World Arts / Art News

Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell’s houses in East Hampton, the American Cadaqués

Llegeix-lo en català

There are some places which, due to their natural power (the landscape, geography, architecture, light and atmosphere), attract artists to live and work there, and which, in one way or another, influence their work. One of these places is Cadaqués.

It’s a well-known fact that it had a major influence on Salvador Dalí’s work, who said that one cannot understand his painting without knowing Portlligat (the quiet bay next to Cadaqués). This town in Empordà has a long tradition of artists who have spent varying amounts of time and produced a varied number of works there. From the easel painters of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Eliseu Meifren, Rafael Llimona and Ramon Casas, the Cubists such as Pablo Picasso and André Derain, and later, led there by Dalí, the surrealists René Magritte, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst. Later, between the 1950s and 1970s, Cadaqués attracted top international artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray, Hamilton, Roth, Cage…, as well as artists from this country such as Corberó, Rafols Casamada and Tharrats, among others. All of them have forged the well-deserved fame of Cadaqués as an artists’ town.

Another similarly paradigmatic case, but less famous, is that of the American locality of East Hampton. This town is located on Long Island (more than 160 km long), directly opposite Manhattan. In its westernmost part are the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, part of New York City; while the easternmost part of the island is where the small town of East Hampton is located, which, in the 1940s, was a natural spot with the omnipresence of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, long untouched beaches, economical (tourism had not yet arrived there) and far from the excesses of New York.

Here, from the end of World War II, came the European surrealists who wanted to get away from the aftermath of that war: Max Ernst and André Breton and two of the most important members of abstract expressionism: Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, all of whom lived and worked there.

The first of the American painters to settle in East Hampton was Jackson Pollock in 1945, followed by Motherwell in 1947.

“Is he the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”

In 1949, under this title, the conservative magazine Life published an article on Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). At the time, this magazine was the best-seller in the United States with about five million readers each week. Life dedicated the article to one of the most controversial artists of the time in the midst of a debate over the role of contemporary art in the country. The article was accompanied by a series of photographs of Pollock in his studio, taken by Arnold Newman and Martha Holmes. It was the power of these photographs that pushed the magazine to go ahead with the article despite its editor having doubts. The photographs showed Pollock painting in a way that had never been seen before. A large, frameless canvas lay on the ground instead of on an upright easel. The artist circled the canvas, almost like a dancer, as he dripped paint with the brush without ever touching the painting. The article, along with the photographs was what triggered Pollock’s fame, after having gone through many artistic crises that would lead him to extreme alcoholism. Along with Pollock’s “choreography”, the other protagonist of the photographs was the studio, and in the background, the artist’s house in East Hampton.

Jackson Pollock creating one of the legendary drip paintings in his East Hampton studio on Long Island. Photograph: Arnold Newman

Four years before the article was published in Lifemagazine, in 1945 Pollock had married Lee Krasner (1908-1984), also a painter, and was sponsored by art collector and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. To the surprise of their colleagues, the artist couple purchased a farm and a barn dating back to 1879, both wooden buildings, in East Hampton. They began living in this new home, enjoying a few years of calm and happiness during which Krasner managed to get Pollock away from alcohol.

The barn that Pollock turned into a studio in the natural surroundings of Long Island. Photograph: Martha Holmes, for the 1949 issue of Life magazine.

The house had no running water or heating, and it didn’t even have a bathroom. It was a humble unpretentious American farm, lacking the basic amenities we expect from architecture. However, it took this artistic married couple away from the noise, interference and distractions (sometimes superfluous) of the big city. In that isolated spot, in a natural environment by the sea, Pollock and Krasner sought the essential nature of life and art, just as Gala and Dalí had in Portlligat in the 1930s, when they refurbished various small and simple constructions designed to store local fishermen’s gear. Dalí himself would write magnificently:

“It was there that I learned to become poor, to sharpen my mind so that it would acquire the effectiveness of an axe, where blood tasted like blood and honey tasted of honey. A life that was hard without metaphors or wine, a life with the light of eternity. The contemplations of Paris, the lights of the city and the jewels of the Rue de Paix, could not resist this other light, total, centuries-old, poor, serene and intrepid like the concise forehead of Minerva.”

