Alone with their muses, artists in retreat wonder if it's too much

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Alone with their muses, artists in retreat wonder if it's too much
Eric Haze at the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton, N.Y. For artists, writers and composers, a prestigious residency was coveted, but the extra isolation during the pandemic can inspire — or wear. Craig Wetherby via The New York Times.

by Bob Morris

EAST HAMPTON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Eric Haze was 10 years old, he and his sister posed for Elaine de Kooning in her downtown Manhattan studio. It was 1972 and it had been arranged through a colleague of his father. In between sittings, the artist, who painted John F. Kennedy, Berry Gordy and Pelé, and was married on and off to Willem de Kooning, gave Haze brushes and told him to paint. She also taught him how to stretch canvases.

Within a few years he moved from abstraction to graffiti, which fascinated de Kooning, recalled Haze, 59, who grew up in Manhattan. She told him that artists have to follow their muses in each moment.

By the early 1980s, he became part of Soul Artists, an influential New York City graffiti collective, and exhibited alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both friends, at MoMA PS1. He showed at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and later sent his graphic nonfigurative paintings around the world. Rejecting a life of total artist isolation, he formed a thriving design business with clients including the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. In recent years he has designed clothes and spaces for Nike and the Standard Hotel. And in 2013 he married actress Rosie Perez and led a highly collaborative and social life.

But all that changed when he started his artist’s residency at the Elaine de Kooning house in December. “I came out here with the goal of relearning how to paint,” he said from a studio with a massive window wall looking out at the barren woods in East Hampton. Dozens of his freshly painted views of the studio — in shades of gray — contrasted with de Kooning’s old color-saturated portrait of Haze and his sister on one wall. His own earliest abstract canvases in rich hues, painted as a child under her tutelage, stood out on another.

In between was his striking new portrait of de Kooning, hair as wild as her eyes and one hand holding a cigarette.

Over the course of months, with many nights of painting through dawn, “going down a rabbit hole and ending up in such a pure state,” he said, he could feel de Kooning’s spirit — she died in 1989 — guiding him to paint people, starting with himself. “But it wasn’t until now that I felt I deserved to paint Elaine,” he said. “These last few weeks alone I really turned a corner.”

Many people have turned all kinds of corners in the weeks since quarantine began, facing isolation with nothing but their own inner creative resources to help shape their days. For many artists, writers and composers who have been awarded prestigious residencies to isolate themselves in remote places and sometimes in punishing climates, it is a coveted situation. But if, as Matisse put it, “creativity takes courage,” the extra isolation during a pandemic can start to wear away at even the most stoic artists.

“If you’re not used to it, it can be a little crippling,” said Pat Phillips, who has a painting residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for seven months in the offseason, when the summer resort town can feel like the end zone of a very cold and dark world. “There’s nothing else to do here but get together, so the enforced extra isolation right now is tough.”

His long days are, at least, softened by the presence of his wife, artist Coady Brown, who is also a fellow. (They’re called “bedfellows.”) But the usual community interactions and events like readings have been canceled. Dune walks and potluck dinners made with local clams are out for now too.

“The group of residents this year was very social, but now they’re isolated,” said Richard MacMillan, the organization’s executive director, who decided to keep things running through the quarantine months. Many residency programs have not — the Studios at MASS MoCA, the Vermont Studio Center, Ucross in Wyoming, the American Academy in Rome and Watermill Center, among others, shut down. So did Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.

“It just didn’t seem like it would be Yaddo without the meals together and the fellowship,” said Elaina Richardson, the president of the storied artist retreat who had to find flights home for residents and even accommodations for those who had sublet their apartments. “I mean what were we supposed to do — leave a picnic basket outside everyone’s door?”

In fact, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, now closed, has always done just that to allow its artists to stay alone with their thoughts during the day. Susan Choi, who won the 2019 National Book Award for her novel “Trust Exercise,” was a MacDowell resident in 2017. “You can’t even claim to have to make yourself lunch, so what choice do you have but to work?” she observed.

Madeleine George, a playwright, was one of the first residents at MacDowell to leave early this spring. She found the colony both “exceptionally isolated and like Kennedy Airport with international artists coming and going.” The last week before closing, residents were served all their meals in their cottages with no opportunity for the typical mingling at breakfast or dinner. “I found the leave-taking wrenching,” said George, who is married to playwright Lisa Kron, “but handled with exceptional grace and care for all.”

Meanwhile, a handful of residency programs — Djerassi in California and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Nebraska among them — were able to remain open into April and even beyond with new rules to keep things safe. “The last month became extremely distracting with all the news,” said Paolo Arao, a Brooklyn artist who just returned from a three-month residency at Bemis. “But Nebraska had very few COVID cases, so it felt safer than home.”

The Elaine de Kooning House residency seems especially well designed for sheltering in place. It hosts just one artist — Haze the past few months with a single staff member on the other side of the building who left meals and fresh-baked cookies. “Eric often works through the night while I am up during the day,” Katherine McMahon, the director of programming, said in early April before the artist left to go home, “which is helpful in the age of self-quarantine to minimize interactions.”

She would wave and chat from a safe distance when Haze, often in a daze from his painting marathons, stepped outside splattered in paint for a cigarette before going back to work.

“I promised my wife I’d quit when I get home,” he said at the time. “But right now, it would be too distracting and take me out of the zone.”

Perez, who had been on her own in their Brooklyn town house, accommodated him, even when he went on to prolong his stay past early April as originally planned, into mid-April. “I tell myself that I have to let him be and that he is in such a special moment that I don’t want to crush it by pressuring him,” she said last month, noting that she often is away to work for long periods. “My whole family doesn’t understand it.”

She added that their phone conversations had been inspiring because he was thinking about his life more intensely and that she had never seen him so happy — except on their wedding day.

On an early April Wednesday, as the pandemic was raging in New York City with reports of constant sirens, an open door to de Kooning’s former studio let in the sound of birds and tree branches creaking in the wind. Haze sat on a stool in front of a self portrait he’d only recently completed of his sultry younger self, leaning against a car, cigarette in hand just like de Kooning in the portrait on the other side of him.

Across his studio, his collection of Clorox wipes and surgical gloves (“I have boxes of them and plan to give them away to friends like bottles of wine,” he said) was dwarfed by tubes, buckets and cans of paint, rags, thinner and brushes of every size. “I brought enough supplies out here to paint through the apocalypse,” he said. To his left his large painting of de Kooning painting Kennedy, and his interpretation of the one she painted of him and his sister as children, created a hall of mirrors effect that spiraled back decades, bringing the past into the present. Nearby, a portrait of his grandfather as an immigrant boy was in progress. His time alone in residence, he said, inspired him to remember him vividly as he did all kinds of people from the past.

“Elaine has been a spiritual guiding force in these months and I’ve really fallen in love with her since I started coming out here,” he said. “Even my wife knows it.”

He said he was planning to return to Perez the following day. But a week later he was still painting through the apocalypse.

“As Elaine used to say,” he noted, “obsession is part of the process.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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