SynopsisElaine de Kooning was a prolific artist, art critic, portraitist and teacher during the height of the Abstract Expressionist era and well beyond. Although her early career was overshadowed by that of , her husband, Elaine's artistic range, vast knowledge of media, and influence on fellow artists was undeniable. Many of her so-called pure abstract paintings were produced during the 1950s. Early in her career much of her work was composed of watercolors and still-lifes, and later much of her art fused abstraction with mythology, primitive imagery and realism. Elaine de Kooning's work continues to receive increasing critical attention as she was, without question, one of the most important art teachers to have worked in the 20th century.
Childhood and EducationElaine de Kooning was born Elaine Marie Catherine Fried in 1918 (although she would later claim her birth year was 1920), to Marie and Charles Frank Fried, a plant manager for the Bond Bread Company in Brooklyn, NY. She was the first of four children who were all raised in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. Elaine's younger sister, Marjorie, once recalled that their mother was not the most attentive and loving parent, but she did instill in her children a love for the arts, often taking them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to several Broadway shows.
Elaine was clearly their mother's favorite of the four children. According to an old friend of Elaine's, Marie's nickname for her oldest daughter was "Samson," from the Old Testament figure who was granted great strength by God. Marie was an eccentric and highly intelligent woman who was frequently seen walking around town in disheveled clothing and heavy makeup.
In the late 1920s, a neighbor reported Marie to the police for neglecting her children, and when the police arrived at the Fried home, Marie had to be physically forced from the premises. She was committed to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village for a year, during which time the children's primary caregiver was their housekeeper. Elaine de Kooning became a surrogate parent for her younger siblings.
In 1932 de Kooning began attending Erasmus Hall High School where she excelled at nearly everything, including sports and academics. Four years later she enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan but dropped out after only a few weeks of classes.
After leaving Hunter, de Kooning enrolled in classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, located on 3rd Ave. and 34th Street, where artists employed by the New Deal-funded WPA (Works Progress Administration) were working as teachers. It was at the da Vinci School where she met artist Robert Jonas, whom she dated briefly, and remained close to throughout her life.
The Union YearsWhile attending classes at the da Vinci School, de Kooning became politically active, representing the school at meetings of the leftist John Reed Club. At these meetings she attempted to organize students into a new auxiliary union for artists, simply called the Artists' Union. It was also at the John Reed Club meetings where she met artist Milton Resnick, who was representing the American Artists School. Resnick and de Kooning began dating soon thereafter, at which point she dropped out of Leonardo da Vinci and enrolled in classes at American Artists, where she learned from teachers Stuart Davis and Rafael Soyer.
Through her involvement with the American Artists School, de Kooning became active with the Young Communist League (YCL), and frequently attended workers camps and other meetings sponsored by the Communist Party. To support herself financially during her student years, de Kooning joined the Models' Union to find work as an artist's model.
Elaine Meets Willem de KooningIn the autumn of 1938, Elaine's art teacher introduced her to the 34-year-old Dutch emigre Willem (Bill) de Kooning, but there is little evidence to suggest any romantic connection at their initial meeting. Elaine was with Resnick at the time, who had supposedly commented once to her, "Bill is going to be the greatest painter in the country."
Shortly after their introduction, a friend of de Kooning's took her to Willem's studio. Later in life, Elaine recalled, "It was the cleanest place I ever saw in my life. It had painted gray floors, white walls, one table..one easel, one fantastically good phonograph that cost $800 when he was only making $22 a week, and one painting of a man on the easel."
Shortly after meeting, Willem offered to give Elaine drawing lessons, which she accepted. In late 1938, de Kooning finally sold her first work, a watercolor, for $10.
Photographer Rudy Burkhardt, who Willem introduced to Elaine, later recalled that "Bill was incredibly in love with her, but she didn't treat him very well at the beginning .. She would lean back on the couch and say, 'Bill. Cigarette.' And he would leap to get it." In 1939, the year after the two artists met, de Kooning moved into Willem's studio on West 22nd Street.
On December 9, 1943, Elaine and Willem were married at a small, understated ceremony at City Hall. De Kooning later recalled that the wedding itself was "kind of bleak .. afterwards, we went to a bar in the downtown district and we all had a drink .. it was kind of amusing."
In the fall of 1945, de Kooning sailed to Provincetown, MA - which had become a popular artists' colony in recent years - with a colleague, Bill Hardy. De Kooning returned to New York the following December, only to discover that she and Willem had been evicted from their loft on 22nd Street. The two moved downtown into a Greenwich Village apartment on Carmine Street, which had previously been rented by Milton Resnick. Willem and Elaine set up their respective easels on opposite corners of the main room.
Elaine and Willem Grow ApartElaine and Willem grew increasingly distant from one another early in their marriage. After he rented his own studio space on 4th Ave., Willem began to spend increasing amounts of time with other artists who frequented the neighborhood, including Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli (a former teacher of de Kooning's at Leonardo da Vinci) and John Ferren. Elaine became involved in the New York arts and culture scene, attending concerts, dance recitals and parties, despite her relative lack of financial success.
