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De Kooning's Bicycle

The Sunday before last, in the course of my weekly Book Review review review, I listed the nonfiction books that I was not planning to read. The following is an item from the list.

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

What could I say, then, when on Tuesday evening I received a note, via e-mail, from the author himself, asking me "to do so"? By Wednesday afternoon, I had the book in possession, and by Thursday evening I'd read all of it. Thank you, Mr Long, for your persistence.

I could write a few words about Jim Lewis's review (oops! I omitted his name from the item), and how it misled me to expect a very different sort of book, but I've been spending enough time on the Book Review, thank you very much. It's enough to say that I was not surprised to see that De Kooning's Bicycle begins with a brief description and history of the East End of Long Island that gently leads to its discovery by artists in the 1870s and concludes with the arrival of the author's family in Maidstone Park in the 1960s.

It was just down the road from the places where Jackson Pollock died, Frank O'Hara drank gimlets, Jean Stafford stared out her study windows, and Willem de Kooning rode his Royce Union three-speed, white hair and work shirt flapping. Most people there had heard of de Kooning and Pollock, but their celebrity was minor. The art world was largely irrelevant to anyone but artists; the idea of investing in art at any level was unheard of. Those who did keep an eye on the art world said that de Kooning, who by then was over sixty, was past his prime; the pastel landscapes he was making lacked the aggressive psychodrama of the paintings of women that had made him famous. Lee Krasner, Pollock's widow, was guarding the work her husband had left behind, doing what she could to help its value increase. Hardly anyone even knew she was a painter, nor would they have cared.

This appears to be a graceful, personal introduction to the material promised by the subtitle, and little in the following two chapters alters that impression. Devoted to William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam, these are light sketches of the artists' careers, with an emphasis on their time in the Hamptons. In the fourth chapter, Mr Long shifts gears slightly and, reverting to the tone of his introduction, takes us on a guided tour of the Green River Cemetery. This graveyard, situated in Springs, the hamlet at the Gardiner's Bay end of East Hampton, holds the remains of many notables of American Modernism; it is also the site of mordant interaction between "locals" and sophisticates. I was beginning to find the sheer mortality of things oppressive when the chapter ended, and, turning the page, I found myself at the foot of the grand staircase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, following what I soon discerned to be the ghost of Jackson Pollock.

He realized, moving through the galleries, that he felt good. No hangover, no crud in his eyes, no film of sweat that he could never quite scrub away, no headache, no queasiness in his stomach. The anxiety that he had lived with for so long was lifted. He felt light. If he wanted to run ten blocks down Fifth Avenue, he probably could, and wouldn't be winded. So this was what it was like, being dead.


Actually, by the time I reached the quoted passage, I was quite comfortable eavesdropping on "Jack's" third-person narrative, in which many of the details of Pollock's life surface briefly. I know some of the details; anyone who saw Pollock, with Ed Harris in the title role, knows some of the details. But the purpose of these details is interesting: we learn, from the way Pollock handles them, something about his personality, about his take on the world. The details themselves are unimportant. Pollock, ruminating, has a breathing palpable presence that no other account (not even Pollock) has achieved. The discomfort - call it irritable restlessness, if you like - that always seems to be attributed to this painter becomes, in Mr Long's hands, an animating feature, not so much a characteristic as a gesture.

He wasn't the first painter to drip paint onto a canvas and never claimed to be. He told anyone who asked who his influences were. But he was the first artist to make a whole body of work that grew from improvisation. The accidents - there had to be another word, they weren't really accidents - were the best part of what he did. He relied on that. But people didn't appreciate how much control went into what he did. It took real skill to drip paint accurately, to make it do exactly what you wanted it to do. Squirting paint from a baster sounded silly, and looked it, too, until you tried it. He knew how to use accidents as they happened, how to control the process just enough. If someone stepped on a canvas or if a butt stuck to it, that was fine.

Fastidious readers will want to know how in hell Mr Long has the nerve to presume to know the thoughts of a painter who died not long after he was born. There are five pages of sources at the end of De Kooning's Bicycle, but Mr Long makes no claim to scholarship. It would appear, rather, that he has, both as an amateur of art and as an art critic (two different things), simply soaked up enough lore to paint a verbal portrait that certainly sounds right. Does he really really really capture the essence of Jackson Pollock? The more you read of De Kooning's Bicycle, the sillier that question sounds.

But there is no question that Mr Long's has made his book vulnerable to dismissive rebuke. Those second and third chapters turn out to be red herrings, creating expectations that the author has no intention of meeting. Since they're there, and now that I know the book, I say, leave them in. But in all truth, they don't belong. Chase and Hassam can't be meaningfully bracketed with the modernists at the heart of De Kooning's Bicycle, and Mr Long's treatment of them is far less imaginative. In retrospect, you can see adumbrations of the narrative style that dominates the later chapters, but they're only traces. I fault Mr Long's editor more than the author himself. It is very easy to be too close to your material to see that you've actually got two projects on your hands. Chase and Hassam are dead men in this book. Everyone else is very much alive.

