Elaine de Kooning
American Painter, Art Critic, and Educator
Brooklyn, New York
Southampton, New York
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.
Biography of Elaine de Kooning
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Elaine de Kooning, Portraiture, and the Politics of SexualityBy Celia S. Stahr / September 1, 2003
- Why Elaine de Kooning Sacrificed her Own Amazing Career for her More-Famous Husband'sBy Wendy Moonan / Smithsonian Magazine / May 8, 2015
- Elaine de Kooning Finds Light in Paintings of 'Cave Walls'By Zan Dubin / Lost Angeles Times / March 10, 1987