Summary of Elaine de Kooning
An energetic and generous person, Elaine de Kooning expanded the realm of what is normally considered Abstract Expressionism with her sensitively painted and dynamic portraits of friends, athletes, and even a President of the United States. She was a prolific artist, art critic, portraitist, and teacher during the height of the Abstract Expressionist era and well beyond. Mixing abstraction and representation in much of her work, de Kooning took inspiration not only from those around her, but from bullfights, sculpture, and cave paintings.
Although her early career was overshadowed by that of her husband, Willem de Kooning, Elaine's artistic range, vast knowledge of media, and influence on fellow artists was undeniable. Elaine de Kooning's work continues to receive increasing critical attention and find its place among her New York School peers.
- De Kooning took to heart the ideas of Action Painting, not only in painting in a gestural style, but in the desire to immerse herself in and identify herself with her subject. While she did paint abstract canvases, much of her work is rooted in the everyday reality of the life that she lived and experienced.
- In her portraiture, de Kooning was less keen on rendering exact likenesses as in traditional portraiture, and instead strove to capture the person's style, that thing which makes him or her immediately recognizable to their friends and acquaintances. From a whirl of gestural brushstrokes, a recognizable countenance emerges, and one senses the reinvigoration of the portrait tradition.
- Her depiction of male sexuality upended the more typical scenario of male artist and female subjects and challenged contemporary gender power dynamics and male privilege. Additionally, her insistence on an open relationship with her husband and her hard drinking and smoking transgressed societal norms for what it meant to be a wife at the time.
Important Art by Elaine de Kooning
De Kooning did several self-portraits in the mid-1940s, and this one at the National Portrait Gallery is one of the most fully realized. The artist sits in a chair, holding a sketchbook and stares directly out at the viewer. She is surrounded by objects in the studio - a decanter, a small sculpture, a hanging textile, a postcard, and a plant. A cup of coffee and an ashtray sit on the floor near her feet. The inclusion of these objects make the painting almost as much of a still life study as a portrait and perhaps recalls her early training with Willem (Bill) de Kooning, who insisted on learning from still lifes.
The browns, ochers, and pinks of the painting also recall Bill's paintings of men that he completed in the later 1930s and early 1940s, but here Elaine presents herself assertively as an artist. While not posed with a canvas and easel, Elaine was actually making intimate pencil portraits of her friends around this time. In the mid 1940s, Elaine and Bill were poorer than ever, and both were experiencing great difficulty in selling any work. In an effort to make money, de Kooning painted a similar self-portrait (now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and sold it to her sister for a sum of $20, which she described at the time as "good money." The pseudo-abstract touches in this otherwise classical portrait are very much in the style of artist Fairfield Porter, who was a close friend of the de Koonings.
Oil on masonite - The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.
Fairfield Porter #1
Fairfield Porter, artist and critic himself, sits on a bistro chair, squarely facing the viewer. His legs are spread, and his hands rest in his lap. The details of his setting are not entirely clear, although a vase of bright yellow flowers sits atop a table behind. Most noticeable is the fact that de Kooning has not painted his face in any detail. The viewer can see the general shape, the hair, and Porter's eyebrows, but in this portrait, likeness is found less in his facial features than how he wears his suit, sits in his chair, and gestures with his hands. De Kooning painted many of her male friends with their legs provocatively splayed, transgressing usual norms. She told an art historian, "[In the past] women painted women: Vigée Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I though, men always painted the opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects."
De Kooning started to employ a more abstract and gestural approach to her paintings in the early and mid-1950s. Her sister Marjorie Fried Luyckx, recalled, "In doing a portrait she seemed to apply the brushstrokes in a wildly random manner and yet, sometimes suddenly, a startling likeness of the figure would emerge. If it didn't, she would set the canvas aside and begin on a second without changing the position of the sitter (and often a third or even a fourth." In this manner, de Kooning ended up painting many of her subjects multiple times.
