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Bohemian Paradise: David Burliuk, Nicolai Cikovsky and the Hampton Bays Art Group

February 2 through July 13, 2008


From February 2 through July 13, 2008, the Long Island Museum is presenting Bohemian Paradise: David Burliuk, Nicolai Cikovsky and the Hamptons Bays Art Group.

A highlight of the exhibition will be David Burliuk's 7' X 12' painting Petromania. His largest and most ambitious work, Petromania was originally titled The Road of in 1934. It is largely an homage to the art and architecture that came before him and the new culture of his adopted homeland. He uses the Roman Coliseum as the representative of history and exemplifies the Brooklyn Bridge as a link to the future. He balances the built environment in the background with a foreground filled with stone-like figures engaged in various activities. Too large and complex for most popular tastes, the painting was not sold during the 1930s. This exhibition represents the first time Petromania is being shown in nearly 70 years.

David Burliuk immigrated to the United States from Russia with his wife and two sons in 1922. His four-year journey took him across Siberia and through Japan before he and his family settled in Manhattan where Burliuk met several other Russian émigré artists. Their similar backgrounds and their language brought them together but they soon realized they shared much more than their common Russian heritage.

Before the start of WW II, Burliuk went in search of a quiet, yet easily accessible respite from New York City. He purchased a summer home in Hampton Bays in 1941 and encouraged fellow artist Nicolai Cikovsky to join him. Raphael and Moses Soyer followed shortly afterward and purchased their own summer cottages. Soon, the group had established a unique summer art colony.

With David Burliuk at its center, this exhibition explores how these men met and how they shared similar beliefs that art must serve a socially responsible function. Their works span various periods including both World Wars, the Depression, the McCarthy Era and the Cold War. Though they shared similar ideologies, each artist had his own unique style. Bohemian Paradise is made possible with support from Astoria Federal Savings.


Wall panel texts from the exhibition


Bohemian Paradise

David Burliuk, Nicolai Cikovsky and the Hampton Bays Art Group

In the early twentieth century, a group of artists created a dynamic Long Island art colony they called the Hampton Bays Art Group. Primarily émigrés from eastern Europe, they found a haven on Long Island's South Fork. Earlier they had used the streets and people of Manhattan as their subject matter. Now they would rely on the fields and waters of Long Island, and the people who lived and worked here, for inspiration.

The bohemian paradise the group created became a place of refuge from a society these men and their families found repressive -- a place where they and other artists from varied backgrounds could share lively intellectual discussions, artistic camaraderie and take a break from the pressures of a world they saw as increasingly alienating.

David Burliuk, the informal leader of this informal group, made his home in Hampton Bays its center, arranging exhibitions, concerts, readings -- and raucous parties. His friend and fellow Russian émigré artist Nicolai Cikovsky became an early convert to the appeal of Long Island, moving into a house in North Sea where he spent more and more time painting. Soon other artists joined them, including Moses Soyer, Raphael Soyer, Arshile Gorky, George Constant, Milton Avery, and John Graham.

The varied backgrounds of the members contributed to the vibrancy of the group. While the core members -- Burliuk, Cikovsky, the Soyers and Graham -- shared a common Russian heritage, their circle grew to include members from other ethnic backgrounds ­ Constant was from Greece and Gorky from Armenia. Avery, the exception, was born in the United States. Whatever their backgrounds, all shared the same desire to create art in a free society that reflected the changing world around them.

The art they created was as diverse as their backgrounds. Burliuk and Cikovsky were already established artists and their work reflected the wave of Modernism that swept across Europe during the 1910s and 1920s. The Soyers were trained in Manhattan, and their realist portraits of dancers, factory and office workers, and the unemployed had a decidedly American appearance. Constant, Avery, Gorky and Graham worked in a range of mediums and styles, resulting in exhibitions that were varied in content and visually interesting.

Bohemian Paradise explores the social network the group created as well as the art they produced. The story begins with immigrant experiences in Manhattan, peaks during the turbulent years of the 1940s and 1950s, and concludes with the tranquil and sometimes nostalgic scenes the members of the Hampton Bays Art Group created on Long Island. Although their styles differed, their intent was the same: to create a refuge from the complicated world in which they could celebrate the arts and each other.


Coming to America: 1923 - 1941

The émigré artists who would later be involved in the Hampton Bays Art Group came to America around the same time but under different circumstances. David Burliuk and Nicolai Cikovsky left an unhospitable Bolshevik Russia after World War II, arriving here in 1922 and 1923, respectively. The Soyer twins, Moses and Raphael, came even earlier as children (1912), fleeing anti-Jewish persecution by the Tsarist regime. John Graham (born Ivan Dombrovski) and Arshile Gorky (formerly Vosdanig Adoian) both arrived in 1920 in search of a place where they could make a living painting. George Constant arrived from Greece in 1910 seeking an art education. Once in New York, these artists sought out places to exhibit their work. Ultimately, the downtown Manhattan gallery scene brought them -- and many other artists, including Milton Avery -- together.

Burliuk and Cikovsky, who met soon after they arrived here, realized that they shared more than their Russian heritage. Already established artists before they came to New York, their familiarity with current European art trends meshed well with the American art market, and their works were popular with collectors. They also shared similar left-leaning views on politics and their work reflected their reaction to the plight of poor immigrants in New York City -- as did the early paintings of the Soyers, Constant, Graham, and Gorky. Eventually this loosely knit group of artists began to exhibit together at various locales in Manhattan, among them the ACA Galleries, the New School for Social Research, and Katherine Dreier's Société Anonyme.

