Accabonac House: Legacy of an Enduring Friendship in Springs

A launch party for Accabonac House will be held on Tuesday evening at Ashawagh Hall
Alex Kilgore, in Accabonac House, has dedicated a multidisciplinary artists residency program to Lisa de Kooning, his lifelong friend. Jennifer Landes

Given the circumstances, it would be hard to imagine how a close friendship could have begun between Alex Kilgore and Lisa de Kooning.

Ms. de Kooning, who died in 2012, was known from news accounts and Willem de Kooning biographers as the beloved but troubled daughter of the 20th-century master Abstract Expressionist and Joan Ward. Mr. Kilgore, 10 years her junior, is the son of Mimi Kilgore, who was “called the last muse of the last chapter of de Kooning’s life,” as he said recently between handfuls of blueberries at the Springs house where Ms. de Kooning grew up.

It is a testament to Ms. de Kooning’s famed generosity (and the shield of Mr. Kilgore’s youth at the time of the affair) that she welcomed him into her house at various times of his life to live, work, and recover from bouts with the law and addiction. That Mr. Kilgore is now the artistic director and a board member of Accabonac House, a new nonprofit and multidisciplinary retreat dedicated to Ms. de Kooning at what was once her mother’s house, demonstrates a lifelong connection that ended up being as enduring as the one between their parents.

A launch party for Accabonac House will be held on Tuesday evening from 6 to 10 p.m. at Ashawagh Hall with an art show by Gibby Haynes and Jim Tozzi, who are advisory board members, and Dan Witz. There will be a dance performance by Monica Bill Barnes and Company and music by the Invisible Familiars. The event is free, but all artwork sold will benefit the retreat.

De Kooning acquired the house for Ward, an illustrator, and their daughter in 1961 in exchange for a painting. It is directly across from Green River Cemetery (where, it has been joked, de Kooning could keep an eye on Jackson Pollock’s grave to ensure he was still dead). It has a pool, several bedrooms, and the studio where de Kooning made his “Clam Digger” sculpture. It is a pretty, verdant property, and the house is both cozy and spacious. Dotted throughout are several “doors to nowhere” that de Kooning loved to place in his houses and studios.

As outlined in the biography “De Kooning: An American Master,” written by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the artist met Ms. Kilgore in 1970 at a party. Mr. Kilgore remembers his mother saying, “they talked for hours and everyone else faded into the background.” They made plans to meet at Guild Hall, neither thinking the other would come. They both showed, drove out for lunch to Gosman’s in Montauk, and their long relationship began. Mr. Kilgore was 3 at the time.

Given the disparity in their ages — de Kooning was the exact age of her father — it was a relationship more of companionship than physicality. “She would say they were great friends. . . . It was a meeting of the minds,” Mr. Kilgore said. According to the book, she took him on a house tour, something he would never have done on his own, and that is where he fell in love with her. They traveled and spent time together when they could, but neither of their partners were happy about it.

Mr. Kilgore’s parents separated in 1980 and divorced a couple of years later. His father was in finance but had the soul of a artist, writing and translating poetry and “was the guy in the corner at a party playing Spanish folk songs on guitar.” His mother appreciated art and artists, and connecting them to collectors, eventually taking a formal role as the curator for Fayez Serafim’s collection in Houston.

Both of his parents had been previously married, and the extended immediate family was reminiscent of the Brady Bunch, he said. Their primary residence was in Houston, but every Christmas and summer break, the family all met in East Hampton at a house on Lee Avenue and Hedges Lane, purchased for $60,000 in 1959. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved East Hampton. It represented vacation and family to me.”

Regarding his parents’ relationship, he said, “To be fair, both had affairs, but this was her big affair.” Her relationship with de Kooning was not exclusive. “She knew how to come in, be onstage, never compete with his work, and then get out.” They visited Venice and Spoleto together and wrote a lot of letters, so many that Mr. Kilgore recently took the collection to the de Kooning Foundation to be archived.

When his mother brought him to the studio, he was instructed to call the artist Maestro. He loved East Hampton and convinced his mother to let him stay there for third grade at the John M. Marshall Elementary School. Soon he was back in Texas, however, and as he grew up, he began to chafe at the strictures and trappings of privilege in his household.

He left home at the age of 16 with a punk band called Verbal Abuse, and moved to San Francisco in 1983. “Teenagers are reactive. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew what I didn’t want to be,” he said. He saw art as his mother’s thing, something pretentious. His half-brother Robbie Kilgore, a Grammy-nominated musician, introduced him to the punk scene at an early Clash concert. Through it, he was able to reject both his background and the yuppie values of the Reagan years. Gibby Haynes, a longtime friend of both Mr. Kilgore and Ms. de Kooning, was already playing with the Butthole Surfers, a punk band he formed in Dallas after leaving a job in accounting.

It began a long period of problems with drugs, alcohol, and the law. He eventually pulled himself out of a downward spiral, but in the intervening years, he needed places to park himself while awaiting court dates and on probation. In 1985 and 1987, his mother arranged for him to work in de Kooning’s studio. Then in 1987, after his father sold his house, Ms. de Kooning suggested Mr. Kilgore stay in the house she built on her father’s property. She was in France, pregnant with Isabel, her first daughter with her husband, Christian Villeneuve.

They did not catch up again until several years later. Mr. Kilgore was sober and working as an actor in New York. He apologized for his uncouth behavior while staying at her house when he was younger. “She was so great in that magnanimous way that she had.” She invited him to stay in her father’s studio anytime. “I came out the next weekend. That’s when we really reconnected and entered the adult portion of our friendship,” achieving a new closeness. “She always called me her brother from another mother.”

In the following years, he would bring his theater group Stage Farm out to work on projects at Ward’s house (who died in 2005), and he would come out on his own to write. She was hosting a few informal artist residencies in her father’s studio. Sharing those spaces with other artists made them come alive for her again, Mr. Kilgore said.

“Lisa was all about community and understood her father’s legacy intuitively. She wanted to keep that flame alive.” There was an emptiness to those spaces after her death that not even her three daughters and their children could fill. One day last year, the idea for a residency came to him. “I realized that this is what I would like to do, and do them proud, bringing and creating great work out here.”

He proposed it to her daughters, and they got excited too. Then, he set up a nonprofit so it would not be a burden on them and went about acquiring the necessary approvals from the town. Rachael Horovitz, a friend of Ms. de Kooning’s from childhood, Marsha Norman, and Laurie Beckelman were tapped to form the nucleus of the board along with Ms. de Kooning’s daughters and Mr. Kilgore. There is also an advisory board, which includes Danny Fuller, and nominating committee.

Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was the first official resident announced, and the retreat’s official launch was in May. There is a list of people waiting to come out for the next openings. Writers, actors, directors, musicians, dancers, artists, and filmmakers are eligible for residencies and are proposed by the nominating committee.

Mr. Kilgore plans to bring multidisciplinary work to Ashawagh Hall both together and apart from the residencies. The launch party this week is part of that. He is particularly excited about the Monica Bill Barnes and Company’s participation. “She sold out Town Hall three nights in a row with Ira Glass and she’s coming here for free,” he said, adding that it is the kind of show that would normally cost a lot of money if it were in a more traditional venue here. “I want to do it there, do it in Springs, because of that history and its closeness to the house.”