"As someone who gets up and goes to work at 3 in the morning, Bill Durham surely belongs to a vanishing breed. You can probably count on one hand the number of South Fork residents who rise that early to milk their cows. As for milkmen, well, they don't exist anymore.
"Mr. Durham doesn't have much of a commute, and requires no cupholders. He opens the back door of his big old house on Montauk Highway in Amagansett, takes about 50 steps, and he's at the door to his studio. There, he paints while listening to birdsong and the distant crash of waves at Atlantic Avenue Beach, occasionally glancing out a window to watch a cloud of bats whirling in the treetops at daybreak.
"'That's my normal day. I love being out there when it's still dark. I used to work six days a week," Mr. Durham said recently, "but now I feel like I'm wasting a Sunday if I don't paint.'
"Mr. Durham's colorful abstractions have been shown in galleries and museums across the country for about four decades now, from the Chicago Art Institute to the Newark Museum, at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, and, on Long Island, at the Heckscher Museum, the Parrish Art Museum, Guild Hall, and a number of South Fork galleries.
"Those works embody, in the critic Helen A. Harrison's words, "paint as a living entity, flowing, pulsing, and swirling with organic vitality." Like Morris Louis, another nonobjective painter with a strong feeling for color, Mr. Durham has spent much of his career investigating color's expressive qualities.
"In the last few years, however, he has made a series of paintings, sculptures, and prints with figurative elements. He has begun making still lifes, as well as straightforward landscapes, such as views of Accabonac Harbor in Springs. These images retain the high color and exuberant, flowing brushwork of his earlier work, but have a more tranquil tone.
"Mr. Durham traveled to Amagansett from Michigan by way of New York in the winter of 1966. He was born and raised in Flint, and studied at Michigan State University, where, as a graduate assistant, he was befriended by a teacher, Charles Pollock, Jackson's older brother.
"'As a graduate assistant, I was given my own studio, and it was an exciting time there. Michigan State was playing catch-up, and they had hired Abraham Rattner and Morris Kantor in the art department, and Buckminster Fuller was giving seminars. Erich Fromm was the head of the psychology department.'
"He roomed at Pollock's house for a time in 1957. 'I never brought up his brother Jackson, but it would come up late at night when we were sitting there drinking cognac. He told me about the many attempts Jackson had made to kill him. One night when he came home all the lights were out, and he started going upstairs to his bedroom. Jackson was at the top of the stairs, and he pushed a chest of drawers down onto him.'
"Charles Pollock encouraged Mr. Durham to avoid the pitfalls of academia. 'He told me to get out of there. He said, "You're a painter, not a teacher. Go to New York."'
"'I talked it over with my wife, and within 10 days we were in New York.' Before long, Mr. Durham began showing in galleries there, and he had also made the acquaintance of Ralph Martell, who owned a bar at 83rd Street and Third Avenue, and was looking to open a South Fork branch.
"And so it was that, in the spot in Amagansett now occupied by Pacific East, Mr. Durham, hired as a de facto general manager, helped to open Martell's, the first of countless East End singles bars. It was Martell's customers who gave Atlantic Avenue Beach the nickname Asparagus Beach - during the day, they stood and chatted just as they did in the bar at night.
"Mr. Durham stopped working for Mr. Martell after a year, by which time 'Ralph made his investment back, but we were grossly underpaid,' but in that time he and his first wife discovered the house where he lives today.
"'I leased it with the option to buy, and the owners, who wanted to open a car wash, asked me to exercise the option. I had to come up with $15,000 in cash, and that was a lot of money in 1967. I worked day and night and came up with $14,800.' His mother lent him the rest. By the time he'd bought a celebratory bottle of Scotch for his lawyer, he and his wife found that they didn't have enough money to buy dinner that night.
"He soon met some of his Amagansett neighbors, including the artist Robert Gwathmey and his wife, the photographer Rosalie Gwathmey. 'They were like a second set of parents. I didn't even know that this was considered an artists' colony; Springs could have been a town in upstate New York for all I knew. Then I found myself at the Gwathmeys', having dinner with people I had been reading about in art history books.'
"Emanuel Benson, the founder of the Bridgehampton gallery that still bears his name, gave Mr. Durham three back-to-back shows. But Mr. Gwathmey tried to persuade Mr. Durham that it was a mistake to settle in Amagansett at that stage of his career.
"'Bob said, "You're in your late 20s, go back to New York." I was doing pretty well in New York in 1966, when I left. Politically, it was the wrong move, but artistically, it was the right move.'
"Mr. Durham didn't become a superstar - indeed, he left the city just as Andy Warhol was on the verge of transforming the popular image of the artist, from tortured soul living in a hovel to tabloid celebrity.
"'There were no superstars among artists then. It was a very small world, and you understood that it took time to learn how to paint. It was taken for granted that you were going to have to find a job to support your art habit.'
"As art slowly but surely turned into a popular commodity, climaxing in the boom years of the early 1980s, 'there was a big change,' Mr. Durham said. 'All of a sudden young people, and their parents, decided that it was okay to go to art school because it looked like there was money in it. There are an awful lot of mediocre painters in their 20s showing in Chelsea now, because you're just starting to learn how to paint when you're in your 20s.'
"Mr. Durham knew he was an artist 'from the age of 5. I flunked third grade; the teachers told my parents all I did was daydream and draw. In fifth grade I was hauled before the principal for drawing "dirty pictures." Of course I was drawing what I thought nudes looked like.'
"Mr. Durham said that the recent changes in his style reflect not only aesthetic choices but changes in his life. He had a heart attack in 1998, and underwent a quadruple bypass operation. Three years ago, he had more heart surgery.
"'When I came out of the hospital seven years ago I was told I had to change everything, that my lifestyle had to change, and that my drinking had to stop. I changed my whole idea of how I was going to paint, and it took about two years,' he said. 'The heart attack was the best thing that happened to me, because my life started when the alcohol stopped.'
"He found himself returning to representational imagery, 'which I hadn't dealt with in a long time, and which I wasn't known for. I wasn't thinking of an audience. It was just that little things I had taken for granted - birds singing, the sound of waves - started to take on a different meaning.'
"'I would like to think I'm giving back something by making art, but I don't often think about how valuable it is, or what kind of legacy I'm leaving,' Mr. Durham said. 'Although it sometimes crosses my mind when I finish a canvas and say, "Wow, that's not so bad." That's one of the thrills of being an artist. If you work at it, you never know when things will start flowing all by themselves, and things happen that you didn't expect.'"