Having little money available to hire models or to go on painting expeditions, the artists concentrated on painting each other and the city, in the process documenting their activities, their studios, and their other surroundings. During the Great Depression the federal government's Works Progress Administration provided funding to members of the group by commissioning urban landscapes and portraits of field and factory workers. The artists also found other ways to get their art out to the public, exhibiting in outdoor art shows in city parks and squares.

The group's Depression-era portraiture and cityscapes were popular, but all these artists still struggled financially. Further, in the early 1940s the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the outbreak of World War II revived a familiar sense of unease. And in truth, along with most Manhattanites, they simply wanted to get out of the city for at least part of the year, especially during the dog days of summer. So a casual search for an agreeable and affordable working country retreat began.


Searching for Utopia: 1941 - 1955

Anxious about financial pressures and yet another war, the members of the group wanted a quiet place to work away from the city. David Burliuk was the first to discover a retreat, in Hampton Bays, Long Island. The location was convenient to New York City by railroad and real estate was affordable. The local scenery -- ocean, creeks, farms and fishing villages -- provided ample subject matter for works he could sell in Manhattan, either directly to clients or through galleries.

In 1941 Burliuk bought a modest house along with several acres on Squiretown Road in Hampton Bays and built a studio and gallery. Nicolai Cikovsky visited and was also captivated by the locale. Beginning in 1942 he spent his summers painting in the nearby North Sea area. Other artists, including Constant and the Soyers, were soon convinced to relocate during the summer months once they read Burliuk's publication Color & Rhyme and saw Cikovsky's vibrant landscapes. Others, among them Avery, Gorky, and Graham, visited for extended periods. In group shows they sometimes referred to themselves as the "Hampton Bays Art Group," but in truth they were a very casual bunch and the group's membership fluctuated, depending upon who was around and who had artwork to exhibit and sell.

Nicolai Cikovsky and George Constant were particularly taken by the Long Island landscape and spent much of their time painting scenes of waterways, fields, and villages. Cikovsky was especially inclined to include workers -- baymen as well as farmers -- in his paintings. The Soyers also found inspiration in the local people and now set many of their portraits in rural backgrounds. Burliuk experimented with combining still-life and portraiture in his Long Island landscapes and Avery created vibrant and energetic artworks en plein air. Graham and Gorky, always the most avant-garde of the group, created whimsical surrealism-tinged "portraits."

The real world intruded, however. During the mid 1940s the art market was slow to recover from the Depression and World War II, and artists found it hard to make ends meet. Gorky, with health and family problems in addition to financial ones, committed suicide, in 1948. Then came the Red Scare. In 1952 Herman Baron, director of the ACA Galleries in Manhattan, which represented most of the Hampton Bays group, was brought before Congress, accused of having Communist leanings. As a result, the ACA artists, among them Burliuk, Cikovsky, the Soyer brothers and Constant, were investigated ­ although ultimately exonerated.


The End of an Era: 1955 - 1967

Most of the members of the Hampton Bays Art Group had survived two world wars, an economic depression and a Congressional investigation. But in the 1950s another challenge came in the form of Abstract Expressionism, which took the art world by storm and made the group's realistic depictions seem passé. Some members, including Burliuk and Cikovsky, ignored the change of taste and continued to paint as they had done for the last several decades and their work came to seem nostalgic. But others embraced the new trend. George Constant, for instance, delightedly moved toward abstraction, and Graham and Avery, who had experimented with abstraction all along, enjoyed surges in their careers.

Nicolai Cikovsky was especially prolific during this time, painting hundreds of views of the land and water near his home in North Sea. His brilliantly colored canvases featuring vast expanses of fields and intimate seaside scenes were some of the finest of his career. Although bucking the abstraction trend, Cikovsky's landscapes sold well and were well represented in galleries and museums in Manhattan and on Long Island.

All in all, the national prosperity of the later 1950s was shared by the members of the group. Several of them became quite well known nationally and internationally -- the Soyer brothers for their sensitive female figure studies, Graham for his abstracted still-lifes, and Avery for his vibrant peopled landscapes. Burliuk was able to spend increased time traveling, and on his magazine Color and Rhyme.

In a way, the shared status of "starving artist" had helped to bind the Hampton Bays group together, and now they began to drift apart. The 1967 death of David Burliuk, their linchpin, was the definitive blow, but the group had begun to unravel even earlier. Newly prosperous Milton Avery, John Graham, and Raphael Soyer had drifted away in the 1950s. Moses Soyer and George Constant continued to maintain their East End homes but made New York City their base, as they became increasingly involved in the Manhattan gallery scene. Only Nicolai Cikovsky continued on much as before, producing landscapes and seascapes until shortly before his death in 1987.

Although the Long Island houses of some of the artists remain in their families, the Hampton Bays Art Group became a distant memory in wider art circles. But for more than a quarter of a century it constituted an important artistic enclave where people of different backgrounds could come together to celebrate the arts in a peaceful setting that inspired experimentation and creativity.


(above: Milton Avery, George Constant, undated, pen and ink, 10 x 8 inches. Avery Foundation #D3930)


(above: Nicolai Cikovsky, Shinnecock Hills, 194, 6 oil on canvas, 38 x 44 inches. Long Island Museum)


(above: David Burliuk, Surreal Beach Scene, 1951, oil on canvas 22 1/4 x 27 5/8 inches. Long Island Museum)


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