A Happy Balance at Eric Firestone in East Hampton

Bringing attention to the East End’s rich history of art making
"Montauk Highway II" is on view at Eric Firestone Gallery through Sept. 23.

Eric Firestone has an enviable eye and a nose for finding art in unusual or unexpected places. Since he turned his attention to the East End’s rich history of art making, his East Hampton gallery has served as a haven for work both esteemed and forgotten by the contemporary art world. 

The fact that he doesn’t mind bucking market trends, if not flat out ignoring them, means that a visit to his gallery can be an almost pure aesthetic experience, even with high-ticket items from marquee names blended in the mix.

His “Montauk Highway II” brings together many similar artists from last year’s first iteration of the show, but he has assembled a fresh experience for the viewer as well as a balance of form, color or absence thereof, hard edges, and fluidity across multiple mediums. 

From the often ignored, he chooses first-class work, and from the more generally recognizable names, some interesting digressions. What is impressive is how well the show flows and works as a unit. The transition is balletic — for example, from Perle Fine’s collage “A Persuasive Stillness” to Alfonso Ossorio’s 1952 untitled work, and to Nicolas Carone’s “Hypogriffo,” from 1957, with a Philip Pavia sculpture from the 1990s placed nearby that implies a kind of three-dimensional skeleton for the work.

It’s hard to tire of Fine’s work. She goes through periods of rediscovery and then recedes again into the shadows as other women from the New York School take the spotlight. Her piece in this show, a largish easel-sized collage, makes for a balanced composition of dark and light, paint and paper. It possesses a textured layering that implies something structured contained within the frame, a move away from the formal to something more individual.

Ossorio, whose Art Brut work can seem overdone, has a watercolor here with ink and wax that is busy but subtle. Its surface is a calming gray sea, but there is a great deal of imagery and implied meaning contained in its depths.

Carone’s “Hypogriffo” is seemingly nonobjective, but its movement and composition have the scale and composed chaos of a dramatic narrative painting depicting a battlefield. Pavia’s sculpture is a fine specimen and an outlier coming from the 1990s, but his watercolor drawings from the 1950s are even more of interest to someone familiar only with his three-dimensional pieces. The floating black squares in a muted background of washed-out primary colors seem timeless and striking, even when placed in an alcove.

Grabbing attention from the wall across from the entrance is Lee Krasner’s 7-by-9-foot “Present Conditional” collage on canvas, from 1976. Her mix of panels suggests a dichotomy between smudge-y expressionism and a cooler geometric approach. Yet she unites these sections and forms across the broad expanse of the canvas. It’s one of several works here that invite a longer and measured assessment.

Al Held may be best known for his geometric abstraction paintings from later in his career, but he also worked in other styles earlier, including gestural Abstract Expressionism. The acrylic-on-paper work here, “E-60-03,” seems to be a move toward what would become his hard-edge style. It’s a neither-here-nor-there piece, but instead of being wishy-washy and noncommittal, it has a striking air of discovery and play. 

While Held is not typically associated with the region, a couple of years ago I found a reference to his being here in an interview on file at the Archives of American Art. He recalled renting an old garage for two summers near a marsh in Sag Harbor sometime around or just before 1960. The move was the suggestion of Howard Kanovitz, who is also in the show and rented the other building on the property. Kanovitz’s painting is of another artist friend, Larry Rivers, who is vaguely depicted playing his saxophone in “Larry Blowing,” an oil-on-canvas painting from 1956, a realistic painting but far from the Photorealism he would adopt later.

There is another hint of the social history of the artists suggested in the show with a Willem de Kooning untitled drawing determined to be from the “Clamdigger” series. The reference in the drawing, which is abstract but still suggestive of figures and figuration, is to “Carlos and Ruth.” Dated 1965, it wishes “Spring Greetings” and appears to be a stylized portrait of the couple Ruth Kligman and Carlos Sansegundo, who were married for several years, sometime after Kligman’s affair with de Kooning and many years after the car crash she survived, but that killed Jackson Pollock and her friend Edith Metzger. The drawing offers clues to what was probably a very complex web of social interactions among the husbands, wives, lovers, and exes in the sometimes tempestuous lives of artists.

Although big guns of the period such as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Ibram Lassaw, Saul Steinberg, and Esteban Vicente are all represented in the show with unusual or typical works, it is worth applauding the omission of Pollock. With a real eye to quality, it is admirable that the organizers resisted an urge to add the arguably biggest of guns to the arsenal. So many of the works that remain in circulation are of average quality or worse. With a show of this caliber, there is no need to tick off boxes.

It will remain on view through Sept. 23. Tomorrow, Helen Harrison will speak “On the Signa Gallery, East Hampton 1957-1960” at 6:30 p.m.

Above, left to right, a Willem de Kooning drawing shares wall space with an unusual and diminutive painting by Franz Kline and a Robert Motherwell, with a William Zogbaum sculpture in the foreground.
Giorgio Cavallon’s and Conrad Marca-Relli’s canvases are complemented by a sculpture by Sidney Geist.