Meet Elaine de Kooning House Artist-in-Residence Eric Haze

Eric Haze in-studio at the Elaine de Kooning House, Photo: Courtesy Elaine de Kooning House

In February, the Elaine de Kooning House Director of Programming Katherine McMahon wrote to Dan’s Papers that they had a very exciting artist-in-residence working in the landmark studio through March. Now, in May, with the world turned upside down, artist Eric Haze’s residency has been extended through the unexpected forces of nature. 

Haze, an iconic artist who returned to his roots as a fine artist after decades in graphic design, spoke with Dan’s Papers before the COVID-19 quarantine. What follows is an incredibly insightful talk with an artist whose life was influenced by an early-in-life meeting with de Kooning.

Tell us about your connection to Elaine de Kooning.
As far as I understand, I’m the first person doing a residency here who had a real world connection to Elaine. Simply put, she painted me when I was 10 years old in 1972. We sat for two, maybe three sessions in her loft down by Union Square, the same loft she painted the Kennedys in. I remember sitting, but I also remember her giving me paints and pushing me and sort of mentoring me. While she painted my sister she gave me something to do, and what to do was to paint.

Was your experience with Elaine de Kooning your first real exposure to art?
It was really my second formative exposure. My first was with Arthur Carr, who also taught at Columbia, who collected a phenomenal collection of pop art. I was about 8 years old and we went to his house and his apartment was top-to-bottom pop art— Warhol, Lichtenstein, all those in one shot, and it made a real impact on me at the time that art didn’t have to just be a pretty picture. I went home and reproduced a drawing by Robert Indiana of two sneakers hanging. The first artists I sort of was impressed by were pop artists, then Elaine and obviously [her husband] Willem. 

Was Elaine a part of your life after she painted you?
I met Elaine once later. I remember she was genuinely interested in the fact that I was writing graffiti. 

How did you get started in graffiti writing?
Really, it was just growing around us in the city like vegetation and everyone in the neighborhood and everyone on the block did graffiti and so did I. The sort of backstory is that I had become an abstract painter at 10 years old and at 11 I became a graffiti artist! I have pieces from when I was 11 and it was graffiti. I was a wild child and the graffiti was part of the package.

Talk about the work you’re doing here at the house.
I’m diving into creating four different series of work, working my way up in terms of complexity and from my own parameters to working on series of work that not only refer to Elaine, but originally I came in and created interiors because I fell in love with the studio from Day One, but also because it’s in my wheelhouse and one of a handful of styles I applied as a younger person but took a fork in the road. The subtext is sort of going back to not just the fork in the road when Elaine painted me, but along the road of possibility. I was a gallery artist coming of age, but I followed a number of different paths—a designer of clothing brands, an art director and it’s 15 years ago now that I returned to New York after a decade in L.A. and I had already had it in my head, but I was moved to get off the computer and roll up my sleeves and pick up a paintbrush again. So the work I’m doing now, moving to portraiture, sort of represents my challenging myself to go out of my comfort zone to reinterpret some of Elaine’s work and the work of myself, but ultimately through a series of interiors, portraiture and sort of reinterpretations of her work and historical images that I’m ultimately trying to go back and explore a number of forks in the road. Ultimately it’s trying to get back to the purity, excitement and fearlessness of a 10-year-old mind.

Did you find the graphic design work satisfying?
I wouldn’t have traveled that road if it wasn’t! I’ve had an incredibly interesting and diverse career as a graphic designer, art director and founder and principal of my own brand.

Have you been coming to the Hamptons for your whole life?
My father was a tennis pro at the Montauk Hotel in the ’50s, I’ve been coming out here including all the way out to the Pill Box since I was 11 years old. My whole life, practically.

Why do you think the East End attracts artists?
I can’t speak for the not-living anymore but I don’t know whether it was the isolation or sense of community they have out here but it’s the chicken and the egg. As a younger man, being in the city and rubbing elbows and being a kinetic part of a scene and movement was important, but at a certain point I knew who I was and what I wanted to focus on. The external stimulation wasn’t as important as the quality environment I could focus on, and I would assume the same for the Cedar Tavern crowd.

Talk about working in this stunning studio.
This is god’s studio. I have, for a number of years, been planning to buy a country house and have this kind of studio in this isolation and focus, and this is the perfect dream studio built by a seasoned artist at the prime of her life. There’s not a bad line or layout in here. Being up here has not only just sealed the deal of every mental picture I’ve had of how great it would be to have this dream environment of total isolation not so far from the city, but being in her studio is an essential part of not just the work but the experience. I’m on many different channels and places in my life with deadlines, employees and a certain routine in New York. It’s not as easy to carve away the mental space that I’ve been able to achieve naturally here, so the energy level is so high in here and I’m so engaged I can’t sleep! I’m turned on and working and making the most of a golden opportunity both professionally and personally as being here has been nothing short of transformational. I’ve pushed myself way past my comfort zone.

How has your wife, actress Rosie Perez, reacted to this project?
She’s inspired and as blown away as I am. Rosie and I are married, but also soulmates and best friends and that was one thing we both recognized and understood in each other. There’s a time and a place where we’ve got to exist in a particular creative space. We have developed a very good push and pull of stepping forward and supporting, and falling back and leaving alone and it’s a cliche but finding my real partner, becoming married and knowing I had love waiting for me at home changed my worldview, including how I approached my work. When I was younger and had big moments, there was this latent fear of “is this it? Is it all downhill from here?” But decades of hard work and successes have allowed me to shift that philosophy. With that mindset, I had a lot of targets in my head when I came up here and I’ve hit all of them so far but I’ve intentionally given myself a lot of open road for discovery for unintended consequences, of which happily, there have been many.

What does this residency mean to you?
It’s a transformational, landmark moment for me, my career, particularly as a fine artist, but I guess the last point I want to make is, given that I’m working on a limited period of time here, say a season, not only have I been all the way down the rabbit hole focused and productive as I can every waking minute here, I also believe in the light of history, my hope and intention is that some of the more Elaine-rooted work here becomes an important story and component in Elaine’s legacy, not only mine. And that some, if not all, of the work I’m creating here becomes seminal work in both my career and the light of Elaine’s history.

What message do you want to get across to people as you continue this project?
Throughout all my successes I remain humble and open but at the same time the most often question of me over decades is ‘did you ever think it would amount to this much?’ And the answer is yes. There are no accidents. These opportunities only come from being in the right place at the right time and being ready to seize the moment. It was the absolutely perfect time in my life. I’ve walked the line somewhere between knowing I’m just one person operating with perspective and humility, but at the same time making sure that I have the audacity to shoot for greatness.

Eric Haze with the work Elaine de Kooning painted of him as a child, Photo: Courtesy Elaine de Kooning House

Check out the Virtual Art Salon featuring Eric Haze and Katherine McMahon on Friday, May 15 at 3:30 p.m. at guildhall.org.

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