A few yards from the Pollocks’ farm, there was a modest barn with a small annex that was a storehouse for the fishing gear of the former owners who lived off the resources of the land and the sea. Pollock made this his studio, as the small building was an ideal size and because it had a large window where plenty of natural light entered. The studio didn’t have electricity either, so Pollock always worked there during the day. The wooden walls had numerous cracks and holes through which the wind, cold, and humidity of winter came in, allowing Pollock to feel the strength of the place and of nature.

It was in this barn, in 1947 that Pollock painted the first of the drip technique paintings that would consolidate him as the “Greatest Painter in the United States.” Could he have created such a powerful painting in his comfortable New York studio, without experiencing the force of nature in his body? 

It is noteworthy that in the neighbouring town of Haptington – also around 1947 – Mies van der Rohe renovated a traditional wooden barn similar to that of Pollock to convert it into the home of the sculptor Mary Callery (see the article “Mies van der Rohe: The Barn, l’obra perduda” (The Barn, the lost work of art), published on this website).

In that same year, 1947, another abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) bought some land in East Hampton, near the Pollock and Krasner farm, where he would build his house.

Robert Motherwell was the youngest of the group of artists from the New York School (in fact, this term was coined by Motherwell himself). Early in his career, he would exhibit with Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning at Peggy Guggenheim’s newly opened Art of This Century Gallery in New York. The rich collector, now a gallery owner, (advised by Duchamp and Mondrian, among others) was the one who discovered Pollock and who supported the young New York School artists.

In the same way that Pollock painted his first drip paintings in the East Hampton barn, Motherwell would make the first in a long series (about 200) of the elegies to the Spanish Republic in his new home. Paintings that would go on to consolidate him as one of the great American artists of that time.

Motherwell. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34 (1953-1954).

Motherwell decided to commission the house to the French architect and designer Pierre Chareau (1883-1950). 

Before studying painting at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the artist studied philosophy and French literature at Stanford University. Strongly influenced by French culture and after a trip to Europe (he was the only one out of his fellow artists from the New York School to travel to this continent), he met the ideal architect to design his house: the Frenchman, Pierre Chareau.

The painter met Chareau in 1944 and they soon became friends. In 1946, Motherwell would commission the Frenchman with the architecture section of the magazine, Possibilities, which he co-edited with musician John Cage and critic Harold Rosemberg.

Pierre Chareau is the creator behind the renowned house built in Paris between 1928 and 1932: the Maison de Verre (House of Glass). Without a doubt, it is one of the paradigms of modern architecture and a built manifesto. A manifesto of compositional and constructive freedom made with industrial materials, a steel structure and glass enclosures, with a free plan and composition. A veritable lesson in architecture taught by an architect with virtually no other built works.

Maison de Verre (1928-1932) in Paris, work of Pierre Chareau, a paradigm of modern architecture. Photograph: Marc Lyon.

Maison de Verre (1928-1932) in Paris, work of Pierre Chareau, a paradigm of modern architecture. Photograph: Marc Lyon.

As Motherwell had a very limited budget to build the house, he suggested that the architect use a Quonset prefabricated hut, which, during World War II, the U.S. Military assembled quickly, without skilled labour wherever they were needed (to set up military camps, field hospitals, dormitories for soldiers, offices, arsenals, etc.) Quonset was a prefabricated galvanised steel building with a semi-cylindrical cross-section and elongated proportions. At the end of the war, the US military sold off the surplus huts to the civilian population and some 160,000 units were built. In most cases, their use contributed to tarnishing the architectural landscape of American towns with poor architecture designed to be something ephemeral with no established place – garages, storage rooms, all kinds of shops…

For Chareau, renovating the hut proved to be an attractive challenge. Although at the Maison de Verre he had already worked with prefabricated systems and industrial materials, he now had to turn a sort of cold hangar into a home. To start with, he identified the positive aspects of the hut: it was an open space. However, the building was quite low, and it had an insufficient and dark surface area as it only had small windows in the side panels.

Chareau’s proposal was extremely simple and yet very clever: he would place the semi-cylindrical carcass on top of economical concrete block walls, which would give it free interior height and at the same time they would act as retaining walls against the earth, due to the fact that they were partially underground. The volume gained comes partially from the underground area, so as not to elevate the house excessively in comparison with the surrounding natural land and thus adapting it to the existing topography. 

Robert Motherwell in front of his house where you can see the windows made of recycled glass from a nearby greenhouse.

