Elaine de Kooning - Biography and Legacy
American Art Critic and Painter
Brooklyn, New York
Southampton, New York
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, 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 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 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 Raphael 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 Kooning
In 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 Apart
Elaine and Willem grew increasingly distant from one another early in their marriage. After he rented his own studio space on 4th Avenue, Willem began to spend increasing amounts of time with other artists who frequented the neighborhood, including Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli, 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 Jackson Pollock's mistress. De Kooning reportedly carried on brief affairs with Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess, both of whom, oddly enough, had made their names in part by championing the art of Willem.
Teaching and Writing Career
In 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, Hans Hofmann, 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 and 1957, 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 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. 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 (1983) 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.