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Robert Motherwell’s Life in the Hamptons

Originally Posted: June 18, 2004

Mary Cummings

Unknown, Robert Motherwell

It is sad when a house heavy with history is destroyed. Hearts were broken recently when Bayberry Land, the last of Southampton's grand old estates, was lost to the wrecking ball. Communities have a deep need for the landmarks that give their past a physical presence.
Bayberry Land spoke of an era before the World Wars when the rich, unhampered by taxes or conscience, could afford to live lavishly, surrounded by armies of servants on estates that were virtual fiefdoms. It was a unique time in Hamptons history, uniquely represented by the manor house, outbuildings, and 300-plus acres of rolling land and beachfront.

The loss brings to mind another lost landmark from another significant time in Hamptons history. In esthetic and spirit, the house—designed for painter Robert Motherwell in 1945 by French émigré architect Pierre Chareau and torn down 40 years later—could not have been more different from Bayberry Land. In its total departure from the architectural conventions of the day, it reflected a remarkable moment when the forces of modernism were just beginning to make themselves felt in America and a small group of artists, who had come east from New York to find a peaceful alternative to city life, was in the forefront. Built for the youngest member of the original Abstract Expressionists, designed by the creator of the revolutionary house in Paris known as the Maison de Verre (1932), and conceived as a kind of polemic for the potential of industrial-inspired design, the house was treasured by architectural historians as Pierre Chareau's only work in this country, and by art historians as an Abstract Expressionist monument. Their protests notwithstanding, it was leveled in 1985.

The Times

Motherwell at Home

Two adjectives that some will never again apply to the Hamptons are "cheap" and "cutting-edge." In 1945, however, both words were apt. Land was cheap and a group of artistically radical European émigrés and their American acolytes had established a beachhead of the avant-garde in East Hampton. Among those who sought refuge from the Nazis in New York City, and respite from the city in East Hampton, were Surrealist artists and other cultural subversives who made it a Mecca for their young American admirers. The Surrealist painters Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Fernand Leger were there, along with the movement's poet laureate and reigning king, Andre Breton. Others who settled in were Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Motherwell, the youngest of the group.

While most were hard workers, turning out paintings, poems and polemics that would lay the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism and American modernism, they still found time to horse around on the beach during the day, share festive improvisational meals in the evening, play games, make the occasional foray to the old Elm Tree Inn in Amagansett, and argue endlessly over artistic theory. There is a photograph in Enez Whipple's 1993 history of Guild Hall that shows Max Ernst and Robert Motherwell playing chess in Amagansett in 1945, the same year that Motherwell bought a four-acre lot on the corner of Georgica and Jericho roads for about $1,200. Life was cheap and, once the war ended, full of promise for revolution in the art world, which would have a new center: America.

The Artist

At his death in 1991, Motherwell was hailed as the last of the great Abstract Expressionists, but his talent was apparently not that obvious to everyone in the bohemian set he frequented in the '40s and '50s. Set somewhat apart from the others by being well off (his father was president of the Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco), well traveled, and well educated, he dared to describe himself as "imbued with French culture." These were qualities that made him an important liaison between the Europeans and the community of young New York artists who came together on the East End, but somewhat suspect by those who thought him too cerebral and too class-conscious to make authentic art. (He drove a classic MG convertible and eventually joined the upper-crust Maidstone Club.) As John Gruen noted in "The Party's Over Now," his reminiscence of the '50s, "Motherwell's paintings were felt at the time by some detractors to lack the violence and roughness of Pollock or de Kooning, to be too finished, too School of Paris."

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, educated at Stanford and Harvard, he abandoned graduate studies in philosophy in 1938 for a year of travel in Europe, where he began painting in earnest and showed his work at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in Paris. In 1941 he made the move to Greenwich Village and joined the group of young artists that included Pollock, de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. That same year he took a trip to Mexico with painter Roberto Matta, who introduced him to Surrealism. He was also introduced to a stunning Mexican actress named Maria Ferrera whom he married. When he was invited to exhibit at the Peggy Guggenheim Art of This Century gallery in New York, he was on his way.

Plans for the Home

Sometime in the mid-'40s the Motherwells began spending time on eastern Long Island, and not long after that Motherwell came to the conclusion that this was a place where he could find the peace and concentration he needed to break new ground as a painter. Reflecting later on those early years, Motherwell spoke of the belief he shared with his fellow artistic rebels that "if the abstraction, the violence, the humanity was valid in Abstract Expressionism, then it cut out the ground from every other kind of painting."

