Sunday, February 12, 2017

1918-1989: Elaine de Kooning, American

Elaine de Kooning, 1960

Elaine de Kooning was both a gifted figurative painter and a committed Abstract Expressionist. She started her career in the 1950s and continued to paint through the 1980s. She is best known for her portraits, especially a series of drawings and paintings depicting John F. Kennedy.

In addition, she was an important figure in the art world because of her work as a critic and educator; and she was also known as the wife of one of stars of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning.


Elaine Fried was born in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest of 4 children. Her father was protestant of Jewish descent who was the plant manager for a bread company. Her mother was an Irish Catholic was was accused of neglecting her children.


Despite her unconventional approach to child rearing, Elaine's mother started taking her to museums at the age of 5, as well as teaching her to draw.

Elaine didn't have a lot of formal training in art. She studied art for a couple of years in two different art schools.

When she was 20, in 1938, she began having private drawing lessons with Willem de Kooning, a Dutch painter, age 34, who had lived in New York since 1926. She later credited his training as the foundation of her work.

Private life: 

Apparently it was love at first sight for Elaine and Willem, according to later reports by their friends. For several years they painted and socialized together in Manhattan, and they got married in 1943.

Despite their attachment, Elaine and Willem had an open marriage; they both were casual about sex and about each other’s affairs. Elaine had affairs with men who could help further Willem’s career, and Willem fathered a child with another woman. Both of them were also heavy drinkers, and this sometimes caused problems in their lives.

In 1957 their affairs and alcoholism drove Elaine and Willem to part. They reconciled in 1976, after Elaine had sobered up, and she got him off the booze as well.

She died of lung cancer at the age of 68. Willem, though stricken with dementia, continued to paint and outlived her another eight years.


All through her painting career, Elaine alternated between representational images—rendered in a highly abstract manner—and pure abstractions, with only a hint of subject matter, if any.

Here's an example of the way she painted in the first phase of her career, in the 1940s.

Self-portrait, 1946

She began to show Abstract Expressionist paintings in the 1950s. One of her subjects was a series of studies of bulls. The energy of the subject seems suitable to the use of vigorous gestural brushwork in which each stroke has its own separateness.

Charging Bull No. 7, 1959

Here's an example in which the subject is even more obscure.

Juarez, 1958

Juarez, 1958
Santa Fe
Photo by Dan L. Smith
The idea of applying this loose, formless style to portraiture—which is normally associated with literal accuracy of portrayal—was totally contradictory, and rather abhorrent to the men in the Abstract Expressionist group. By figuring out how to relate expressive abstraction to portraiture, Elaine invented something new and unique.

Her early portraits depicted her friends. Here's a portrait of painter Fairfield Porter. Notice that she left the face vague while using her bold brushwork to capture the subject's posture and attitude exactly. Elaine realized early on that we recognize people by other signs before we even see their faces, and that while their faces might hide their personalities, their body positions given them away.
Fairfield Porter #1, 1954
Here's a portrait of a friend who was a poet, Frank O'Hara. Elaine first painted his face, then painted it out, perhaps because the features were too detailed to fit with the broad, slashing brushstrokes; perhaps because it was the moment of recognition before the face comes into focus that most interested her. She has an uncanny ability to capture the gesture, pose, and spirit of her subjects.

Frank O'Hara, 1962
National Portrait Gallery / Internet

Here's a more detailed portrait of the art critic who strongly championed Willem de Kooning's version of Abstract Expressionism, Harold Rosenberg:

Harold Rosenberg, 1962

In 1962, Elaine received a career-making commission from the Truman Library to paint President John F. Kennedy. She and her assistant were granted a two-week residency at the "Winter White House" in West Palm Beach. She was fascinated by the President and sketched and painted him in countless poses as he studied documents or conferred with aides.

Elaine in her studio, 1963

Elaine reached her final synthesis in September of 1963; Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22 of that year.  Elaine's portrait expresses youth, movement, and intensity. The President is sitting in a tense, temporary position, ready to bolt into action. He looks as though he might be listening to you speak at that moment.

The final version is 10 feet tall, because Elaine saw Kennedy as larger than life, both in his personality and in his importance as a world leader.

John F. Kennedy, 1963
National Portrait Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith

In that same year, Elaine completed a multi-figure image which seems like her best work to me. It depicts nine inmates of a special public school for narcotics offenders. Elaine had gone there to give art lessons to recovering addicts. The men appear self-aware and mature; their wary gazes reflect their institutionalization. Their individual personalities are indicated by poses and gestures; they may be candid, savvy, suspicious, bored or skeptical. The canvas is about 7 feet tall and fourteen feet wide; the monumental size accords these men a level of respect they seldom received in real life, thus making it a subtle, but moving political statement.

The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue, 1963
Private collection / Internet

In the 1970s, Elaine continued to focus on portraiture, developing her abstract style. The painting below is sometimes considered her greatest masterpiece. It depicts Robert de Niro Sr., father of the actor, who was also an artist.

Robert de Niro Sr., 1973

Donald Barthelme
National Portrait Gallery / Internet
Later, Elaine did some portraits in a more popular style with more detailed attention to facial features. From the art critic's point of view, these works were less exciting, but they more accessible and more effective as illustration.

Pele #3, 1982
In the 1980s, when she was in her 60s, Elaine had a chance to travel in France. She painted a series inspired by the Bacchus fountain in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris that represent a return to a very high level of abstraction, with only the hint of subject matter.

Bacchus #3, 1978
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Bacchus #69 (Purple and Green), 1982

Later, she did a series on the cave-paintings of Lascaux that are remarkably evocative.

Torchlight Cave Drawing, 1985