Pollock, De Kooning, Johns, Warhol, Kline – Their Muse and Lover

The only survivor of Jackson Pollock’s deadly car crash in 1956 also happened to be his lover. In fact, she was an artist herself, but is better known today for relationships—sometimes sexual—with several well-known artists in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ruth Kligman’s unusual and little-known story is interwoven into the history of modern art. In addition to her sexual relationships with Pollock and Willem de Kooning, she had strong friendships with Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Franz Kline.

The enchanting and gregarious Kligman met Pollock at a small gallery in New York where she worked as an assistant. She was only 26-years old when she began seeing the infamous “Jack the Dripper,” who was her senior by almost two decades.

At the time, Pollock was at the peak of his fame. He had become the poster child for a new painting style dubbed Abstract Expressionism, and his work and unusual painting technique were an inspiration to many artists. And yet, Pollock suffered from alcoholism and was growing weary with his celebrity.

Kligman, who was an abstract artist herself, was greatly inspired by Pollock. Two years later, in 1958, she would go on to study at the Art Students League.

“Broken Cosmos,” Ruth Kligman, 1950.

Living in Springs, New York near Pollock’s home in East Hampton, Pollock and Kligman played muse to one another. Their romance was not secretive. The composer Ned Rorem described their relationship as “two narcissists depicting each other.”

Kligman and Pollock were lovers for only a few months before he crashed his car into a tree, with Kligman and another friend inside. Kligman was thrown out of the vehicle, seriously injured but alive. Pollock and the other passenger died.

Kligman was devastated after Pollock’s death. In a 1999 interview with Elle magazine, she said that she “loved him best and last.” But one year later, Kligman began a relationship with another Abstract Expressionist: Willem de Kooning.

“Ruth’s Zowie,” Willem de Kooning, 1957. Image via the Willem de Kooning Foundation.

In 1957, she visited her new lover’s studio. Browsing through his canvases, she stopped in front of a large blue and yellow work and exclaimed “Zowie!” Because of her enthusiasm for the work, Willem de Kooning named it in her honor.

Left to Right: Jane Freilicher, Ruth Kligman, Willem de Kooning.

An attraction to creativity (and a personal desire for it) is how Klingman described the natural attraction that she had for modern artists, and she befriended several other artists of the period. While at a restaurant with de Kooning during their affair, she met Jasper Johns, who was widely known to be gay, and was immediately taken with him. The two became friends and possibly, albeit briefly, lovers. He said of her that “she seemed to express a genuine erotic affection for well-known artists.”

In the 1960s, she drew the fascination of Andy Warhol: she looked like Elizabeth Taylor and was an artistic muse to some of the best-known artists of the previous decade. She claims they had a crush on each other and Warhol writes of her in his diaries. They were close through 1964 and supportive of each other in the art world. She opened a gallery in Greenwich Village and premiered one of Warhol’s short films, “Blow Job,” there in March of that year.

Still from “Blow Job,” Andy Warhol, 1964. Image via the Andy Warhol Foundation.

She was also a friend to Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. The two had a playful relationship and Kline once called Kligman “Miss Grand Concourse,” referring to the major Bronx thoroughfare that was known for its flashiness and seduction. Despite his catty comment, the two seemed to be close friends.

The nickname, however, had an edge to it as several in the Astract Expressionist circle felt that Kligman had perhaps too hastily began a relation with de Kooning after the death of Pollock. She had other unflattering nicknames as well; Elaine de Kooning called her “Pink Mink” and Frank O’Hara dubbed her the “death car girl.”

Kline, however, also respected Kligman’s ambition as a painter. During a chance meeting at the Cedar Tavern in New York’s East Village, she once told Kline she had just painted her best work. He bought her a drink and gave these words of advice: “They think it’s easy. They don’t know it’s like jumping off a 12-story building every day.”

Kline’s studio became Kligman’s home after he died in 1962 and left her his apartment. She continued to live there until her own death in 2010.

Ruth Kligman by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1972. Image via the Getty Museum blog.

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1930, proximity, confidence, and a genuine interest in art allowed Kligman to slip seamlessly into the New York scene. While she may have been muse to several of the biggest names of the mid-century art world, hanging around with painters and poets in the Cedar Tavern in the East Village and rubbing elbows at gallery shows, Kligman was not a groupie. She was herself a dedicated artist, a mentor, and a confidant – she soaked all the art knowledge she could from these talented men.

Controversy over the authenticity of “Red, Black and Silver,” a painting that Kligman claims is Pollock’s last work and a gift to her, has tested art forensics in recent years: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/25/arts/design/a-real-pollock-on-this-art-and-science-collide.html

The New York Times wrote a detailed obituary of Ruth Kligman in 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/arts/design/06kligman.html