in addition to being in the collections of the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums, but it is easy to see why this painting might have been lost in an era defined by aggressive masculinity. Let’s hope we see more of this artist in years to come.

 Women make up about a fifth of this show--which isn’t bad, considering that their work takes up more than a fifth of the wall space — and the obstacles women artists faced during that time. It will be wonderful to see the day when the inclusion of women in art exhibitions, particularly those focused on the mid-20th century, attracts no special notice. 

Notably, half of the women whose work is on view were married to better-known male artists. Having co-founded the feminist art movement, Schapiro managed to eclipse her husband, Paul Brach, who seemed happy to be her champion. But as an Abstract Expressionist during her early career, she had been painting  in relative obscurity.

Audrey Flack’s lasting impact has been felt most strongly in photorealism, even though she got her start in Abstract Expressionism. Her two works here, from 1950, demonstrate a strong, confident voice for someone still in her 20s. The horror vaccui that marks these works, relieved only by a few black voids or some airy white gaps in these works, is something that has continued throughout her career.

Other abstractions come from Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Park, and Perle Fine, all welcome additions to the dialogue going on here.

The women are not the only surprises, however. Alfonso Ossorio, known primarily for his later compositions of found gewgaws and the ever-present evil eye, also has a traditional oil on canvas action painting from 1955. Al Held, known for hard-edged, geometric abstraction, has a more painterly, freehanded homage to the rectangle. Although not a regular resident of the East End, he did spend two summers in the area, not far from Sag Harbor.

There are other great examples on canvas from lesser-known artists such as John Ferren, Michael Goldberg, Manoucher Yektai, Friedel Dzubas, Larry Zox, as well as Little, whose Duck Creek Farm is now being used intermittently for contemporary exhibitions. Also of note are sculptures by Philip Pavia, Ibram Lassaw, and Sidney Geist.

Then there are those well known locally or to scholars of the period, such as Bill King, Nick Carone, Nivola, James Brooks, and Esteban Vicente. In this show, Nivola has both a sand-cast piece, which is what he is known for, and a mid-relief bronze that is rather fascinating. 

Bluhm was once in this category, but his work is becoming so prevalent at art fairs that he may enter the more general art world consciousness. The same might be said for Brooks. Maybe with enough similar efforts here and nationally, recognition could spread to all of these artists, who so richly deserve it. As for Vicente, he is well known in Spain, his home country. 

Reading this far, you will see the big names are last. It is not that the pieces by Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Ray Parker, and de Kooning are poor or minor. It’s hard to imagine Kline ever having had a bad day, even with his well-known hangovers. Yet, the other works look so fresh, surprising, and worthy of their moment in the spotlight, why not let the sleeping dogs lie? Their light will continue to shine until Sept. 17.

There is quite a bit of art in “Montauk Highway,” so much that some of it is hung salon style, as this grouping by Charlotte Park, Esteban Vicente, Kyle Morris, Larry Zox, John Little, and others attests.