The inception of Master Minds, the latest exhibition at White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton, begs the question, “What does a mastermind look like?” Gallery owners/directors Andrea McCafferty and Kat O’Neill then chose two late artists more than worthy of such a lofty title—Joe Stefanelli and Sasson Soffer.
“A mastermind is a brilliant thinker with original ideas,” the co-owners state. “Joe Stefanelli and Sasson Soffer are two world renowned artists who not only live up to that description but who have also shared a connection to East Hampton through Joe’s studio paintings and Sasson’s sculpture park.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1921, Stefanelli became a member of the New York School Abstract Expressionists, which was considered to be the leading art movement after WWII. During his life, he worked out of his studios in East Hampton and the Lower East Side and showed alongside contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
“The studio tucked in the back of 24 Cedar Street was a magical place, especially in the late afternoon, when, if you hit it right, Joe Stefanelli would be cracking open a beer,” author Shaun Assael remembers fondly. “Joe loved talking baseball and rolling his eyes at the summer crowd. I’m not sure I ever saw him wear anything resembling a pastel or go near the beach. But he wore a safari hat better than Hemingway and knew his way around an Italian vegetable garden blindfolded. The East End can be an endless search for a happening. But on those afternoons where Joe would hand over a Pabst and want to know what was going on in the world beyond Cedar Street, you knew you were in the right place.”
Following his death in 2017, his art lives on in collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitney Museum in New York City and elsewhere.
Soffer was born nearly on the other side of the world, in Baghdad, in 1925. In response the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, he fled Iran for Israel and later made his way to New York City to attend Brooklyn College where he studied alongside abstract artists Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Burgoyne Diller and José de Rivera. He dedicated the early part of his career to abstract painting and developed his own signature color, a deep ultramarine blue, that he often embellished with Arabic calligraphy. By 1963, Soffer was becoming more well-known for his public sculptures than his paintings, and his structures stood tall at Lincoln Center, Battery Park, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Harvard University.
In 1986, Soffer and his wife, Stella Sands, bought a house off Red Dirt Road in Amagansett. Unlike Stefanelli, Soffer adored East End beaches and frequented them fully dressed in white to beat the heat. Several years later, he bought five acres off Town Lane Road in East Hampton to house several of his monumental sculptures.
After his passing in 2009, Soffer’s sculptures remain on display across Israel, China, Lithuania and Cuba.
Now, Stefanelli and Soffer’s abstract art comes together in the can’t-miss Master Minds exhibition, on view through Sunday, May 9. “Sasson lived to 84, Joe to 96—two artists from different backgrounds living parallel lives of abstraction,” White Room Gallery directors McCafferty and O’Neill continue. “As Thoreau said, ‘It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.’”
For more information, visit thewhiteroom.gallery.