After recently rereading Tom Wolfe’s satire of the abstract art world in The Painted Word, I was feeling particularly skeptical of modern art when I drove to Southampton yesterday to attend the launch of the Hamptons Fine Art Fair. After all, it’s in this book that Wolfe facetiously proclaims the only value of an Abstract Expressionist painting is its ability to decorate a guest bedroom of a Long Island beach house! Jokes aside, I thought Wolfe was onto something in 1975 about how “art theory” had come to take precedence over the aesthetic experience of art. “These days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting” said Wolfe. “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” In other words, the modern art world risked putting the cart before the horse.
So it was with this mindset that I was pleasantly surprised upon entering the tented pavilion in Southampton to find that most works relied entirely on their immediate, expressive forms to offer the viewer an experience. I was first drawn to French neo art-deco artist Emilie Arnoux’s Plenitude (50.5’ X 62.5”) and De Stijl-inspired Cécile van Hanja’s Sea View (55” X 31.5”) from the Fremin Gallery. Using warm tropical colors, palm trees, and the serenity of negative space, these beautiful acrylic paintings existed in a world where Edward Hopper painted houses from Miami Vice.
Of course, all the big names of modern art were in attendance: Kusama’s pumpkin screenprints, Haring’s glyph men with Lucky Strike cigarettes, Warhol’s 1966 Cow, a Jamaica-themed Basquiat mentioning Marcus Garvey and taglines of Pan-Africanism, Landfield’s freeform colors of Lyrical Abstraction, Rauschenberg's American flag collages, and Kaws’ X-eyed cartoons.
Yet I was not expecting to see the works of French Impressionists like Pissarro, Renoir, and Henry Moret, Hudson River School landscape artists like Louis Rémy Mignot, nautical painters like Montague Dawson and realists like Norman Rockwell and Carlos Vázquez Úbeda; these were the highlights of the exhibition for me.
A new wave of artists seem to be drawing from these movements as well. Inspired by the Romantic landscapes of the old masters during the pandemic, artist Myles Bennett was interested in portraying the urge to get outside and experience something bigger than oneself after being locked away. This subject of sublime nature can be seen in his ink, graphite, and carbonite pencil piece Eruption of Vesuvius (Dahl) (46.5”x40”) and even in his geometrical installations and experiments with gravity. Croatian artist Zvonimir Mihanović’s Silent Shore also made an impression on me; it was like something out of a dream – hazy, weightless, and pure with its vision of a tiny boat in an idyllic Mediterranean seascape. Inspired by fauvists and expressionists like Matisse, artist Jessica Alazraki, originally from Mexico City, exhibited Picnic with Bike and Grandma in Red, two oil paintings realizing everyday scenes from latino culture in brightly popping colors.
Caleb Mulholland’s pop-surrealism, although not my usual cup of tea, was also noteworthy, drawing from popular iconography and semiotics like NASA, rubber duckies, and Mr. Monopoly in his postmodern pastiches Lucky Cat Sunflower, Sin, and Madonna and Child. Artist Orange Juice brought an interesting philosophy on the role of internet data in modern art. Referring to his pieces as “one man analytics,” Orange Juice exhibited his Plexiglas digital collages of online search engine results Sticking It to the Man, Definition of Cool, and Long Live Rock and Roll. Definition of Cool could be a mid-2000s Tumblr mood board with its cigarette-smoking and sunglasses-clad iconography of shirtless DJing Bruce Lee, A Streetcar Named Desire-era Marlon Brandon, and stills from cult classics like Lost in Translation, Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “The internet is a vast wasteland of information” Orange Juice has said. “A vacuum built to destroy artful premise and create a void of all specifications. I’m trying to harness some of that random beauty. I’m painting with data.”
UK-based meme "artist" Josh Rowell also drew from the internet for his 2022 piece Drive to Gym, a Wojak comic between a Nordic man and a talking orangutan. Far from a pioneer of Internet Dadaism, Rowell’s work strikes me as recycled 4Chan shitposting, even when presented on unglazed, Portuguese ceramic.
While I of course had my preferences, I was impressed with the visual diversity of the works and the boldness of the Hamptons Fine Art Fair to organize these galleries of wildly different visions into a cohesive aesthetic experience – and what an experience it was! As far as Tom Wolfe is concerned, I never felt like theory had trumped art, and each artist led with their formally expressive qualities over their theoretical visions. Georges Braque once said, “The painter thinks in forms and colors. The aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact.” If this is the goal of the artist – to constitute a pictorial fact – the Hamptons Fine Art Fair has curated a strong and lasting collection that any artistically-inclined person should see if they are in Long Island this summer.
This piece was originally published on Nest by Tamara, an interior design and lifestyle journal. The Hamptons Fine Art Fair is happening July 14-17 at the Southampton Fairgrounds at 605 County Road 39, Southampton, NY. Visit here to learn more.