Each summer, New Yorkers depart the city for the Hamptons, heading there for beaches, drinking, and ritzy dining. This past Memorial Day weekend, something else was drawing Manhattanites as well: the art scene of the Hamptons, which over the past two years has been transformed.
There has always been an art scene in the Hamptons, but never before has it seemed quite so vibrant. More spaces continue to open in the area, and instead of setting up pop-ups, as dealers have done in the past couple years, some gallerists are making a concerted effort this summer to invest in ambitious programming that will extend past this season that will include both international and local artists, often with a strong emphasis on the rich artistic legacy of the region.
The momentum started in 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, when Manhattanites ventured east to shelter in Long Island hamlets. They snapped up rentals or casually bought mansions, and enrolled their children in the private and public schools, which they hoped would open in-person classes sooner than their city counterparts.
While these Manhattanites waited for that to happen, galleries and auction houses dutifully shipped out works to outposts stretching from Southampton to Montauk, like nomads following migratory prey. Among those who did so were galleries like Van de Weghe, Lisson, and Di Donna, who all set up seasonal spaces that closed with the season’s end.
Now, some dealers are betting even bigger by inaugurating permanent galleries in the Hamptons.
“It seemed very natural to come here,” said New York dealer David Lewis at the opening reception of his new space in East Hampton. “The scene here has become much more expansive and dynamic, and I thought it would be a good idea to be a part of it.”
On view at David Lewis was a series of works by Thornton Dial, a late self-taught artist whose work is now being seen increasingly widely, with the Met having acquired ten of his works in 2014. On view at the reception were paintings that focused on Dial’s use of the tiger motif, which symbolized his person struggle for survival and the larger struggle for civil rights. Of this work Lewis said, “There’s a seasoned and sophisticated clientele in the East End, so it makes sense to bring high quality work like Dial’s out here.”
Ellie Rines, founder of the Lower East Side gallery 56 Henry, attended many of this weekend’s events and found that the scene had matured since the first panicked moves of the early pandemic.
“Last summer there this glut of people taking over clothing stores, putting paintings in there and calling it a gallery,” Rines said. To her relief, the riffraff seemed to have departed, giving way to more considered programming. Of Max Levai’s new space, the Ranch, Rines said, “The Ranch is raising the bar for new institutions out East.”
Founded by a former director of Marlborough Gallery, Levai has brought an ambitious spate of works to this space, which is now in its second season. On view during the opening reception this past Sunday were monumental sculptures by Frank Stella. In a stable-turned-gallery there was an impressive showing of Werner Büttner’s paintings. The other barn remains a stable, and at pasture are some grazing horses who made a pretty backdrop to the barbecue Levai hosted.
But as much as these new spaces have to offer, Rines is particularly fond of the local galleries native to the Hamptons that have championed artists from the East End for the past decade.
“You’ve got to show high-quality artwork to counteract all the Hummers and idiots that come out East,” said Rines. “That there is a strong art scene in the face of that is because of places like Halsey McKay and Eric Firestone.”
Halsey McKay had on display a series of works by Matt Kenny. Kenny’s paintings of the World Trade Center look at first glance like iPhone photos, with sharp shadows and the diminished angle that comes with pointing one’s phone camera up a skyscraper. Upon closer inspection, a surprise hits: a cartoonish, menacing figure that emerges from the buildings in each painting.
Eric Firestone gallery put on “Hanging / Leaning: Women Artists on Long Island, 1960s–80s”, an enormous tribute that spanned the gallery’s usual viewing room and an expanded warehouse space a bit further down Newtown Lane, a road just off mainstream that includes such a range of stores as Cartier and Stop & Shop.
And the season is just beginning: major exhibitions and events at local museums like the Parrish have yet to happen.
As much as things have changed, though, the scene remains the same in some vital ways. Children abound, running about as their parents sip on rosé, and price lists—those little-seen, highly guarded slips of paper in city galleries—float around the room, placed next to press releases or under sweating tumblers.
“All these pop ups last year distracted from the unique artistic history there,” said Rines. “The community of local artists has maintained that history and those standards so you just gotta ignore the frenzy of, like, the Sotheby’s salesroom.”