THE SPRINGS, NY — Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning so dominate the creation story of Abstract Expressionism in New York that these two hard-drinking celebrities continue to busy biographers, often crowding out other artists who had the mixed fortune of painting during their twin ascendancy.
The predominance of Pollock and de Kooning extended to the artistic community at the eastern end of Long Island, here in The Springs, this seaside hamlet that straddles the wooded northwestern edges of East Hampton.
So it was a welcome early summer surprise to visit the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, just up Springs-Fireplace Road, and discover that, courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, its walls were hung with art by a painter from the heyday of Abstract Expressionism whose first name does not begin with Jackson or Willem (or, for that matter, with Mark or Cy or Barnett or Robert).
That work is by the painter Nicolas Carone (1917–2010). The special exhibition, which runs until July 27, is subtitled “The East Hampton Years: Paintings from the 1950s.”
Carone, or simply “Nick,” as he was known to his friends, was born on the Lower East Side and raised in Hoboken. Like Pollock, Carone made his full-time residency in The Springs quite early in this farming-and-fishing region’s second life as an informal artist colony. Pollock helped Carone find the home he eventually bought. The two were nearby neighbors, and Carone’s two sons, as toddlers, played with Pollock.
Carone studied painting at several institutions, including the Art Students League and Hans Hofmann’s school. He spent the late 1940s painting in Italy on a Fulbright, and returned to New York City just in time to have his work included in the famous “Ninth Street Show” in May 1951. Carone enjoyed a prominent showing of his well-received work throughout the 1950s, particularly at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery, a cultural mecca that Carone had a direct hand in creating. However, according to his New York Times obituary, across four decades, until a 2005 show of his drawings at Lohin Geduld Gallery, his art was never exhibited publicly. This recent Carone revival continued with successive shows in New York around his drawings, paintings and sculptures, and the publication of several articles and features on that work in the years before his death in 2010.
From his time as a member of “The Club” in the 1950s and continuing in his final interviews, Carone never stopped advocating for the cause of abstraction. He spoke out for a direct technique that accrues its form and its subjects from a personal sensitivity fueled by attentiveness to everyday details. “If you look at the sidewalks on a rainy day,” Carone told interviewer Frank Messina in 2006, “study all the marks, you see great paintings.” Unfussy and exuberant, he took cues from musical and literary models. “Don’t be fooled by technique or paint quality,” Carone said. “Fuck it! It’s the imagery that goes on. It’s metaphoric and it’s poetry in a jazz sense. It’s symbolic and it’s on another dimension. It’s not an order like Picasso but it’s another dimension, the rhythm of mass.”
This summer, in Pollock’s own home, the walls are decked with nine representative oil paintings from the height of Carone’s residency in The Springs.
Though these pictures are purely abstract, his all-over style is much less densely occupied than Pollock’s. Instead of Pollock’s intricate networks of shapes and miraculously interlaced squibs and drips, Carone’s 1950s canvases favor thick applications of paint, graphic asymmetry, explosive and carnal imagery, and frequent chromatic discord.
His brushwork creates a collage-like tableaux of jagged edges; fine, bisecting lines; viscous, semicircular contours; cool planes and lightweight patterning. Judging from this show, his palette seems drawn directly from the topographical qualities of the Long Island shore communities. Seashell whites and pinks intermingle with tonal variations of bleached beige, pale greens and fiery oranges and reds that intimate sand dunes, stony mud patches, sassafras, and beach fires. These colors are frequently worked around sea-blues, olives and bolts of tans or browns that call to mind the shingled homes and thick trees and shrubs that whirr past on Montauk Highway.
“Ear of Earth” (1960) is the most emphatic picture on display from Carone’s East Hampton years. Hanging in the main room of the house, directly above Lee and Jackson’s former dining room table, “Ear of Earth,” encapsulates the most extreme features of Carone’s abstract work.
The painting’s left and right sides are dominated by two distinct color fields.
The left side conveys air and sky, while the right conveys land, and deep roots. Between those competing fields, or panels, a dense and inchoate riot of color attracts, and also repels, the viewer’s attention to and from its contorted center.
On the painting’s far left, the sheeting of eggshell white paint is dotted by a lightly handled pink-red that appears to bleed through the otherwise whitish surface. Beneath that upper left side of relative lightness, a violent swab of turquoise and bluish gray, like a found stone or shell, hovers over a yellow-white pocket that is itself bordered at the painting’s bottom frame, unexpectedly, by the reappearance of the gentle pink-red underpainting, a color that had only teasingly indicated its presence in the soft field above.
From this spacious left side, the viewer’s eye is lured to the extreme right of the canvas, as if the gaze needs to “step over,” or temporarily dodge, the painting’s demanding center with its inchoate forms.
Settling on the picture’s far right, the view of this very large painting is dramatically charged by its dissimilarity to the airy vividness on the far left. A clay-like orange — or raw sienna — dominates the right half. This clay color, along with the concomitant solidity it indicates, is penetrated by a bulbous, dirt-brown vegetable form and, further down, a blood-red, heart-like vessel. Despite being parallel to the lustrously colored left side, these entrenched, or vascular, imageries establish a grounding, a kind of body or a living foundation. Given the painting’s title, its abstractions nevertheless seem to invite an organically derived interpretation. Taken as a whole, the painting seems to be a cross-section of some sympathetic network within the human body, or within a selected geological strata of the earth, either of which has been turned on its side for better scrutiny.
The clotted, mostly dark brushwork in the center is dominated by aggressively painted cavities and disagreeable, intestine-like sections painted in overlapping browns, olives, and traces of orange and red. A row of five cartographic canals neatly guide the eye downward to these bladder-like innards.
It seems, then, as if the painting is Carone’s transposition of the human ear’s hidden biological structure — the auditory canal, the tympana, the cochlea — into a geological vocabulary. This possibility is reinforced by his use of the Long Island landscape’s colors. It is as if Carone allegorizes the land as a sort of human equipped with the gear for channeling — or is it ingesting? — commotions and repercussions and information from above — from the sunlit surfaces, or even from the water or the sky.
Such an improvised reading of the painting accords with biographical facts. Carone and his pioneering city exiles in the Hamptons fished and farmed their own land, furrowed the soil to grow potatoes, and dug irrigation trenches and wells. By night, they listened to jazz and argued and gossiped volubly to one another. Light and water, as well as productive soil and human sound, defined daily life out here.
Perhaps Carone’s abstract painting is pursuing far more subtle and philosophical associations and meanings as well. Might “Ear of Earth,” with its simultaneous connotation of geological extraction and auditory power reference the themes of planting and listening put forth in the Biblical “Parable of the Sower”? “And some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth… And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And others fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased…He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Maybe the “mass of rhythm” that Carone cited in his last interview is what “Ear of Earth” embodies. The painting seems a sort of synesthetic graph modeled on the painter’s body freely in motion. Its flourishes and its sinews recognize the physiological vibrations common to both sight and hearing. Its colors are pressed by the brush to canvas in order to better feel — as sound links an exterior phenomenon with interior receptors — the colors of Long Island’s topographical configurations under its intense, changing sunlight. The visual pulses caused by the pigments’ reflection of light have their aural parallels in what happens when sound waves are apprehended within the inner and middle ear. Carone’s painting, through the filter of landscape, makes virtual sound from vision, boring down into the essence of pigment, namely, its derivation as a product of the earth.
Nicolas Carone: The East Hampton Years continues at the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center (830 Springs-Fireplace Road, East Hampton, NY) through July 27.