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Friday, May 23, 2014

Surf, Sand, and Easels: Artists at the Beach

As Memorial Day turns the corner, your thoughts may be straying to boardwalk fries, sandcastles, and swimming. I know mine are. But did you know that beaches have also been a highly productive place for American artists for over a century? Primary sources abound in the Archives of American Art's collections showing artists having fun (and getting work done) in the sun.

Sketching class on the beach in Provincetown, ca. 1936.
Charles Webster and Marion Campbell Hawthorne papers.
Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the very tip of Cape Cod, lays claim to the title of America's oldest continuous art colony. The Cape Cod School of Art was founded there by Charles Webster Hawthorne in 1899, and the town has been a prime attraction for northeastern artists ever since. This photograph from the papers of Hawthorne and his wife, painter Marion Campbell Hawthorne shows a class of artists working on studies after a young model wearing an appropriately nautical hat seated at water's edge. From 1934 to 1958, the hugely influential teacher and painter Hans Hofmann set up shop with a summer school in Provincetown, educating scores of young artists whose names are now in the canon of modern art and design - Lee Krasner, Red Grooms, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ray Eames, among others.

Neda Al-Hilali with her outdoor fiber installation Beach Occurence of Tongues,
1975, unidentified photographer. Neda Al-Hilali papers
To some artists, the beach is more than just a place where you can get a lot of work done during the summer, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Perhaps reflecting the difference in lifestyles between the Northeast and Southern California, where the beach is hospitable year-round, Czechoslovakian-born fiber artist Neda Al-Hilali used Venice Beach as her canvas for a 1975 installation piece titled Beach Occurrence of Tongues. Suzanne Muchnic of the LA Times credited Al-Hilali with leading "textiles out of craft shops and sewing circles to the wider arenas of fine art" (“Art Review: Textiles Pioneer Takes a Step Beyond.” Los Angeles Times. May 20, 1983). And Al-Hilali's monumental brown paper Tongues required a wider arena indeed - the great sandy expanse of the beach.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner at the beach, ca. 1955
unidentified photographer.
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers

Naturally, sometimes artists utilize the beach the same way everyone does - for relaxation. Just two weeks after their wedding, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner moved out to a property in Springs, East Hampton. They lived there year-round and both created some of their best-known works there, Krasner working primarily in the house while Pollock was alive and Pollock in a barn studio out back. This house also happened to be conveniently close to both the Atlantic Coast and the Acabonack harbor, and Krasner and Pollock clearly took advantage of this prime location to take a break from painting. There are several photos from their papers which show the two stretched out on the sand in bathing suits, sometimes accompanied by various friends (such as art critic Clement Greenberg and painter Helen Frankenthaler) and, even occasionally, pets.

What's your favorite thing to do at the beach?

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

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