EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. – Among the things that are NOT bogus about this area’s reputation is its importance in the history of modern art. What is even more remarkable is that it continues — not with the physical presence of famous figures like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell and dozens of other Abstract Expressionists who had strong Hamptons connections in the mid-20th century — but in the ongoing abundance of art fairs, art shows, art galleries and a unique waterfront studio where members of the public can take classes and set up at easels on a drop-in basis: The Art Barge in Napeague, moored halfway between Amagansett and Montauk.
It’s a former World War II naval vessel, towed to this spot in 1960, an inspiration of Victor d’Amico, then education director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. With the later addition of a second level, there’s a downstairs painting studio ($50 for three hours of camaraderie, though it’s usually a bunch of silent, focused individuals getting walk-around instruction and encouragement from the Barge’s teachers), and an upstairs library and multi-media workspace, where a long wide table with stools on either side runs the length of the space, meadow views to the south, harbor views to the north.
That’s where, in June, I took a one-week workshop called the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, five 3-hour morning sessions exploring the teaching methods of the German art institute, whose short existence (from 1919 until shuttered by the Nazis in 1933) belies its enormous influence on world art and design in the decades since.
Fortunately, I have no ego investment in being an artist, because I soon discovered that among the 12 students in the class, I was the only one not already a visual artist of some sort, and way out of my league. Still, it was fun, messing around with materials from the block-long window ledges (the “junk buffet,” including such things as pieces of netting, foam insulation, feathers, astroturf and on and on) to make collages; cutting, arranging and squinting at pieces of colored paper as we learned principles of color; making rubber stamp textile designs and then trying our hand at weaving; and finally working with tempera paints in a way I hadn’t since 3rd grade.
I’ve since gone back to visit and walk along the deck watching sea birds and water snakes and dogs in the meadow, and have checked out the nearby modernist home of Victor D’Amico and his wife Mabel, also an art educator and prolific sculptor and assemblage artist, many of her works made with driftwood and found beach objects. Now known as the Mabel and Victor D’Amico Studio and Archive, it offers free public tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays by appointment.
The house itself, a humble affair built in the 1940s with recycled materials and the D’Amicos own labor, was one of the first modernist beach homes in the area. With concrete and linoleum floors, glass walls, pegboard cabinets, open shelving and Eames chairs, it has a mid-century modern aesthetic, as well as a look of having been constructed on a shoestring. Yet it stands, artful and atmospheric, and is being considered for local landmarks designation, which would offer it some protection from demolition. It seems the least the community can do.