Willem de Kooning, Jane Wilson and Julia Gruen, Water Mill, 1962. Photograph by John Jonas Gruen.
Helen A. Harrison
Twenty years ago this month, in the October 1993 issue of ARTnews magazine, I reviewed an exhibition at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers in East Hampton. The show was titled “Young in the Hamptons,” and it comprised photographs from the 1950s and ‘60s by John Jonas Gruen. The column prompted a gracious note from John, whom I had met once or twice socially, thanking me for the writeup and mentioning, much to my surprise, that it was his first solo show and the first time his photographs had been reviewed. Since then that body of work has been collected in a book, The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons, published in 2006, and sampled for several exhibitions, including a selection of artist portraits at the Whitney Museum in 2010. Its latest incarnation is now on view, through the end of the month, at Susan Eley Fine Art in Manhattan.
Best known as an art and music critic, composer, biographer and memoirist (author of The Party’s Over Now and Callas Kissed Me… Lenny Too!), John and his wife, the painter Jane Wilson, bought their Water Mill carriage house in 1960. The picturesque property, south of the highway, with its spacious hayloft studio overlooking potato fields, was purchased with the proceeds from the sale of one of Jane’s paintings. Yes, I said one painting. If that makes you sigh and murmur, “those were the days,” wait until you see the pictures of them and their friends sipping cocktails on the patio and frolicking on nearby Flying Point Beach. They’ll make you nostalgic for the days when everyone smoked.
Like any good host and hostess, John and Jane made their guests feel welcome and comfortable, an attitude that’s reflected in the photographs. These are not candid, fly-on-the-wall images in which people are caught off guard. With an eye sharpened during a stint as a photo agent dealing with the work of such notables as Man Ray, Bill Brandt and Brassaï, John achieved an admirable blend of sympathetic observation and character study, revealed more by body language than by facial expression. Whether individual portraits or groupings, most are posed, and even in the casual moments there’s an evident rapport between the photographer and his subjects. Apparently mugging and clowning for the camera was part of the fun of these social occasions. What elevates them above the level of generic party snapshots is John’s flair for just the right combination of people and settings, plus the fact that these are no ordinary people. In one famous beach gathering, for example, you have Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher and John Bernard Myers, among others.
Jane Wilson, whose day job as a fashion model paralleled her painting career, is the recurring presence that anchors these fleeting occasions. She and the camera clearly have a thing going. From her first appearance, caught in a pensive moment during a 1957 visit to friends in the area, through the round of cocktail parties and beach outings that punctuated the 1960s chez Gruen, she stands out among the host of luminaries. The picture of her holding their daughter Julia, age 4, while Willem de Kooning flirts with them both, documents her outer and inner beauty, as well as de Kooning’s good taste in women. This could have been cloyingly sentimental, but instead it has a frisson generated by Julia’s slightly apprehensive expression, while Jane smiles warmly but knowingly.
Speaking of de Kooning, who was closing in on 60 when this picture was taken, it must be said that not everyone in Young in the Hamptons can honestly be called young. Of course Julia qualifies, as do Lisa de Kooning and the other children in attendance. But most of the adults were born in the 1920s, and a few, like de Kooning, Fairfield Porter and Stella Adler, are of pre-war vintage — World War I, that is. On the other hand, if it’s true that you’re as young as you feel, then the joie de vivre that radiates from John’s photographs entitles everyone he pictured to honorary membership in the Hamptons Youth Club.