Katherine Bernhardt: Housesby Eli Hill
Katherine Bernhardt is well-known for her neon colored paintings of everyday objects such as fruits, cigarettes, and electronics, made with spray-paint and watery acrylics. But in Katherine Bernhardt: Houses, the frenetic painter takes a moment of pause to render the modernist homes of the Hamptons, once occupied by her artistic forbearers, in striking sumi-e ink drawings, during a residency at the Elaine de Kooning House. The book’s pages are as thick as watercolor paper and do justice to the energetic lines with which Bernhardt constructs the patterns and shapes of avant-garde beach houses. The book also includes a page of introductory text by Bernhardt, written in an informal conversational style, and an outro text by David Sokol that provides a residential history of the Hamptons, from Native Americans to the wealthy beach-goers many associate with the area today. Both pieces of writing occupy a mere four pages, leaving the visual information to stand alone in typical Bernhardt fashion, who often strays away from overly conceptual explanations for her subject choices. Instead, she’ll explain how rendering symbols and objects helps her to find color and shapes for her paintings; “A sock: it’s got really good colors, white with red and blue stripes,” she tells Dylan Kerr in a 2015 interview. “Toilet paper is a squarish oval. A cigarette is a line. A dorsal fin is a triangle, and so is a Dorito.” Similarly, Bernhardt extracts basic shapes from the homes’ simple geometric style, to create compositions with triangles, lengthy rectangles, and circles.
In the 1960s, modern artists like Rothko, Motherwell, Krasner, Pollock, and the de Koonings took to the Hamptons to set up remote homes and expansive workspaces. As these artists played with notions of painting in their seaside studios, architects like Horace Gifford and Andrew Geller also found their way to the beach. Geller was known for bringing playful, low-cost houses with wonky angles and shapes to the beach front. At the time that his houses were first built, they were so avant-garde that many architects didn’t take them seriously. But publications like Sports Illustrated did feature the homes, bringing them into popular culture. For Bernhardt, someone who is frequently attracted to the geometry and social status of common commercial objects, the architecture and history of Geller’s homes makes for good inspiration.
In the drawing Andrew Geller, West Hampton, Bernhardt shows us what must be Geller’s “Double Diamond” house, a piece of architecture where Geller strayed away from the usual A-frame, and instead, placed two diamond shaped rooms next to each other, tips touching. Bernhardt follows the basic geometry—as she does in many of the drawings—to build an image out of slashing lines and simple shapes. She uses the middle of the diamonds as a horizon line and further divides the composition by filling the bottom halves of the diamonds with horizontal marks and the top halves with vertical lines. The piling of these direct marks slips between signifying paneling and something more fluid, like a building’s reflection in a body of water. Bernhardt adds a romantic touch to the otherwise structural drawing with an eclipse, tucked into the upper left corner.
In another work, simply titled Dunes, she renders an A-frame beach house with horizontal marks that almost run off the page’s edge, but are kept in by one long vertical line that hugs the border of the picture plane. At first, it seems like Bernhardt cut the house’s length short to avoid it being cropped by the edge of the page. But Bernhardt’s drawing is probably quite accurate, as homes from this time period often had unsettling dimensions. Her love for shapes and the modernist architects’ funky geometry continually reward each other. The homes’ unusual styles inspire Bernhardt to draw, capturing their playfulness with her dynamic hand.
In many of the drawings, uncontrolled, watery streaks that reference nature, clouds, beach, grass, and wind surround the angular architecture. Bernhardt saves her painterly strokes for the elements that are the least palpable, leaving the geometric mark making for the patterns found in the residences: plywood paneling, ladder rungs, unnervingly long windows, and swaths of shingles. As you flip through the drawings, the fluid streaks shift across the top and bottom of the page, appear and vanish, grow prominent and recede. While they play a minor role in comparison to the domiciles featured in each drawing, they become a larger component when considered together: quickly flip through the book and you’ll find animated changing weather.
“It was such a luxury having so much space to work,” Bernhardt shares in the introduction. “I made all the drawings at the kitchen table where Elaine de Kooning used to work as well.” The spirit of drawing the home’s angles and details, not en plein air, but from the kitchen table of an expressive modern artist like Elaine seems to haunt some of the drawings with rambunctious lines and occasional drip marks. With her rapid lines, imperfect angles, and overlapping corners, Bernhardt makes an excited tour guide of modernism at the beach.
The dwellings that inspired Bernhardt were built with the intention of being affordable and accessible, as most suburban homes are, but Bernhardt captures the oddities that make them memorable. As many of these homes continue to fall apart or receive unfitting renovations, Bernhardt’s visual tour of the area becomes a map of the shapes, lines, and playful energy imbedded in each house. “Biking in the Dunes was inspirational, shirt and clothes off. Swimsuit on, crocs on, sandy toes and wet hair. Huge open wide blue sky and the smell of pine trees. Dark green pines against a blue sky. Beautiful. Fresh air,” Bernhardt recalls. While there is not a drop of color to be found in the book, the joy Bernhardt finds in the Hamptons exudes from the pages. Flipping through the book feels as if you’ve joined Bernhardt on her trip to a place of uninhibited lines.
ELI HILL is an artist and writer living in New York.