Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Willem and Elaine de Kooning. William Merritt Chase and William Sydney Mount. Roy Lichtenstein and Arthur Dove and Helen Torr….
Countless legendary artists, along with others whose names we don’t yet know but surely will in time, have called Long Island home, inspired by its lifestyle, its landscapes and its light. There presence still resonates here, giving residents a sense of how important the creative spirit, and its preservation, are to life on this island. It is a sensibility that spurs new artists today, and one that continues to drive the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington and its curator, Karli Wurzelbacher.
A century after its founding, the Heckscher Museum of Art continues to connect Long Island’s artistic past with its present while also looking to the future under Wurzelbacher’s considered watch. Located in scenic Heckscher Park, a cornerstone of Huntington Village, “it’s one of the first art museums in a non-urban setting,” Wurzelbacher notes. “If you think about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was only founded 50 years before us in one of the biggest cities in the world.”
The museum opened July 10, 1920, its construction funded by Anna Atkins and August Heckscher, a German immigrant who had a summer home with his family in Wincoma, a small hamlet located northwest of Huntington Bay. Originally filled with 185 works donated by Heckscher, the museum later made space for rotating exhibitions. With assistance from Eva Gatling, who in 1962 was named full-time professional director, the museum was put “on the map,” says Wurzelbacher.
The curator understands better than most its integral place not only among the region’s many museums, but in the literal geography that begins the moment one leaves the island of Manhattan for the one stretching from Queens and Brooklyn all the way to Orient and Montauk.
“I love going to the Museum of Modern Art, I love going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it’s an all-day experience,” she says. “Here, you can pop in. It’s more intimate, it’s less of an undertaking.”
A resident of Bayside, Wurzelbacher loves how Long Island offers that ease of access. She feels it holds as true for the outdoors, nature and the surrounding waters—the Ross, Ohio native still has moments when she’s amazed by the ocean—as it does the museum, whose location offers a touchpoint that has it “plugged in” to Long Island’s art community, as she says.
As such, it actively highlights works from a range of Long Island natives, residents and frequenters. This is accomplished in part through the Long Island Biennial, a juried exhibition featuring work by contemporary artists exclusively from Suffolk and Nassau County.
“What I just continue to find remarkable is the diversity of art being made here,” Wurzelbacher says. “There are many people who paint beautiful, realistic representations of quintessential Long Island landscapes—but there’s also a lot of other things going on, too.”
Further, she adds, the many colleges on Long Island and their art faculty help bring “prominent and successful artists to the area” and nurture students. Ironically enough, Wurzelbacher was not one such student as a child. She was not drawn to drawing or painting or such artistic pursuits growing up, but her mother was a watercolor painter and made ceramics, and her father was a carpenter and construction worker.
“I can see, now, that I grew up in a creative family,” she says.
Wurzelbacher came to New York and obtained her Master’s Degree in art history from Hunter College, and worked at Manhattan’s renowned DC Moore Gallery. She’s also previously worked at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and has curated exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Hunter College Art Galleries and the University of Delaware’s University Museums. When she joined the Heckscher Museum as its curator in 2019, she says she was naturally drawn to the role. “We have a strong collection of American Modernism,” she notes, “and that’s what I know best.”
In fact, works by American modernists Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, two artists who Wurzelbacher studied in her dissertation, are featured in “Moonstruck,” one of two galleries currently on display (along with “Reinventing Landscape,” spanning the career of Amityville-born artist Richard Mayhew). Drawn from the museum’s collection, the exhibition features celestial artworks inspired by the moon and moonlight.
“What I really love about the thematic shows is you can see we are very deliberately juxtaposing the old and the new,” she says. “We’re pulling across time periods, across countries … and putting work together in constellations that it has not been in before.”
That balance of old and new, then and now. It all comes together so organically here. The actual onetime home of Arthur Dove and Helen Torr is even part of the museum. The Dove/Torr Cottage, which the couple bought in 1938, was acquired by the Heckscher Museum of Art in 1998 (with the generous assistance of the Times-Mirror Corporation and the New York Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation). Only three miles from the museum, the site stands as a tangible piece of art history. And the main museum building housing all these wonderful works is a work of art itself. Designed by Julius Franke of the legendary New York architecture firm of Maynicke & Franke, it is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
“This is a natural and vibrant part of Long Island, and to have a place dedicated to that in the present, and also to share with people this incredible history of Long Island’s past—Richard Mayhew, George Grosz, Arthur Dove and Helen Torr—to introduce people, or reacquaint people, with history and how important this place has been…it’s incredible.”
“Richard Mayhew: Reinventing Landscape” runs through April 24. “Moonlight” is on display through September 18. The Long Island Biennial is open through April 30. For more information on the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, visit heckscher.org.