Oil on canvas - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Almost eleven feet wide and about six-and-a-half-feet tall, Bullfight is one of de Kooning's largest paintings. Seemingly abstract, the bold, colorful gestures suggest the scene of a bullfight, if not representationally, then certainly in its dynamism, vividness, and energy. Shortly after her arrival at the University of New Mexico in 1957 to teach painting, her friend, poet Margaret Randall, escorted de Kooning to Ciudad Juarez, just across the Mexican border from El Paso, to watch the bullfights. De Kooning was captivated by the movements and colors of her new surroundings.
De Kooning's time in the American West, was more than an escape from her long-faltering marriage. De Kooning told a reporter from Texas that New Mexico "was a revelation. It was so different from New York, where I'd always lived. Suddenly I abandoned gray and my painting became bright with color. This wonderful space had its effect after those crowded city streets. I'd always painted vertically on rectangular canvases; now I paint horizontally for the feeling of wide spaces." Additionally, Amy Von Lintel and Bonnie Roos suggest that many women during this time, including Randall and de Kooning, experienced new-found freedom through being able to drive and own cars. Not only, then, were the experiences of the western landscape and the sensuousness of the bullfights consequential for the shift in de Kooning's style, but the experience of a new kind of freedom was important for her new direction in painting.
Oil on canvas - Denver Art Museum
John F. Kennedy
When de Kooning traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, to paint Kennedy's portrait in December 1962, she commented that the president was difficult to sketch due to his "extreme restlessness ... he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other." Upon returning to New York City, de Kooning worked tirelessly for nearly a year, sketching and re-sketching Kennedy based on her original renderings, as well as from hundreds of newspaper clippings and other images.
In this depiction that is just slightly larger than life-size, the viewer sees a lean, vertical likeness of the young president, with the artist's gestural rhythms evoking the restlessness of her subject. The yellows and golds as well as the vivid greens and watery blues, recall her impression on first meeting her subject: "He was incandescent, golden. And bigger than life." De Kooning's modern style enlivened the genre of portrait painting when it had long been considered conservative and stuffy, if not dead. Without depicting the trappings and symbols of the presidency or any patriotic colors, de Kooning presents the viewer with, in the words of art historian Simona Cupic, "just a personal awareness and the memory of the moment when she saw him," thus "offering a model of a new - contemporary - official paintings of a president."
Oil on canvas - The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.
In this sizable canvas, verdant greens, grays, and blues mingle across the canvas. When one concentrates on the black lines drawn over the colors, an image of a sculptural group of figures comes into better focus. As if standing below, the viewer looks up at the intertwined, spirited figures back-dropped by summer foliage and clear blue sky. During a visit to Paris in 1976, de Kooning saw a 19th-century sculpture of Bacchus - the Roman god of wine and intoxication - in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and upon returning to her temporary studio in Athens, Georgia, she subsequently began a series of large paintings based on the subject. According to one curator, de Kooning "particularly admired the sculpture's twisting, dynamic form, which portrays the commotion created by the drunken god and his equally inebriated attendants."
These paintings marked a brief return for de Kooning to the more traditional vertical canvas, but it was the first time she ever used acrylic paint. Despite the change in medium, the combination and tension of abstraction and figuration remained a constant for de Kooning. One of her friends, Karen Gunderson explained, "She understood the essence of a form and was able to describe that with a particularly personal and yet incredibly descriptive abstraction of energy. The underlying abstraction was feeding the reality."
Acrylic and charcoal on canvas - National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D. C.
Desert Wall, Cave #96
In the early 1980s, Elaine de Kooning visited a series of Paleolithic caves near Lascaux, France. Inspired by what she witnessed inside, de Kooning began her Cave Painting series, which included this 1986 painting. Faint outlines of horses, antelopes, and buffalo intermingle and overlap with each other, atop streaks of mauve, blue, red, and purple. In a particularly illuminating moment, she told one reporter, "The cave painters took tremendous liberties with proportions. That's what fascinated me - to make a horse in as many ways as possible. And I loved the jumps in scale. Some animals were tiny, others huge. I liked the profusion of animals, too, one superimposed upon another, and the contrast of both crude and primitive forms versus sophisticated ones. There's also a tremendous immediacy about the cave work that has much more to do with today's art, than, let's say, with Renaissance art. There's this directness, when you can see exactly how it's done ... Especially in the dazzling caves at Lascaux, no matter how ungainly or disproportionate, you know immediately this is a horse, a bison. All of these visual stimulations fit exactly into everything I've been doing as an artist." And indeed, the directness of the image, the artistic freedom, the immediate recognition of the subject had been part of her artistic project since the 1940s when she began painting portraits.
Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection
Biography of Elaine de Kooning
Childhood and Education
Elaine 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, New York. She was the first of four children, and they lived 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 Broadway shows, and decorated their walls with art reproductions.
Elaine was clearly their mother's favorite. 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. During this time of distress, 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 Avenue and 34th Street, where artists employed by the New Deal-funded 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 Years
While attending classes at the Leonardo 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 the modernist Stuart Davis and Social Realist Raphael Soyer both taught.
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 Kooning
In the autumn of 1938, Robert Jonas 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 living 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 Elaine met through Bill, 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, Elaine moved into Bill's studio on West 22nd Street.
On December 9, 1943, Elaine and Bill 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, always up for adventure, de Kooning sailed to Provincetown, Massachusetts - which had become a popular artists' colony in recent years - with a friend and art lover, Bill Hardy, much to the dismay of her husband. De Kooning returned to New York the following December, and she and Bill were promptly 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. Bill and Elaine set up their respective easels on opposite corners of the small studio, exacerbating the increased tension between the two of them.
Elaine and Bill Grow Apart
Elaine and Bill grew increasingly distant from one another early in their marriage. After he rented his own studio space on 4th Avenue, Bill began to spend increasing amounts of time with other artists in the neighborhood, including Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli, and John Ferren. Through their friends Rudy Burckhardt and the dance critic Edwin Denby, Elaine became involved in the New York arts and culture scene, attending concerts, dance recitals, and parties, despite her lack of financial success as an artist.
Throughout their marriage, both Elaine and Bill took other lovers. In 1948, not long after Bill received his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, Elaine began an affair with Egan, who had also recently gotten married, and later at various points with critics Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg. While many have speculated that Elaine slept with the critics to further Bill's career, both Hess and Rosenberg had already championed Bill as an important painter. After Bill had a daughter with artist Joan Ward in 1956, Bill and Elaine grew further apart, and while they never divorced, the two were effectively separated.
Painting, Writing, and Teaching
Throughout the 1940s, de Kooning concentrated on portraiture. She made many striking self-portraits and recalled some of the earliest painting lessons learned from Bill, "Everything was a matter of tension between objects or edges and space." Her early self-portraits depict her in her studio, seated with sketchbook in hand, surrounding by the objects in her home studio. She also called upon Bill and other friends, including, Joop Sanders, to pose for portraits. Not so interested in painting meticulous representations, de Kooning hoped to capture her sitter's comportment - the way in which one recognizes a friend walking down the street before even seeing their face because one recognizes the way they move and carry themselves.
In the summer of 1948, Elaine accompanied Bill to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he had been hired to teach during the summer session. While at Black Mountain, she took classes with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller, playing a key role in the attempted construction of Fuller's first large-scale geodesic dome. She also participated in the production of Erik Satie's play Ruse of the Medusa along with Fuller, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg. She painted a total of seventeen abstract paintings, later called Black Mountain Abstractions (1948), which were found rolled up in her studio upon her death.
Following her summer at Black Mountain, Thomas Hess, the editor of ARTNews, a much-read magazine of the time, made de Kooning an Editorial Associate with ARTNews, and subsequently she became an important critic, championing her friends and colleagues in reviews and profiles, including Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, and David Smith. While not widely recognized in the same ways as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, de Kooning's critical voice gave shape and import to the burgeoning group of Abstract Expressionist painters.
