March 2006

Colleen Mondor


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

Okay, so here is what I know about the subject of Art History:

Did you hear that deafening silence? Yeah, I know nothing, absolutely nothing when it comes to the history of art. I have visited the National Gallery, and over the years I have been up close with the work of some of the great 19th and 20th century artists, but other than noting what I liked and did not like, I really didn’t learn too much. On one level, that is okay -- art should just be appreciated for its own sake sometimes. But as to who has contributed what and how and when and why to the American art scene, I am totally clueless. And really, I hate it when I’m an idiot about something.

First, I want to blame the public school system and my parents. I’m sure that in the middle of that whole feeding-and-clothing-us thing my mother and father should have been trying to expose us to a world that they both knew nothing about. They should have driven my brother and me to distant museums and bought books and sought out lectures. They should have... well, actually, they were really busy with working their butts off so realistically they didn’t have a lot of time to think about art. I just wish that somebody had shown me that section of the library when I was young so I could have gone exploring on my own. It would have been nice to have had a frame of reference when I picked up Robert Long’s De Kooning's Bicycle.

However, Long does such an excellent job of making history come alive that I could enjoy his book regardless of my own pitiful lack of knowledge. He has even made me want to learn more about a whole host of individuals I had barely heard of previously. That’s something an author should be especially proud of.

In De Kooning’s Bicycle, Long focuses on the group of artists and writers who since the late 19th century have called the East End of Long Island home. From Thomas Moran in the 1870s through Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Jean Stafford, a great many talented and creative people have found their way to the Hamptons. They were largely looking a quiet place to work, but they also began to discover each other. They developed a community of dramatic individuals who made unexpected and unprecedented contributions to American culture. As an art critic who lives in East Hampton, Long clearly could not resist the area’s rich history. He wanted to write about it and about the people who made it such a dynamic place to be. What’s really interesting though is that Long decided to write much of this book as fiction, something that I would initially have thought made it odd and artificial, but after reading De Kooning’s Bicycle simply think it makes for an excellent ride.

Long primarily focuses on Jackson Pollock and Bill de Kooning. Pollock in particular receives a lot of attention from the author with several sections on the painter's talent, his drinking problem and his health. I thought Long did a good job of portraying Pollock as a sympathetic character. He doesn’t excuse his often difficult behavior (capped with his death and the death of one of his passengers in an alcohol induced car crash), but he at least goes into enough detail to show what it is like to be that particular kind of a creative person -- what is it like when you are the edge of a field and who you become when you can not seem to break an addiction, even though you know it is destroying you. (It is hard to read about Pollock without thinking “if only”.)

I was quite interested to read the parts on Frank O’Hara (when he was Associate Curator of exhibitions at MOMA) and Jean Stafford, partly perhaps because as I writer I could identify with them a bit more and partly because they seemed so down to earth and thus more accessible to me as a reader. O’Hara’s thoughts on de Kooning made him quite appealing, as he seemed like as much a fan as a curator: “He pursued de Kooning because de Kooning was the master of the age, and because he couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than rooms of de Koonings, dozens of them, from the 1930s right through today."

I was also able to identify more with O’Hara as I could see myself as excited as he was to be surrounded by such great art. (“What could be better than to walk through a show of great paintings with a friend and be moved by them together? And what if it turned out that your friends were people who made great paintings of their own?”) I just liked the guy, and after reading about him through Long, I wanted to learn more about him.

If this reaction was true of Frank O’Hara, it was doubly so after I read Long’s words about Jean Stafford. Prior to De Kooning’s Bicycle I had never heard of Stafford. (If I have one complaint about Long’s book, it is that for neophytes like me it sometimes takes a moment to identify who is who.) I was mesmerized as Long lost himself in Stafford’s life, as he imagined what it had been like for her so many years before:

But even the house wasn’t safe, if she wasn’t careful. The middle of a story used to be the worst time. After she got five pages right, nothing more would come. She’d rise from the typewriter in the late morning with no idea -- no, with no words -- and the bourbon would open itself, and within a couple of days the bottle would have company, and then she would find herself telephoning in the half-light of dawn because the creatures were darting across the bedroom walls.

It’s dark stuff sometimes, the life of these great men and women, but Long makes it all such gorgeous reading, makes it so compelling and rich and deep with the detail of struggles against the weight of all that you want to write while also trying to stay sane. And while all of these artists and writers attained levels of greatness in their careers, it is clear from Long’s portrayals that normalcy was not something that any of them really knew. But then again, if they had, would they have been great at all?

De Kooning's Bicycle makes me want to seek out other books about these people, to see their artwork, to consider their stories. I want to know more about how they were and what they did. Just as Donna Seaman’s collection, Writers on the Air pushed me finally, at the age of 37, into the work of Sylvia Plath, so Long has sent me running after Pollock and De Kooning and Steinberg and Stafford. I am a curious person, but before reading Robert Long’s book, I did not know where to begin. De Kooning’s Bicycle is the best sort of roadmap for someone curious about modern American art. It is a collection of lives to lose yourself in and an invitation to see more, to reach for more, to look more deeply.

I’m not going to blame my parents anymore; instead, I’m going to buy a copy of this book for my mother. And then we will finally have that long overdue talk about art.
De Kooning’s Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons by Robert Long
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374165386
206 pages