In 1948, not long after Willem received his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, Elaine began an affair with Charles Egan, who himself had recently gotten married. Willem carried on a series of extramarital affairs as well, most famously with Ruth Kligman in the 1950s, who would later become 's mistress. De Kooning reportedly carried on brief affairs with and Thomas B. Hess, both of whom, oddly enough, had made their names in part by championing the art of Willem.
Teaching and Writing CareerIn the summer of 1948, Elaine accompanied Willem to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he had been hired to teach. She fell in love with the setting, and remained there even after Willem departed for New York at summer's end. (The couple had reportedly lived apart the entire summer.) While at Black Mountain, she designed a set for a stage production by Merce Cunningham and John Cage. She also painted a total of seventeen abstract paintings, later called Black Mountain Abstractions (1948) (which she rolled up and never showed to anyone until 1985).
Following her summer at Black Mountain, Thomas B. Hess made de Kooning an Editorial Associate with Art News, and subsequently she became one of the first art critics to write significant reviews on the work of artists like Arshile Gorky, , Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Josef Albers and David Smith.
The paintings of both Elaine and Willem were exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery for the 1949 show Artists: Man and Wife, along with the works of couples like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp. That same year, the couple helped establish the famed Artists' Club (or Eighth Street Club) at 39 East 8th Street, along with fellow artists Franz Kline, Mercedes Matter, Mark Rothko and Philip Pavia.
In response to current trends that favored abstraction, she began to paint abstractly, moving away from representational landscapes, still lifes and watercolors. Figurative forms, however subtle, never seemed to escape her painterly eye. Some strong examples of this were a series of figurative abstractions painted between 1953-57, which famously included the quasi-impressionist abstract Baseball Players (1953) as well as portraits of Fairfield Porter (1954) and Harold Rosenberg (1956). In 1954 de Kooning received her first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery. The Stable exhibition, which remained for several years, was eventually praised in the pages of Art News as one of the "Ten Best" shows of 1956. The following year, Elaine and Willem amicably separated, although the couple never divorced.
In 1957, de Kooning received a teaching appointment as a visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, which took her to the western United States for the first time. She subsequently traveled to Juarez, Mexico, where she witnessed bullfights. These experiences had a profound effect on de Kooning's artistic outlook. Captivated by the rich colors of the landscape, she began to paint on horizontal canvases, and in richer, brighter tones.
Working and teaching outside the shadow of her more famous husband, de Kooning gained acclaim as one of America's premier artists. In 1962 she received a commission from the White House to paint the portrait of President John F. Kennedy; an impressive honor bestowed upon an artist commonly associated with the bohemian New York School of painting. De Kooning then spent the better part of 1963 fine-tuning the portrait, collecting hundreds of photographs of Kennedy, and drawing short-hand sketches of him whenever he appeared on TV. The resulting portrait remains one of de Kooning's most well known and celebrated paintings, and easily stands out in the long line of presidential portraits.
Late Years and DeathFollowing the assassination of President Kennedy, de Kooning stopped painting for a year and took a teaching appointment at the University of California, Davis.
Beginning in the mid 1960s, de Kooning became more prolific then ever as a teacher. She taught at Yale University, the Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Wagner College and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She also began experimenting with new media, creating a series of fourteen bronze sculptures.
Elaine de Kooning was no less active in the 1970s, teaching for two years at the Parsons School of Design, which included a summer trip with Mercedes Matter to Europe to teach at Parsons' Studio School in Paris.
In 1975 she reconciled with Willem de Kooning and the two purchased a home in East Hampton, where she eventually established a new studio. The following year de Kooning received an appointment as the Lamar Dodd Visiting Professor of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens. Having made the commitment to commute regularly between Georgia, New York City and East Hampton, de Kooning became determined to stop drinking, and in 1977 she convinced Willem to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well.
Throughout the 1980s, de Kooning continued to travel and teach, going to Egypt, Kenya, China and Japan, as well as frequent trips throughout Europe and the U.S. These travels informed the tone, composition and themes of her later paintings, drawings and etchings, which arguably comprise the finest work of her long career. Her travels also inspired de Kooning to create a plethora of paintings, watercolors and collages that resembled ancient cave drawings, many of which she visited while abroad. Compared to her earlier work, these Cave Walls and Cave Paintings series were lighter in tone and composed using thinner, almost minimalist brush strokes, yet still contained her signature subtlety of figurative forms.
Having been diagnosed with lung cancer years before, in 1987 de Kooning had an operation to remove one of her lungs. Her health continued to deteriorate and she died on February 1st of the following year. Several memorial services were held in the Hamptons and at Cooper Union. Willem de Kooning, by this time suffering from severe dementia, was never informed of his wife's death.
Below are Elaine de Kooning's major influences, and the people and ideas that she influenced in turn.
Willem De Kooning
Years Worked: 1936 - 1989
Quotes"Inspiration is indispensable to my work, but it is hard to come by. It is there or it is not; it is a gift of the gods."
"I made my first trip west of the Hudson and it was a revelation. The naked musculature of the Rockies was overpowering and my painting responded."
