Connie Fox & William King: An Artist Couple at the Guild Hall, East Hampton
October 22 to December 31, 2016
158 Main Street
East Hampton, NY, 631 324 0806
When art historian Gail Levin approached Connie Fox about a joint exhibition of her paintings with sculptural works by her late husband, William King, Fox reported to friends that she was incredulous. What do Bill’s quirky figurative sculptures have in common with her convulsive abstract paintings? But Levin persisted—thankfully so. Her instinctive grasp of the empathy that across three decades connected—and inspired—this prolific artist couple has resulted in an intriguing, thoughtfully integrated exhibition.
King and Fox, together since 1983, married in 2007: it was his fourth marriage, her third. Easy going with a quiet but barbed wit, King grew up in Jacksonville, Florida which he left to study art, first at the Cooper Union and then, as a Fulbright Scholar, in Rome. Returning to New York during Abstract Expressionism’s headiest moment, King made an unexpected splash with his signature figurative works — wacky but humble spoofs on human types that mimicked his own his leggy 6’2” frame. Fox, a no-nonsense mid-westerner, was born in Fowler, Colorado, at the edge of the dust bowl. In 1950 she biked through the shambled ruins of postwar Europe before studying art in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There she met Elaine de Kooning, who in 1978 convinced her to move to East Hampton. Spirited, independent and, like King, immune to art’s various “isms,” Fox pursued her unique brand of expressionist abstraction.
Throughout this exhibition and in her concise catalogue essay, Levin peppers their respective biographies with tales of old love affairs, Hampton friendships, and the couple’s shared love of early modernism, music, literature, and politics. All of this informs Levin’s sharp visual pairings, such as the duo greeting viewers — King’s My Pleasure (2007), a life-sized, stilt-legged figure dressed in a red vinyl suit, flanking Fox’s Bill’s Vinyl Man with Stool (1985). King’s vinyl characters usually portray slick sinister scoundrels, but this red-hot fellow stands lovingly by Connie, whose acute sensitivity to his work clearly animates her own abstract painting. When she saw strips of King’s vinyl fabric strewn about a table, she reinvented them as a pile of abstract brushstrokes set beside King’s studio stool.
Fox and King’s stylistic differences consistently bow to one another. The figurative elements she embeds within her energized brushwork attest to own her grip on representation. King’s proportions, simplicity of line, and play of negative and positive space affirm his keen eye for the abstract structure of things as underpinnings to character. Both artists were influenced by early modernists: Fox gravitated towards Klee, Kandinsky, and the Delaunays; King towards Picasso, Braque and Elie Nadelman. Both artists were particularly fascinated with Marcel Duchamp. Fox’s Marcel’s Star: You don’t have to be a star baby to be in my show, (1993) featuring Duchamp’s famous star-shaped tonsure, is here paired with King’s carved wooden portrait of Duchamp. Fox and King also independently pursued Duchamp’s iterations of Rose Sélavy as explorations of their own alter egos through self-portraiture.
Almost all of King’s figures embody the artist’s physical self — from his early Self in San Francisco (1955), to Bill Dogg-Hampton (2003), a bulldog head atop a King-like torso. Early on, in 1955, Fox drew Self-Portrait as Flower, the seed of a “self-as” theme that culminated in her 2007 series of drawings of herself as Colette and Max Beckmann (exhibited earlier this year at the Parrish Art Museum). Though these specific works are not in this exhibit, Levin discusses them alongside King’s alter-ego portraits of himself as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Hepworth, Nefertiti and a Degas ballerina.
But it is romance — soaring on art historical wings — that drives this exhibition. While androgynous themes tease conflicting layers of each artist’s self-identity, they also — as they converse across the gallery space — merge the personae of these artistic soul mates. Romance gives lift-off to Bill on his knees embracing a Connie-headed airplane in Marry Me (2010), a sculpture he made after they’d been together for twenty-seven years! Photographs of the couple at Sammy’s Beach — one of them a study for King’s double portrait, Jolies Fleurs (2007) — capture this romance in more ways than one. Bill hated the beach. He went there because Connie loved to swim in this tranquil place. It churned over her imagination for decades, ultimately inspiring the daunting series of large Sammy’s Beach paintings, two spectacular examples of which are included in this exhibition.
Music also kept this relationship humming. King fiddles away in Talent (1994), and a dancing dog gyrates to a rapping cluster of jazz musicians in Fox’s Fox Dog/Jazz (1985). Both works undoubtedly relate to the artists’ membership in a band, The Art Attacks, organized by Audrey Flack.
We would feel magic in any exhibition devoted separately to Bill King or Connie Fox. But here sparks palpably fly between the two. In life they spoke little about their works but affirmed them –or not- with the kind of glance long-married people know well. Fox recently mentioned how King once summed up their influences on one another by saying, “I learned from her and her feet grew bigger.”print