Elaine de Kooning: "Life was a constant surprise"

abstract expressionism american art artist workshop creativity elaine de kooning feminism women in art Sep 30, 2021


Elaine de Kooning [1918 - 1989] was an accomplished landscape and portrait artist active in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century.


 She made both abstract and figurative paintings and drawings of still life, cityscapes, and portraits. 


She produced a diverse body of work over the course of her lifetime, including sculpture and etchings. 



Elaine was born Elaine Marie Catherine Fried in New York to Irish Catholic mother and a father Protestant of Jewish descent.


She was the eldest of four children.


Her mother, despite being recalled as less loving and attentive, supported her eldest's artistic endeavours, taking her to exhibitions and teaching her to draw what she saw. 


At school in Brooklyn, Elaine began drawing and selling portraits of children who attended her school. After graduating from High School, she briefly attended Hunter College in New York City, where she befriended a group of Abstract and Social Realist painters.


In 1937, she attended the Leonardo a Vinci School and went on to study at the American Artists School, both in New York City. She worked as an art school model to make some money during her studies.


In the Autumn, of 1938 her teacher Robert Jonas introduced her to Willem de Kooning at a Manhattan cafe. She was 20 and he 34. Elaine had admired his artwork before meeting him. 


After meeting, Willem began to instruct her in drawing and painting. He was a harsh critic "sternly requiring that she draw and redraw a figure or still life and insisting on fine, accurate, clear linear definition supported by precisely modulated shading.” Willem even destroyed many of her drawings, but this "impelled Elaine to strive for both precision and grace in her work”. 


When they married on December 9, 1943, she moved into his loft and they continued sharing studio spaces. Their marriage was turbulent, both of them had multiple affairs. Both struggled with alcoholism, which eventually led to their separation in 1957. They never divorced, ultimately reuniting in 1976.



She was very serious about her own work, she was well-aware that it was often overshadowed by her husband's fame. 


In the 1951 exhibition Artists: Man and Wife at the Sidney Janice Gallery, Elaine and Willem exhibited their work together alongside several other well known art pairings including: Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner, Ben Nicholson/Barbara Hepworth, Jean Arp/Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Elaine said, "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but later I came to think that it was a bit of a put-down of the women. There was something about the show that sort of attached women-wives- to the real artists”.


Her works are now in the collections of the MOMA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim.



In addition to her art, Elaine de Kooning was an important writer and teacher of art but first and foremost, she considered herself a "painter by nature.” 


Over the course of her life, she held teaching posts at many institutions of higher education. In 1957, after Elaine and Willem separated, she took on a series of short-term teaching posts in several universities to support herself. 

"For Elaine, everything was always new, never resolved, always being unmade and made, as if it had never been made before. She did not accumulate experience and learn what to expect ... Life was a constant surprise.”


A large portion of Elaine de Kooning's work was in portraiture. In addition to painting many self-portraits throughout the course of her life, her subjects were often fellow artists and JFK. Although she worked in a gestural Abstract Expressionist mode, she never abandoned working with the figure ensuring the person's likeness.


In regard to her portraiture, Elaine de Kooning wrote, "Portraiture always fascinated me because I love the particular gesture of a particular expression or stance ... Working on the figure, I wanted paint to sweep through as feelings sweep through ..." 

Her gestural style of portraiture is often noted, although her work was mostly figurative and representational, and rarely purely abstract. 

Her work presents a combination between painting and drawing, surface and contour, stroke and line, colour and light, transparency and opacity.

'She achieves a sense of distinguishing facial features and captures each subject's presence with sharp, jagged strokes of paint… 


A drawing of [her brother] Conrad from 1951 presents [his] head and shoulders against a dark background, with a combination of careful lines and darker strokes defining a contemplative figure with great subtlety.”



Elaine employed a wide range of virtuosic drawing and painting techniques: finely detailed pencil drawings and more free ink drawings, crosshatching, erasure, stumping, and improvisational graphic lines, thin paint and impasto, “thin, dripping washes of bold color…” with many media: pencil, ink, charcoal, gouache, collage, mixed media, oil on paper, canvas and masonite.


She painted basketball players at play using a loose, expressionistic style.


She studied each person "to find the characteristic pose that would define them.”


In the Autumn of 1958, until late spring of 1959 Elaine started a teaching appointment as visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico. This gave her the opportunity to immerse herself in the characteristic colour and space of the Southwestern landscape. 


She visited Juarez, Mexico where she attended many bullfights. She created a series of painting inspired by the theme with bold and bright colours. 



She became entranced with nature and pure abstraction. 


She developed a love of Mexico, evident in her assertive and richly coloured painting Farol (1958), which brilliantly conjures the action of the bullfight without the protagonists – a great conceptual feat.


When asked about her style she said... 


"I'm more interested in character than style. Character comes out of the work. Style is applied or imposed on the work. Style can be a prison.” 



The Bacchus series of paintings and watercolours that Elaine de Kooning generated over seven years began in 1976. 


She was captivated by a 19th-century sculpture of the Roman god Bacchus, which she saw in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. 


She particularly admired the sculpture’s twisting, dynamic form, which portrays the commotion created by the drunken god and his equally inebriated attendants.

Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall is one in a series that de Kooning called "Cave Walls," inspired by the cave paintings of Lascaux.  

Of her first visit to Niaux in 1983, she  recalled how impressed she had been, saying, "the walls, even those without paintings, seemed to bellow with animal forms." 

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