Abstract Legends, Old Westbury Gardens & Mansion

Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock
Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner

Yesterday, I attended a lecture about the lives of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner at Hutton House on the CW Post/LIU campus.  I had always thought Pollock was of Russian Jewish descent, but he wasn’t. He took his adoptive father’s surname.That was the first surprise. Then, seeing his early work, I was fascinated. How did such a gifted artist turn to paint tossing, as masterful as he became at his unusual use of house paint, sticks, and more unconventional tools not in his contemporaries’ palette box. Poverty and the stipend from Peggy Guggenheim sustained him in lean years. Alcoholism led to his end in a car accident close to home in East Hampton. Unfortunate, to end life and that of a young female passenger, when he was only 44 with such a massive impact on the art world that magnified after his death, I can only wonder ‘what if he didn’t die then,… what would he have created next?” Lee Krasner was a gifted artist and although some of her paintings sold for a lot of money, the dollars were not evidence of equality of the sexes in the art collector’s realm.

The landmark Pollock-Krasner House in East Hampton, NY

I just have comment about what the excursion next the nearby Old Westbury Gardens and the (Phipps) Mansion. The son of the Carnegie’s partner owned the lavish Charles II decorated estate. His children granted the estate to the Nassau County for the public to enjoy.  Enjoy, I did.  I visited as a child, teen and adult. I hadn’t been back in decades. I wistfully put it on my bucket list of places to revisit. I was lucky that I was with someone who had the same item on her bucket list.  Luckier still, Seward Johnson, the famous public art sculptor who creates real-looking people had populated the mansion and its outdoor areas with “his people”…

I was careful not to step on a small boy reading a children’s book, as we attended a tour of the house. Everything is original and nothing replaced.There are treasures of art and antiques throughout every room. A portrait of a family member, painted by Sir John Phillip Sargent was pointed out. There are many exceptional portraits and landscapes sprinkled throughout the rooms. My favorite were small paintings by the ground floor stairwell, illustrating “slices of daily life” in England. The display of the estate’s highest quality representational art ranged from the 16th thru 19th Centuries. I was pleased to see a well executed self-portrait by the family’s son, Michael, a talented artist. The Phipps family’s former estate as a museum captures the lives of the super rich in the age of the “Robber Barons” and their progeny, at the turn of the 19th Century.

The population of life-like figures made it fun at every turn.I enjoyed being photographed as  I asked a woman who was carrying two baskets of fresh food for directions, and anything she could tell me about her excellent employer.  She wasn’t real. The humanoid sculptures surely predate holograms. What a clever idea! There were couples in period attire dancing in the back portico and a jockey or stable boy, and a couple dining with what looked like real food on their plates on the patio.  A Japanese fan dancer posed with me. The odd thing about her wasn’t that she wasn’t live, but that she had blonde hair. I sadly recalled the same sort of fans and the elaborate Japanese wedding gown my mother had int he house after my parents and brother traveled to Japan when  I was in junior high school. My father had a special Japanese client and was attending a convention, I think.  Whatever the reason, they enjoyed the trip and came back with many souvenirs  for everyone. The devastating (original) house fire of  Thanksgiving night 1999 destroyed all of it.  My friend wondered if the Phipps mansion had ever had a fire and if there were trap doors and secret rooms. Yes, there were secret hiding places and doors in the walls, to other rooms, and there were no fires, but there was a backfiring of coal dust into the house at one point.  Coal and Ice were delivered in shoots below the family’s living quarters. (And,it brought back memories of my paternal grandfather Abe and great uncle Harry, in the coal and ice business in Altoona, PA, one of their various joint business ventures.)

There were servants quarters and the kitchen and dumbwaiters and modern electricity and plumbing when most people didn’t have those amenities. The house was decorated as an old English mansion, but it operated like a modern machine. In fact it was high-tech for its time.  The time was that of the Gold Coast estates of the elite’s Long Island lifestyle.

More than 30 movies were filmed at the estate.  Festivals and concerts are also a means of affording to maintain the mansion and to restore more rooms, and maintain the renowned gardens.  The land was originally much greater in acreage, but some land was sold off to help maintain the property. I was surprise to learn that the Hicks family sold the acreage to the Phipps family to build upon. The Hicks family farm is still a viable business and I’ve attended their seasonal events, just a “stone’s throw” away.

The Seward Johnson exhibition isn’t for keeps, so you should get over to the Old Westbury Gardens and mansion before you miss all the fun.

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