Paintings by both Elaine and Bill were exhibited in the 1949 exhibition Artists: Man and Wife at the Sidney Janis Gallery, along with the works of couples like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. That same fall saw the founding of the famed Artists' Club (or Eighth Street Club) at 39 East 8th Street. While Elaine did not become an official member until 1952, she was a vocal participant in group discussions from the beginning.
In the 1950s, de Kooning's paint handling becomes much more gestural, and her portraits become almost gyroscopic in their movement. She painted a series of athletes, including the quasi-impressionist abstract Baseball Players (1953), as well as portraits of her good friends Fairfield Porter (1954) and Harold Rosenberg (1956). Her interest in male portraiture upended the usual ways in which men were portrayed. De Kooning explained, "I became fascinated by the way men's clothes divide them in half - the shirt, the jacket, the tie, the trousers. I worked with just a few stylized poses. Some men sit all closed up - legs crossed, arms folded across the chest. Others are wide open. I was interested in the gesture and the body - the expression of character through the structure of the clothing. I centered the figures; I thought of them as spinning - 'gyroscopic men,' isolated in space."
In 1954, de Kooning had her first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery, with mixed reviews. The art critic for the New York Times declared, "Mrs. de Kooning is apt to let her form fritter away in a welter of pugnacious brush-strokes; but as she has considerable powers of observation and is an excellent draftsman the basic coherence of her figures is preserved. These figures are attenuated and, in the basketball subjects, are depicted in violent action, striving and straining in the manner of El Greco saints. But the genuine vitality of her work is dampened by consistently dismal color."
In 1957, after her separation from Bill, 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 honor not often bestowed upon an artist associated with the bohemian avant-garde. After a few weeks of sketching the president while he was in Palm Beach, Florida, at the end of 1962, De Kooning 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 more traditional presidential portraits.
Late Years and Death
Following 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 than ever as a teacher, teaching at universities and colleges across the country, including Yale University, Carnegie-Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, the Parsons School of Design, and the New York Studio School. She also began experimenting with new media, creating a series of fourteen bronze sculptures.
In 1969, de Kooning bought a studio on Long Island, near Bill, and in 1976 she received an appointment as the Lamar Dodd Visiting Professor of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens. After years of heavy drinking and carousing, and 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 Bill to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well. While the two reconciled in the mid-1970s, it was not a romantic rekindling, as Bill was madly in love with another woman, but it was more of a pragmatic arrangement as Bill's health began to falter.
Throughout the 1980s, de Kooning continued to travel and teach, visiting Egypt, Kenya, China, and Japan, as well as frequent trips throughout Europe and the United States. 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 her 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 series of Cave Walls and Cave Paintings (1983) were lighter in tone and composed using thinner, almost minimalist, brush strokes, but they still contained the subtle figurative forms found in her previous work.
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 1,1988. 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.
The Legacy of Elaine de Kooning
With an exhibition of her portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C., in 2015 and with the inclusion of several of her paintings in the 2016 Denver Art Museum exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, fortunately Elaine de Kooning's legacy has received increased attention in recent years. Her large, colorful, gestural works of the 1960s show her to be an adept Abstract Expressionist, and her sensitive and dynamic portraits of friends, athletes, and strangers widen the understanding of what Abstract Expressionism can be. But beyond her painting, de Kooning's astute and rigorous analyses of painting in the 1940s and 1950s, helped to shape what we know of Abstract Expressionism as a whole.
Always generous with her time, and sometimes even money, her impact on her students and friends was considerable. One, Barbara Schwartz, recalled her being an "ardent talent scout," and William Conger admired her fierce intellect as well as her directness and criticism. While she bristled at being asked about being a "female artist," de Kooning was nonetheless an inspiration to many young women working to find their artistic voices, including Connie Fox and Margaret Randall, who would become life-long friends.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Elaine de Kooning
- A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning (2017)By Cathy Curtis
- Elaine de Kooning: Portraits (2015)By Brandon Brame Fortune, et al.
- Ninth Street Women (2018)By Mary Gabriel
- Women of Abstract Expressionism (2016)By Gwen Chanzit, Joan Marter, Ellen Landau, et al.
- De Kooning: An American Master (2006)By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan