Scott Chaskey and his daughter, Rowenna, stood at the entrance of a rather unremarkable shed in the Northwest Woods last week, with dozens of soaring metal sculptures with long, slender legs peeking out.
They were artist Bill King as Mozart, Bill King as John Faddis, Bill King as Mary Magdalene. They were Bill King singing, dancing and holding hands with children. They were Bill King in the furthest stretches of his imagination — a magical place, his family and friends attest, filled with generosity, wit and the driest sense of humor, if it could even be typified as that.
“That shed is like a universe of Bill. He says they were all self-portraits,” Mr. Chaskey, the artist’s stepson, said. “Boy, what a guy. He just knew everybody and everybody loved him. He had such dignity and independence, right up until the last moment.”
He sighed. “Time doesn’t have the same meaning it did a few days ago.”
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 4, Mr. King — a beacon of innovation who emerged with his modern, representational sculpture under the aegis of 1950s New York abstract expressionism — died at age 90 from natural causes at his home, just two days before wife Connie Fox’s 90th birthday.
Additional survivors include a son, Eli King; a daughter, Amy King; a sister-in-law, Margie King; a stepdaughter, Megan Chaskey; a stepson, Brian Boyd, and wife Kit Harrison; and seven grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in the spring.
“We had just celebrated his 90th birthday, which was a wonderful family affair. He had us rolling off our chairs laughing,” Mr. Chaskey said. “He sort of orchestrated the whole thing perfectly. When he died, he was right where he wanted to be, and he had just spent time with Eli and Amy.”
Born on February 25, 1925, in Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. King grew up close to the water in Coconut Grove, near Miami. As the story goes, in the 1940s his mother gave him $100 and told him to get out while he still could. He ran away with an older woman to Manhattan, he said during an interview with The Press last summer, and studied at Cooper Union, graduating in 1948.
By his first solo show in 1954, he had already come into his own style. And he was confident.
“As soon as he came to New York, he was very prestigious and very quickly showing,” according to Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, where his work is part of the collection. “I think we may tend to forget that he was very much on the contemporary art scene in the 1950s. He really had a modernist look at sculpture and representational sculpture, which always has a special place. Now, his work is virtually all over the country and easily recognizable. It will very much stand the test of time.”
Mr. King first came to the East End in 1959, moving to East Hampton full-time in the 1970s after a divorce, leaving his former marriage and Manhattan loft behind. His large-scale sculptures flourished and have landed in permanent and temporary installations at the Bridgehampton Commons, Hayground School and Ross School, to name a few.
“I think because his art is so accessible and the imagery is people doing funny things, dancing or holding hands, people may not think of it as ‘serious.’ But it is,” said Christina Strassfield, museum director and chief curator at Guild Hall in East Hampton. “When you think of the forms he did, making some of them very flat, even though they’re three-dimensional—that’s really very innovative.”
Until just a few months before his death, Mr. King could be found in his studio every morning for several hours, before eating lunch with his wife and fellow artist, Ms. Fox, who would also be taking a break from her work. The pair began dating in the early 1980s while playing fiddle in Audrey Flack’s bluegrass band together. They had previously met during the 1960s at an art opening in Berkeley, California.
And little did they know, the pair had also crossed paths 10 years earlier: On November 1, 1950, they were both in St. Peter’s Square in Rome when Pope Pius XII announced the Assumption of Mary, and declared it dogma.
In 2003 — after more than 20 years of living and working in unison — they were finally married by the late Peter Matthiessen in his Zen garden. Their lives have intertwined in the best way, Mr. Chaskey said, as Mr. King always considered his stepchildren, and in-laws, his own.
“I remember the moment I met him. Just one of a kind,” Mr. Chaskey said. “One of my favorite things about him, he took a nap every day. That was a religious thing. A lot of people are apologetic — they think the American spirit is ‘you can’t take naps.’ He just said it preserved his sense of humor.”
In his free time, the 6-foot-3-inch artist enjoyed social gatherings, long walks along Sammys Beach in East Hampton with his wife, and growing his penchant for language — Italian, French, Greek and a little bit of Russian. He loved to tell stories, play music and support his fellow artists in the community. He often gifted his family art for birthday presents, Mr. Chaskey said, which have overflowed into his office at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett. Everywhere he looks, there is a “Bill sculpture,” he said.
“There’s a head of me, a silhouette that’s made out of wood,” he said. “One birthday, it was just sitting by the front door, this little wooden carving of me with my beard. I came home the next day, and there was another one. It was four days of that until they stopped. He finally thought he got it right — but what do you do with three other wooden heads of yourself?”
Three decades worth of gifts are sprinkled throughout the Chaskey abode in Sag Harbor, where the family has traditionally gathered every Sunday evening for dinner. Upon arriving, Mr. King would always ask, “What can I do to help?” Mr. Chaskey would reply, “Play the piano.”
And he would, singing along to his melodies before sitting down to eat. In lieu of a traditional grace — “Because he was not a conventional person, even remotely,” Mr. Chaskey said — the family would hold hands and wait. “One, two, three,” Mr. King would call out, cuing everyone to shout, “Hallelujah!”
Last Sunday night, seated around the dinner table, Mr. King’s family recited the countdown in unison without him.
And then everyone said, “Hallelujah!”
As published in the Southampton Press