The Architect

Pierre Chareau, who at his height ranked as one of Europe's greatest modernist architects, was destitute when Motherwell turned to him to design a house and studio on his Georgica property. A radical idol in 1932 for having designed the epochal glass house for Dr Dalsace built in Paris in 1930-31, Chareau and his Jewish wife had been forced to flee Paris as the Nazis approached with hardly more than the clothes on their backs. Like so many others, he came to America where he met Motherwell at Jane Bowles's house in East Hampton. Not surprisingly, the Francophile and the displaced Frenchman hit it off. They became friends and when Motherwell asked Chareau if he would be interested in designing his East Hampton house, the architect was only too glad to accept. It was agreed that, as part of the deal, Chareau would be able to build himself a small, concrete cottage on the property.

Also reportedly part of the pact was a shared mission: to construct a revolutionary dwelling for under $10,000. But while the finished house was certainly revolutionary—the neighbors were scandalized—it failed by a whopping $17,000 to adhere to its budget. In his book "Weekend Utopia," Alastair Gordon reports that the budget escalated to $27,000 and Motherwell was obliged to ask his mother for help in covering the extra costs. There was even a time, according to Gordon, when Motherwell was ready to scrap the whole project and only Chareau's pleas kept him from doing so.

The House

Window Treatments

The architectural oddity that resulted from the Motherwell/Chareau collaboration had little in common with anything that had come before, including the architect's previous projects. The fine craftsmanship that had characterized the details of Chareau's Maison de Verre were nowhere in evidence, there being no money for such refinements. (The irony, however, is that having chosen the Quonset hut, Chareau actually set himself up for the ballooning budget that almost aborted the experiment. The unusual design required doors, windows, balconies and flooring to be entirely handmade.)

The building had a structural frame of curving steel ribs, a pressed wood lining, a layer of insulation and an outer membrane of corrugated steel. It could be easily dismantled and shipped as a kit. Gordon reports that Motherwell was able to purchase two surplus Quonset kits for a total cost of $3,000, one for the house, the other for a separate studio. A truck delivered all the metal parts and construction of the basic framework went smoothly. It got more complicated—"a nightmare," in Motherwell's words—when it became evident that just about everything that was not prefabricated would have to be custom-made.

The interior had a free-flowing open plan with just a few combed plywood partitions. The ground level was excavated a few feet below grade and the concrete floors were painted red. The living area was flooded with natural light from a 36-foot-long window that Motherwell and Chareau had salvaged from an old commercial greenhouse, and which helped to keep heating bills down to about $14 a month. There was a second floor balcony that led to bedrooms and throughout the house structural elements were exposed.

It was a house that had almost nothing to do with its site, and even less to do with local architectural traditions—both blasphemous notions in the architectural context of 2004. It was a complete rejection of bourgeois notions of Home, leading the way for the postwar modernists whose brief reign would be marked by a celebration of technological innovation and geometrical composition.

Detail of the Floor

At first Motherwell stayed year-round in East Hampton. He began his renowned "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" series in his Quonset studio and witnessed the beginnings of a new climate of acceptance among those who had resisted modernism in all its manifestations. In the 1950s, overcoming resistance from scandalized board members, Guild Hall finally organized a series of exhibitions featuring the "shocking" work that was coming out of the studios of Motherwell and his friends. Meanwhile, Maria Motherwell was invited to Guild Hall to teach the dances of South America, including the rumba and the tango—most exotic at the time. The shock of the new was losing its sting.

Despite the signs of acceptance, Motherwell was apparently experiencing a growing disaffection with East Hampton, and perhaps with the house as well (not to mention his marriage, which was crumbling). In 1952, he sold the property to Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, finding Provincetown, Greenwich and the New York more to his liking. Rosset, a daring publisher and the least bourgeois of men (publisher of an unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer") had the right spirit to appreciate the subversive quirks of the house. He filled it with gadgets and enjoyed until he, too, decided to move on. Later, architect Robert Rosenberg took the house on, but not without making some strategic alterations intended to better suit it for conventional rural living.

In 1985, however, it was not conventional enough for purchasers of the property who were more interested in its posh location than in its significance as a modernist landmark. They leveled the house; the studio came down a few years later, and only the cinderblock cottage that Chareau built for himself survives, albeit in much altered form.

Meanwhile, despite four productive decades spent elsewhere, Motherwell looked back on his time in East Hampton as peak years for his painting. "I did my best work there," he said later.

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