"Bill and I sort of started going out and he was teaching me. Bill's studio was just one painting on his canvas or maybe a few others. But Gorky overwhelmed me with the sense of profusion. There were paintings all around. Overwhelming, I thought, I have come as the crow flies to the real artists in America. I didn't know any artists, but I just knew there couldn't be anyone better than these guys."
"Every artist returns to things. The drawings that you make as a child or as an adolescent and the ideas that you have as a young beginning artist, no doubt they crop up again and again."
"I would say from 1945 to 1950, Bill and I just had a bottomless appetite for detective novels, and we just all had read all of them. Bill Baziotes was the real expert and he would keep discovering them and saying, 'Have you read ___.' And Bill and I would read them, and then exchange them, and Rothko too. And often at these parties at Yvonne Thomas's, the discussion would not be about art. It would be about the comparative merits of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler."
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographyElaine and Bill
Originals: American Women Artists
Written by Elaine de KooningSpirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings
Elaine De Kooning: Essays by Lawrence Campbell, Helen a Harrison, Rose Slivka
Biography - de Kooning, Elaine (Marie Catherine) (1918-1989)
An Article from: Contemporary Authors
Articles about Elaine de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning: Sexism in Abstract Expressionist Art
December 31, 2007
Interview with Elaine de Kooning
August 7, 1981
Smithsonian Archives of American Art
Conducted by Phyllis Tuchman
Elaine de Kooning
August 1 - September 21, 1997.
Cline LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM
|Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock Page
|Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg Page
|German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann Page
|Milton Resnick was a Russian-born American painter, associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement. Resnick's work often employed mystical themes coupled with figurative abstractions. He was close with artists such as Calder, Brancusi and the de Koonings, and studied under Hans Hofmann.
|Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and was a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Arshile Gorky Page
|Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
ArtStory: Franz Kline Page
|Fairfield Porter was a 20th-century American realist painter and noted art critic. Although friends with and staunch admirer of many abstractionists from The New York School, Porter was something of a black sheep, opting to paint figurative forms and landscapes, which are only now gaining significant recognition.
ArtStory: Fairfield Porter Page
|Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and theologian during the mid 19th century. His most famous work, Either/Or, examined the aesthetics and ethics of human existence through a series of life views espoused by fictional characters. Because of his fascination with the human plight of existence, some consider Kierkegaard to be the father of existentialism.
|Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the 20th century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Pollock, Still and Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg Page
|Meyer Schapiro was an important art historian and theorist who wrote on the social and political dimensions of art and its historiography. He made seminal contributions to the fields of Romanesque and medieval art as well as to theories of modernism, abstraction, and Abstract Expressionism.
ArtStory: Meyer Schapiro Page
|Edwin Denby was an American dance critic and poet during the heyday of the New York School. Starting in 1943 Denby was chief dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He was also a long-time friend to Willem and Elaine de Kooning and photographer Rudy Burkhardt
|Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 20s and 30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism Page
|Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
ArtStory: Suprematism Page
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Grace Hartigan was an American painter and an important figure among the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Her paintings are characterized by their rich color and bold mixture of abstract and figurative styles.
ArtStory: Grace Hartigan Page
|Larry Rivers was an American artist whose work combines the brushy texture of Abstract Expressionism with figurative elements and a Pop Art style. He was an earlier practitioner of appropriation techniques, and his paintings sample from art history, commercial products, celebrity imagery, and other styles and sources.
|Ray Johnson was an American collagist, performance and conceptual artist who is commonly associated with the Pop art movement. Johnson worked closely with other Pop pioneers such as Warhol, Twombly and Rauschenberg, and famously created many collages that incorporated text.
|Mercedes Matter was an American modernist painter and a leading figure in the early years of Abstract Expressionism, working alongside the de Koonings, Pollock, Guston and Kline. She was also the founder of The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.
|Alexander Ney is a Russian-born American painter and sculptor. Although known for his versatility for working in various modern styles and media, Ney is best known for his innovations in conceptual sculpture made from terra cotta.
|Thomas B. Hess was an art critic and historian, and a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He served as editor of the influential magazine Art News.
ArtStory: Thomas B. Hess Page
|Barbara Rose is an American art historian. Her 1965 article "ABC Art" was an important early study of Minimalism.
|Dore Ashton is an American art critic, historian and professor. In her groundbreaking book The New York School, Ashton famously credited Jackson Pollock as the artist who "broke the ice" and first established New York City as the leading city for avant-garde art.
ArtStory: Dore Ashton Page
|Samuel Kootz was an American art dealer and gallery owner. His Kootz Gallery played a crucial role in the early development of Abstract Expressionism, representing such artists as Hofmann, Motherwell and Baziotes.
ArtStory: Samuel Kootz Page
|Leo Castelli was an American art collector and gallery owner. His Castelli Gallery in New York, which opened in 1957, held several groundbreaking shows that revealed to the art world works by such artists as Rauschenberg and Johns. Castelli's gallery was considered an early proving ground for Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalist art.
ArtStory: Leo Castelli Page
|British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art Page
|Photorealism is a post-AbEx style of painting that was developed by such artists as Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and Richard Estes. Photorealists apply painting techniques to literally mimic the effects of photography and thus blur the line that have typically divided the two mediums.