Elaine de Kooning lived an exciting life of travel, lovers, late nights and an innate strength that put her at the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement. She never wanted to be committed, but in 1975 she bought a house at 55 Alewive Brook Road in East Hampton, Long Island. Well advanced in her painting career, she was drawn to the property she shared with a friend: “In short, I bought a basement with a beautiful brand new house on top.”
At this point in her life, she and her husband, artist Willem de Kooning, had been separated for many years. Their relationship was complicated: as pointed out in Lee Hall’s daring account, Elaine and Bill, Portrait of a Marriage (1993), the two married in 1943 but pursued their own affairs, which culminated in a separation in 1957 but never divorced. His home was near the Pollock Krasner home on Fireplace Road, and Elaine acquired her residence a short drive away. Willem was deep in his alcoholism, and Elaine, also a heavy drinker, took on the role of caretaker under another roof. Late last year, through a concerted effort by the current owner, this structure was now recognized by the National Park Service as a Site of Historic Significance.
The Elaine de Kooning House and Studio in East Hampton, Long Island, New York. Photo: Katherine McMahon.
Elaine built an attached studio on the site and worked there for the rest of her life. She enjoyed keeping the home as her separate sphere where she had complete independence and friends like artist Connie Fox nearby. She painted rigorously in the studio, cigarette in hand, often on a ladder while her studio assistants stretched large canvases underneath. Here she created some of her best-known and most monumental paintings, including the series cave walls and cave paintings (1985-88), inspired by a trip to Lascaux, France.
Elaine and Bill de Kooning, 1953. Courtesy Bridgeman Images.
After Elaine’s death, the house was owned by sculptor John Chamberlain from 1994 to 1998. When Chamberlain moved out and preferred to live and work on Shelter Island, the house was being used by the painter Richmond Burton. That is, until 2010, when entrepreneur Chris Byrne, co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair, learned the house was on the market and decided to buy it.
Former President Harry S. Truman stands next to a John F. Kennedy painting commissioned for the Truman Library. Artist Elaine de Kooning stands on the other side of the painting. Photo: Bettman.
Byrne, who splits his time between Long Island’s East End, Manhattan, and Dallas, recently told Artnet News, “Today, Elaine’s studio practice seems prophetic to audiences alike, while preserving the original structure and its history.” Byrne recognized the importance of the preservation of the site and its significance to the area, and two years ago applied to have the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places, as declared by the United States Department of the Interior.It was granted that status late last year;The official plaque was released this month (The house is currently only open to visitors by appointment.)
Gerald McCarty, Elaine de Kooning: A Portrait (1983). Courtesy of the Elaine de Kooning House and Studio.
Byrne recognized the potential of contemporary artists to reawaken dormant creative energies. He had studied art at a young age and published an artist book entitled The Wizard in 2013. Although he had never practiced art full-time, he had a network of artists at hand and soon realized he could allow them to use Elaine’s studio in a sort of informal residence. The first artist he invited was Jose Lerma for summer and fall 2011. Since then, Byrne has welcomed 28 artists, including Joe Bradley, Sadie Laska, Katherine Bernhardt, Keith Mayerson and Eric Haze, among others. In 2020, Lonnie Holley produced an exhibition of new paintings, works on paper and sculpture, which was shown last year at the nearby Parrish Art Museum in Lonnie Holley at the Elaine de Kooning House: Everything That Wasn’t White.
Elaine de Kooning, Red Oxide Grotto (Cave #175) (1988), one of the artist’s late works in a series of “Cave Paintings” made in her East Hampton studio. Photo courtesy of Amar Singh Gallery/Christie’s New York.
The home is currently home to sculptor Frank Benson and multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson, who makes large-scale paintings. The artists have full access to the property and the opportunity to live and work on site. There is no official schedule and no official rules on how it should work, no dictate how often the artists use the studio. “We don’t like to be too prescriptive,” Byrne said. “What comes out is always better than what I could imagine or suggest.”
Eric Haze at the Elaine de Kooning House, 2020. Photo by Katherine McMahon.
For example, Benson shared that since he’s been in the studio, he’s “spent weeks spray-painting acrylic paint on paper while he listens [the audiobook] Ninth street women, by Maria Gabriel. It was like a fully sensory, immersive course in Abstract Expressionism.” The setting also seems to have had an impact on his art. “Currently, I’m using AI software to generate images influenced by East Hampton’s AbEx history,” he explained.
Katherine Bernhardt works at the Elaine de Kooning House and Studio, 2018. Photo: Katherine McMahon.
During her lifetime, Elaine de Kooning never received the attention or success that her husband and his famous circle enjoyed. But recent grants have drawn attention to de Kooning and her female colleagues, including a landmark exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism, curated by Gwen Chanzit, which debuted at the Denver Art Museum in 2016 and has toured North Carolina and California. After the release of Gabriel’s Ninth street women The market bore more fruit in 2018, which saw the contributions of Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell. One of de Kooning’s “Cave Paintings” from Atelier Alewive, Red Bison/Blue Horse (1985/86), sold in March 2021 for $562,500, a new artist record. Hartigans beginning of November (1959) grossed $1.4 million as of May 2022, while Mitchell’s blueberry (1969) grossed $16.6 million as of May 2018. While de Kooning’s prices are lower than some of her peers, her vision lives on through the hands of others who now work in the studio she built for herself and left with love and thought 33 years earlier. Thanks to Byrne’s efforts, the evidence now lives in a shield visible to all bystanders.
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