Bid to Save Ab-Ex Artists’ Studios

Compound of James Brooks and Charlotte Park is window into their era
An array of paints used by James Brooks remains in his Springs studio, which is on land East Hampton Town bought earlier this year. Doug Kuntz

    In 1954, when Hurricane Carol blew through Montauk, it blew James Brooks’s painting studio right off the cliffs above Fort Pond Bay. Its door was all that was carried back up the hill to save as a memento, and it is still preserved today by a friend of the artist.

    Mr. Brooks, a member of Abstract Expressionism’s original generation who was known as one of the most technically accomplished painters of the New York School, and his wife, Charlotte Park Brooks — also an Abstract Expressionist who became known for developing her own version of the style — had lived and worked in a small house to the west of the Navy pier since 1949, but after the hurricane they decided to pack up and move to Springs.

    Although their good friends Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner came often to Montauk to visit, it was Springs where many of their artist crowd had settled.

    The Brookses had followed Pollock and Krasner to the East End, joining artists such as Willem de Kooning, John Little, Philip Pavia, and Franz Kline.

    The couple had Jeff Potter of Amagansett, who owned East Hampton Dredge and Dock, put the house on a barge and float it to Louse Point. Photographs show it being moved down the street by truck to 11 acres that the couple had purchased on nearby Neck Path.

    It is now owned by East Hampton Town, which purchased the property from the estate of Ms. Park for $1.1 million in March, with money from the town’s preservation fund. Ms. Park died three years ago at 92; Mr. Brooks died in 1992 at age 85.

    The site still contains the relocated house and two studio buildings, one for each of the artists.

    Although the town’s reason for the purchase was to preserve open space, and demolition of all the buildings was planned, the nucleus of a grassroots idea — which could result in the Brooks property becoming some kind of hub for present-day artists as well as a window into the past — is growing.

    On Sept. 10 and again on Tuesday, Loring Bolger, representing an informal group of Springs residents who are interested in seeing the property used for more than just trails and hope to preserve the artist couple’s history, asked the town board to hold off on the demolition and to take steps to have the buildings cleared and cleaned so that their condition could be assessed.

    Besides the house, a modest, one-story cottage, there is a small building used as a studio by Ms. Park, who used her maiden name professionally, and a larger studio used by Mr. Brooks.

    Inside are the picked-over remains of the artists’ lives — a collection of art books and field guides to the natural world Ms. Park so loved, moldering boxes of records turned to mouse nests, and mundane, leftover household items such as baking pans and brooms.

    In the studios — hers, an old shed-like building moved to the site, and his, a several-story building custom-designed by the artist himself to spill north light onto his painting space, and built by him and his artist friends — are random leftover brushes in coffee cans, canvas rolls, and idea files, all showing the signs of time and neglect.

    People living nearby, walking through the woods, stumbled across the frozen tableau several months ago. One brought Oliver Ryan and his mother, Mary Ryan, to the site. The two own and live on the farm at the end of Fireplace Road in Springs that was once the Fireplace Lodge camp. Mr. Ryan sent a friend, Mark Mullen, to see the property, and ideas began to flow.

    Mr. Mullen informed his father, John Mullen, a resident of Louse Point and a former architect, and from there, Mr. Ryan said yesterday, “basically the cavalry showed up.”

    “I thought it would be a shame to demolish those buildings without a thorough examination of them and how they might be put to good community use in the incredible art center of the Springs, the home of American Abstract Expressionism,” the older Mr. Mullen said Tuesday. A qualified architect has volunteered to do the assessment for free, he said.

    Ms. Ryan, a painter who knew some of the gang of Springs artists back in the day, said Tuesday that she pictured perhaps “a mini Art Barge,” like the Napeague property and art center that grew out of the legacy of another artist couple, Victor and Mabel D’Amico.

    East Hampton Town also owns the former Duck Creek Farm, a property dating to the 1790s, which John Little, another painter involved in the Abstract Expressionist movement, purchased in the ’40s, and has begun to allow public events in the refurbished barn there. With that historic property and several others to restore and oversee, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson had expressed some caution last week about taking on another site, and the need for such a thing.

    But Mr. Mullen, a supporter of the arts who gave up his architectural practice after co-founding the Container Store in Dallas, said that “there are some deep pockets involved in this discussion,” suggesting private money could be raised.

