David Geiser: Honoring a Local Artist with a World View

Dave Geiser, Mercedes and Jake Ruehl
Dave Geiser, Mercedes and Jake Ruehl

When David Geiser, an abstract expressionist painter and by most accounts “a cool guy” passed away suddenly of congestive heart failure in his art studio in Springs this past October (he was 73), the local art community and those who knew and loved him around the world were in shock.

A prolific artist and illustrator who lived for glorious sunrises, sunsets and, in between, a day of art-making in the studio, Geiser was known to ride his gearless bicycle, Willem de Kooning-style, around East Hampton, stopping by friends’ and neighbors’ homes to say hello, and invariably passing out a flyer for his latest show.

He had travelled the world, studying in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts, but for the last 20 years of his life, he found peace and inspiration on the East End, particularly in Springs.

“Life is short, art is long,” goes the saying, and for Geiser fans and those who appreciate art, Geiser is being honored with a show of his works, currently running at the Keyes Art Gallery in Sag Harbor.

A private memorial honoring the life and art of David Geiser will also take place at the Keyes Art Gallery, out in the garden on May 23. And starting in June and running to September, Geiser’s work will be featured in an East End Arts Council group show Detour II.

“Echo Cenote” by David Geiser on view at Keyes Art gallery
“Echo Cenote” by David Geiser on view at Keyes Art Gallery Courtesy Keyes Art Gallery

“Dave was a unique artist of the Hamptons,” says Julie Keyes, owner of the gallery which has shown Geiser’s work many times in the past, including an installation of Geiser’s prints in Saudi Arabia two years ago “at the king’s house (King Salman).”

“He is extraordinarily interested in texture and surface, with an innate rhythm and balance,” adds Keyes. “Along with that, he has an innate abstraction that most artists out here would kill for.”

Geiser’s longtime partner Mercedes Ruehl, the Academy Award-winning actress, and their son Jake Ruehl—who all lived together in Springs since 2000 until a few years ago, when Geiser moved out to his own studio space in Springs—are helping to plan the memorial.

“The show is beautiful, and we are putting some new pieces in for the celebration just for that day,” says Mercedes Ruehl, adding, “I think Dave would have loved to have attended it.”

According to Ruehl, Geiser—who was born in Rochester and studied art at the University of Vermont, as well as at the Art Students League of New York—actually began his college career on a football scholarship.

“Dave was a big football hero in high school,” says Ruehl. “But by the end of the first year, he admitted to himself that he never really liked football and had already started to turn towards art and illustration and wound up majoring in art.”

Ruehl says Geiser “skipped graduate school at Yale to move to San Francisco in the summer of 1969—where the action was,” she says.

“He liked the ‘Beatnik’ lingo,” adds Ruehl with a laugh. “He loved to say, ‘Hey babe,’ or, ‘What’s shakin’, Daddy-O?’ He always called women ‘beautiful.’ Dave lived in that art world of the 1950s and 1960s—clearly his favorite time,” she says.

Geiser stayed in California for several years, immersing himself in the underground comics scene. He married and had a son, Cameron.

Ruehl says one of Geiser’s heroes was Paul Gauguin, prompting a move to Paris to study. “He absorbed a lot in Paris,” says Ruehl. “His notebooks are filled with pictures of people in cafes—they are wonderful characters; he was almost like a Daumier in the ’70s, chronicling Paris.”

In 1980 Geiser settled in Soho, living and working in a big loft on West Broadway, where his work began to move towards Abstract Expressionism. Ruehl and Geiser met through a wonderful artist and friend, Cynthia Knott, formerly of Springs, “probably in 1997,” says Ruehl.

After Ruehl’s mother passed, and the owner of Geiser’s loft sold the building, Ruehl decided to move out east and build a house in Springs on Long Woods Lane. “It was the only way I could accommodate my father, who was alive at the time and a paraplegic, his healthcare worker, plus Dave, Jake and myself,” says Ruehl. Geiser set up his studio out of the garage.

David Geiser's “Gold Round Piece,” also on view at Keyes Art Gallery
David Geiser’s “Gold Round Piece,” also on view at Keyes Art Gallery Angele LaGreca

“I had never lived with an artist before,” says Ruehl, “and what I found rather extraordinary was he went in the studio in the morning and worked the better part of the day in the studio making art. He described it as ‘another day to make something rare.’”

Ruehl says he was “much happier” when he moved out to his own studio in Springs. “I think he was a restless spirit,” reflects Ruehl. “I think he loved several women but could never stay with anyone for a long time—he stayed with me longer than any. … I also think he was a loner. He liked working solitarily, in his man cave. He did the ‘Boho dance’ with people, but basically he was an introvert. The totality of him was unique and special.”

In the end, Ruehl says Geiser “passed peacefully, in his sleep, in his studio.” She is emphatic about Geiser’s bond with Jake.

“Dave loved Jake. They had formed a very deep relationship,” she says. “I think Dave’s other great love was our cocker spaniel, Lola,” she adds laughing. “Of course he adored his son Cameron, too, but Jake and Lola were his two great loves in East Hampton,” she says. “I, on the other hand, was tolerated.”

Jake has been busy preparing for Dave’s memorial. “He was the anchor,” says Jake with affection. “Dave was the coolest guy and wanted to be the coolest guy around. He was the person I would go to, to have a taco and a beer with or to visit in his studio so we could reassure each other we weren’t going crazy in this crazy world,” he adds.

With about 100 pieces of Geiser’s art left, and countless drawings, Jake has taken to sharing some of Geiser’s artwork on t-shirts and jean jackets, scouring Dave’s notebooks for images and then scanning and sending them to a vinyl transfer company and then pressing the transfers onto the clothing.

“At first I made the jackets and t-shirts to give to Dave’s friends, but then people who didn’t even know Dave wanted them,” says Jake, “and we’ve been flying through them.” He sells them though a website he created, deadpoetsredux.com. The jackets and t-shirts are also available at the Keyes Art Gallery.

Mercedes Ruehl, who wrote the artist statement for the show, summed up her feelings and those closest to Geiser, in this way: “His sons Cameron, Jake and I knew this ancient man inside the modern one and dearly miss him,” she writes. “He was, as Shakespeare said, ‘A man, take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.’”

David Geiser’s art work will be displayed at the Keyes Art Gallery in Sag Harbor through June 10. For more information, visit juliekeyesart.com. Geiser’s work can also be seen in the East End Arts Council’s group exhibition Detour II, in Riverhead, from June 5 to September 5. To learn more, visit eastendarts.org.