After Pollock, there's a brief chapter about Alfonso Ossorio, a Domino Sugar heir who made art himself but who is better known as a friend and patron of bigger fish; it was to a party at his house that Pollock was on his way when he collided, fatally, with a tree. Then there's Frank O'Hara, on his way from work to catch a Long Island at Penn Station, already aging in his late thirties, already somewhat spent, although doing nicely at MoMA. The eighth chapter, told from poet James Schuyler's point of view, features a morning in 1968 in the Fairfield Porter ménage. Porter was an independently wealthy figurative painter and art critic who seems everlastingly perched on the brink of a "rediscovery," and Mr Long manages to suggest why he seems stuck in the doorway. (By coincidence, Schuyler's and Porter's letters have just been published, and given a nice write-up in The New York Review of Books by Mark Ford.) De Kooning is the subject of the tenth chapter, and the author makes a winking appearance as a teenager who knows the painter's daughter; even though de Kooning was past his prime, Mr Long got to see him at work.  

He backed his chair out from the table a little so if he turned his head he could see de Kooning without being too obvious about it. His friends didn't even care that he was in there, painting. They were used to coming here, he thought. They came here all the time. He heard swishing sounds and saw de Kooning picking up sheets of paper from the floor, maybe drawings. There was a big painting with fat strokes of bright red and yellow on a big easel against one wall, and de Kooning was about fifteen feet away from it, still moving drawing around. Now he straightened up and faced the painting, not moving. The boy could see his profile. He seemed to be frowning. He stood perfectly still, staring. He could see other paintings leaning against the far wall of the studio. It was like an airplane hanger in there, big and echoey.

That is is not always entirely clear to whom the personal pronouns refer is not, I think, a flaw in memory piece imbued with awe. What I did not consciously notice when I was reading the de Kooning chapter was how much its tone differed from that of the Pollock chapter. Pollock is all about doubt and uncertainty and low-grade discomfort; that is how the man lived. De Kooning, in contrast, is an observer who seems almost unaware of himself. He sees; he is always thirsty to see more. That's why he rides around on his bicycle every day.

As it happens, I have never been to the East End of Long Island, not even once. (The farthest-out I've been is Bellport.) "The Hamptons" has always suggested a place that you might as well not visit unless you are very wealthy. It not so much that you'll need money there as that you'll be breathing it. I have never known anyone who had a house in the Hamptons, and while I could still drive I never made the trek out to Montauk. Suddenly, however, I'd like to visit to the East End, just to have a look at unfashionable Springs - if it is, indeed, still unfashionable. I know where things are now, because Mr Long's book soon had me poring over the DeLorme atlas of New York State. For the first time, I know what "the Shinnecock Hills" means, and where Sag Harbor is in relation to Amagansett. I know that all of this territory has been massively built up since Lee Krasner used to blow up at the mention of Bill de Kooning's name, but there must remain vestiges, and De Kooning's Bicycle has triggered a curiosity to savor them. It has also made me more interested in Abstract Expressionism than I should have thought possible. These are no mean achievements for any book.

I realized the extent of Mr Long's tonal control in the chapter about Jean Stafford. Stafford has shifted, in my lifetime, from a current writer publishing in major magazines to an item on an academic curriculum in waiting for her volume in the Library of America; general readers have by and large forgotten her.

When the workday was done, she might open a Budweiser with a tradesman and chat about the weather and politics for a spell - she learned about fishing this way, ocean fishing accomplished with great, hand-hauled seines - and she could find friends on the phone at night when she needed them. Word and though welled up over the course of a day.

They'd asked her to give a reading at Guild Hall, the village's palace of culture, and she'd said yes; they offered $250, and all it required was a trip to town. People she liked would turn out to hear her; there would be enough friendly faces to make it more pleasure than obligation.

What would she read?

Stafford decided to read "In the Zoo," and so did I. Putting down De Kooning's Bicycle for a moment, I dug out The Collected Stories, and read about the two little sisters who are put in foster care with a mean-hearted friend of their grandmother when their parents die, and about the drunk but self-possessed Irishman who gives them a puppy. I knew that I'd read the story before, but it seemed all-new. A vanished America came to life on the page, and how glad it made me feel that it had vanished. Returning to Mr Long, I felt that Stafford's story and Chapter 10 of De Kooning's Bicycle had been written by the same dry hand.

Mr Long ends his book with deceptive bravura. Saul Steinberg is the subject, but instead of learning about Saul Steinberg, which we can do from his work, we see the world as he must have seen it, with an endlessly playful curiosity. Everything about this country seems to have caught his attention; Americans were almost another species of life, entertaining, endearing and frightening by turns. "I think of myself as a writer who draws," Steinberg says in an interview, As such, he combines in one body of work the modes of art that the other figures in this book pursue singly.

Round mirrors like large portholes rode a track of sleek horizontal chrome rails from one end of the huge, cafeteria-like dining room to the other, and the mirrored ceiling trapped an explosion of chandeliers. He pulled a sketchbook from his pocket, and began to draw the lamp figure over his head with a black felt-tip pen; it was a kind of Art Nouveau Roman soldier's shield, or a hubcap.

Well, of course.

Have I mentioned that Robert Long has published four books of verse? That would explain his ability to pack so much life into two hundred pages.

Today the light was powdery. Sometimes you knew it was there only by its effect on the water or the shore, but today you felt you could touch it. It was remarkable, really. The branches of the scrubby bushes seemed to be pushing through the light, as if it presented resistance. It soared into some things and wrapped around others. The green of marshy spits on the far side of the creek was so intense it seemed drenched in chemicals. Yet the greens and browns of nearby bushes were subdued. Who could paint that? Fairfield got it, sometimes. You could only catch glimpses of it, the way you catch a certain look that crosses someone's face for a fraction of a second before disappearing forever. That was how you saw light.

(November 2005)

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