The height gained enables it to have a loft that in turn provides the hut with the necessary surface area. On the façade, the architect cuts the semi-circular covering to open up a large window with a glass enclosure recovered from a dismantled greenhouse near the site. Thanks to this large window, natural light can flood into virtually the entire interior space.

The living room with a fireplace, the dining room, storage room, pantry and kitchen are on the lower floor. Upstairs, we find the Motherwells’ double bedroom, with a dressing room, a bathroom and a study. Chareau reinforces the idea of creating an open space by building as few partitions as possible. Thus, the Quonset hut becomes the home the painter had wished for.

The Motherwell House: a view of the loft’s corridor where the floor made of log cuttings can be seen.

Motherwell, influenced by surrealist artists such as Max Ernst, was drawn to automatism and spontaneity, going against the geometry of European art. Motherwell stated, “All my works consist of a dialectic between consciousness (straight lines, designed shapes, weighted colours, abstract language) and unconsciousness (soft lines, dark shapes, automatism).” His home is certainly between the consciousness of straight lines of the interior elements and the unconsciousness of the soft lines of the building’s envelope.

Undoubtedly, both the farm and the refurbishment of the Quonset hut influenced, to varying degrees, the life and works of both Pollock and Motherwell. However, the quiet and happy life devoted to painting didn’t last long for the Pollock-Krasner couple. Once Pollock had gained recognition and fame, he plunged into a creative crisis that submerged him once again back into alcohol. In 1956, after 18 months of not having painted practically anything, under the influence of alcohol, Pollock died in a car accident driving along a road on Long Island.

On the modest farm of East Hampton, Pollock painted the work that made him one of the great painters of the 20th century and Lee Krasner lived and worked there until her death in 1985. The two buildings, the house and the barn, now form a national monument.

For Motherwell, however, it’s a very different case: in the East Hampton house he painted the first of his famous elegies and defined his work by saying: “Somehow all my pictures are like layers extracted from a continuum whose duration is my life.” This continuum had a brief moment in the house designed by Chareau, as, a few years later, Motherwell would go through a crisis in his marriage that ended in divorce and the sale of the house.

Unfortunately, after passing through the hands of several owners, the house was demolished in 1985. Other modern buildings have suffered the same fate (or bad luck) as a result of the fragility of this architecture, often misunderstood and which all too often is not protected by the Government (which should fight to ensure the preservation of the architectural heritage).

As artists, both the Pollock-Krasner couple and Motherwell, as well as Dalí and Gala, found a place away from the noise and distractions of the big city, in a natural setting with unique architecture, the ideal place to live and work. Like Pollock and Krasner, Dalí and Gala opted for a traditional architecture of the area, with minimal intervention; Motherwell, however, preferred modern post-war industrialisation, adapted by an architect with an open and contemporary vision.

Despite the distance (not only physically but also culturally and historically) between East Hampton and Cadaqués, the two places acted as catalysts for a series of highly significant and almost contemporary artists. Thus, after Pollock and Motherwell arrived in East Hampton, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, two important members of abstract expressionism also went there. The fame of this town grew among the elite members of the art world, which led to the pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol all moving there in the early 1960s.

Few localities as small as Cadaqués and East Hampton have brought together such a large and important cast of artists. These small towns competed with world art capitals such as Paris and New York. David against Goliath, a battle of extremes: small against big, nature versus cities, silence opposed to noise, slowness against speed, the ultra-local in contrast with the global, because it is from this limited locality and tiny place where one can achieve universality, in a place “where blood tasted like blood and honey tasted like honey.”

Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock strolling through the natural surroundings of their home in East Hampton. Photograph: Martha Holmes, for the 1949 issue of Life magazine.
Marc Arnal
Doctor arquitecte és el director Acadèmic dels Graus d’Arquitectura i Edificació de l’ETSALS Universitat Ramón Llull i responsable de l’assignatura de projectes de 3r curs. Compagina la docència amb la tasca professional on és coautor de projectes com el CosmoCaixa de Barcelona o alguns dels edificis del Campus de la Salle Barcelona. És l’autor del disseny del paviment de la Diagonal de Barcelona.

Aquest lloc web utilitza galetes («cookies») per diferenciar-vos d'altres usuaris i activar diverses funcions d'acord amb la informació i els serveis que El Temps de les Arts us vol oferir, però heu de donar el vostre consentiment per acceptar-les. Més informació

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.