    “A number of people have come forward” to show interest in the project, he said, “and generally, they say ‘of course.’ ”

    “I didn’t know about James Brooks and Charlotte Park,” Mr. Mullen said, “and then when I got looking at it, I said, ‘Oh my God, they were a big deal.’ ”

    Mr. Brooks, while working for the Works Progress Administration in 1940, created the mural “Flight” at the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, he said. It was the largest mural created as part of the Depression-era W.P.A.

    It was in the W.P.A. that Brooks met Jackson Pollock and his brother, Sanford, who assisted him on the mural, said Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, a Stony Brook University-supported museum centered at those artists’ former house and studio. An exhibit of Ms. Park’s work is on display there through October.

    “I’m just really pleased that somebody is thinking of doing something like that,” she said of the ideas being explored by Mr. Mullen and company. “It would be a great asset for the community.”

    “And then he went from there to the leading edge of Abstract Expressionism,” Mr. Mullen said of Mr. Brooks’s work after the W.P.A. “An interesting sort of march through time as to how art in America was progressing.”

    Before Ms. Park died, the James and Charlotte Brooks Foundation was formed to take ownership and control of both artists’ work, and has continued to have it exhibited. The Brookses had no children, said Mike Solomon, whose father, the artist Syd Solomon, and mother, Annie Solomon, were close friends of the couple.

    Through a series of complications caused by health crises and the death, in one instance, of the Brookses’ heirs, Mr. Solomon said that the property, which was not left to the foundation, was left in its unattended state.

    “In the community, there are a lot of people who feel bad about it,” said Mr. Solomon, whose career has been in overseeing artists’ foundations.

    Mr. Solomon said that Ms. Park, a naturalist so meticulous about her recordkeeping that she kept a daily dairy of sightings until she could no longer write, told him with no uncertainty that her studio building, first used by her husband while she painted in the house, had once been the post office in Amagansett. It has since been rebuilt, Mr. Solomon said.

    But Robert Hefner, a historic structures consultant for the town who visited the site, said this week that he found no indication that the building was anything other than 1950s vintage.

    None of the buildings on the property were deemed historic, said Scott Wilson, the town’s land acquisitions manager. But, he said, if town officials were to designate the property a historic site, as an example of the lifestyle and properties of the artists in Springs who formed the Abstract Expressionist movement and period in American art, money from the preservation fund could be used for the buildings’ initial repair. The fund is flush with income from a 2-percent real estate transfer tax.

    Changing plans for the property would require the town board to hold a new hearing, after the fact, to technically change the reason for the purchase, under the law.

    “They had an incredible lifestyle,” said Mr. Solomon, who spent a lot of time with the two artists. “Day in and day out,” he said, “they would get up, have breakfast, then just walk through the woods to their studios.” After a break for a simple lunch, he said, they would “sit on the deck, talk a little bit, and then go back to the studio to see what they had done. It was quiet and contemplative, and a place to think — very calm. They didn’t know what hype was.”

    “I think the context is very important,” said Mr. Solomon of understanding their lives and work. It’s a rich context; it’s a shame to lose all of it.”

    Nick Tarr, an East Hampton artist and friend of Ms. Park, said that in Mr. Brooks’s studio, the floor still shows the black lines of paint made when the artist laid his canvases flat, Pollock-style, and painted them black before working on them. Mr. Tarr’s father, the late Bill Tarr, was also an artist.

    Mr. Ryan acknowledged the practical and bureaucratic hurdles of a restoration project, but said he hoped one day to see “a small group of artists using the property and connecting to the past.”

    “If there is a strong enough vision, that really resonates with people, anything can happen,” he said. Under the terms of the town’s purchase, any activity there would have to be open to the general public.

    In Springs, Mr. Ryan said, a very special environment was created when leading-edge artists who gathered at what they called The Club in a loft on Eighth Street moved lock, stock, and barrel to Springs. It created “a critical mass of people working,” he said. “And it’s still happening.”

    But, Mr. Ryan said, “It’s a fragile thing. It’s extremely fragile to create an ecosystem where something happens.” It takes, he said, “being a little conscious about it, and aware.”

    Members of the town board seemed willing last week to agree to Ms. Bolger’s request to hold off on demolishing the buildings. But, said Mr. Wilson this week, removal of the electric service on the property is pending, and he has not received alternate instructions from the board.

Jackson Pollock and James Brooks on the path to the Brookses’ Montauk studio in 1950. Hans Namuth, Courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center
The studio James Brooks designed and built stands empty on acreage now owned by East Hampton Town in Springs. Doug Kuntz