Elaine de KooningIt's common knowledge that artists marry artists. It's not so commonly known that it really doesn't happen all that often. Most often, we become aware of such unions when one or both partners attain some level of acclaim in their art. However, one of the common threads running through such marriages is the uncertainty as to the degree of legitimacy the wife's work might have in its own right as opposed to that which it might have as a result of same name association and the reflected light of her usually more famous spouse. I could cite any number of artist-marriages in which this was the case. In some instances, time has allowed us to see that the work of the female half of the marital partnership has stood up quite well against that of the male. In others, the wife's work has come to be viewed as a pale imitation of that of her husband. And, in some cases, there seems to be a sort of equity, even a sameness in the work of both husband and wife. This whole artist-marriage phenomenon is, of course, one of the twentieth century. Before that time, women were rarely professional artists and, in any case, few male artists would have had the nerve to marry one.
In 1943, such a wedding took place. It was during the war. He was a struggling painting instructor at the da Vinci School in New York, working on the avant-garde cutting edge of the nascent Abstract Expressionist movement. She was a painting student who later became his model. He was quiet, almost shy, introspective, and ever so serious. She was anything but. She was very outgoing, highly social, opinionated, expressive, as much a writer and critic as a painter, and highly supportive of her husband's work. All through the 1940s they struggled. As the New York School gained notoriety and, gradually, some degree of acceptance, then overwhelming dominance in the new American world of Modern art during the 1950s, the name Willem de Kooning floated to the top along with those of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and a few others. Elaine de Kooning was the power behind her husband's name. Yet, at the same time, she yearned see her own work attain the same or similar prominence.
The New York art scene during the 1940s and 50s was a male dominated, testosterone-driven world of bed-hopping blowhards, brawlers, and bigots in which only the strong survived. Elaine de Kooning was a strong woman, a determined woman, and one who, if she couldn't ignite an independent career of her own, could at least see to it that her reserved, highly insecure husband could claw his way to the top. Theirs was a troubled marriage, an open marriage, and yet a strangely successful marriage - so long as it lasted. Theirs was a life revolving around the da Vinci School, East Tenth Street, The Club, and the Cedar Street Tavern. Theirs was a world in which the critics, and what they had to say, mattered. It was a world in which sexual favours were traded for good reviews. It was a world of drugs and alcohol, of rehab and drunken benders. And it was a world in which Elaine de Kooning knew all the right moves and was not above making them if it would help her husband's career - or her own. It was a competitive world largely between two artists, de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, not just to see who could make the biggest splash on canvas, but a "pissing contest" to see who could bring the highest prices, best hold their liquor, and bed the most women. And when Pollock "lost" with his drunken, late-night car crash in 1956, de Kooning's work immediately soared to the top of the Abstract Expressionist world.
While her husband painted women (often her), she painted men, though somewhat less abstractly. She was highly conscious of the physical presence and dynamism of the male human figure in her work. She was fascinated by its division into two segments - shirt-jacket-tie and trousers. She painted portraits of her husband's friends - painter Fairfield Porter, poet Frank O'Hara, and dancer Merce Cunningham. She depicted the way some of them sat with legs crossed, arms folded, while others lounged in a wide-open fashion. She was fascinated by the way the poses and folds in their clothing created structure and character. During the 1950s, she created complex, multi-figured compositions of basketball and baseball players and bullfighters. But always, she worked in the shadow of her much more famous husband even though, ironically, it was a shadow she herself had helped create.
After some twenty years of marriage, the parties, the alcohol, the freewheeling sex took their toll. Willem fathered an illegitimate child, she had a nervous breakdown, and they both sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism. They separated. As women's place in the New York art world became more prominent during the 1970s, Elaine de Kooning, despite intermittent bouts with rehab and the bottle, was in a position to capitalise on her name, her art, her intimate knowledge of the SOHO art jungle, and her strong, dogged determination to succeed, this time on her own. Her Bacchus series from the mid-1970s was a critical success - her first use of acrylic paints - powered by her twisting, turning, torquing, black brushstrokes interwoven with ribbons of light, intense greens, lavenders and yellows, transforming her drunken deity and his handmaidens into an energised spiral of swirling lines and intense colour. In the 1980s, she visited the cave paintings near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region of southern France. She began styling her work in reaction to the painted images of the Palaeolithic era (30,000 to 10,000 BCE), ringing up images of necromantic etchings of bulls, stags, mammoths, and bison. Around the same time, after twenty years of separation, she returned to her husband and devoted her final years to protecting his health and reputation as he endured the progressively debilitating stages of Alzheimer's. Ironically, she died in 1989. He endured until 1997.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 December 2001