Thursday, August 9, 2007

Elaine de Kooning (1920-1989)

Sierra Club


I made my first trip west of the Hudson and it was a revelation. The naked musculature of the Rockies was overpowering and my painting responded.


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Powerpoint Presentation: The Road to Expressionism
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In New York City's burgeoning art scene of the 1950s, Elaine Fried de Kooning was a pivotal figure. A painter and art critic as well as the wife of fellow artist Willem de Kooning, she became one of the most important and outspoken members of the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists.

A New Yorker, Elaine Fried briefly attended Hunter College, followed by studies at the Leonardo da Vinci School in Manhattan. Once ensconced at the art school, she felt as if she had entered a charmed circle, associating with faculty members who introduced her to the most current abstract art.(1) In 1938, while a student at the da Vinci School, Fried met abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. She became his student and model and, in 1943, they were married.

An active participant in the downtown scene of East Tenth Street, The Club and the Cedar Street Tavern, Elaine Fried de Kooning helped champion an approach to Abstract Expressionism which emphasized the physical presence and dynamism of the human figure through strong, gestural brushwork.(2) In contrast to her husband's interest in painting female figures--for which she was frequently both model and muse--she concentrated on depicting men in her art. An unabashed admirer of masculinity, de Kooning created portraits of her husband and friends such as painter Fairfield Porter, poet Frank O'Hara and dancer Merce Cunningham. "I became fascinated by the way men's clothes divide them in half--the shirt, the jacket, the tie, the trousers. Some men sit all closed up--legs crossed, arms folded across the chest. Others are wide open. I was interested in the gesture of the body--the expression of character through the structure of clothing."(3)

Throughout the 1950s, she also created complex, multiple-figure compositions of basketball and baseball players and bullfights, in which she explored movement as a form of expression. De Kooning would return to this interest in motion, with a new Baroque twist, in her Bacchus series of the mid-1970s. As she described it, in the summer of 1976, while walking through the Jardin de Luxembourg, she came upon "one of those wonderful exuberant statues you see whenever you go all over Paris."(4) This particular 19th-century bronze of Bacchus featured a foreshortened, nearly naked, pot-bellied old drunkard, precariously balanced on a donkey by his entourage of bacchantes. De Kooning became, in her own words, "obsessed" by the image, spending several days on the site sketching it.(5)

In developing the Bacchus series over the next six years, the artist used fast-drying, water soluble acrylic paints for the first time and significantly brightened her palette. In the museum's Bacchus #3, the figures are suggested by the twisting and torquing of black brushstrokes which interweave with ribbons of light--yet intense-- greens, lavenders, and yellows. The painting's power, which resides in Elaine Fried de Kooning's virtuoso handling of the brushwork, transforms the drunken deity and his handmaidens into an energized spiral of line and color. In this way, de Kooning translated her experience of the Bacchus sculpture, with its surface fractured by intense sunlight and foliage, into an abstractly expressive image on canvas.

1. Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), 250.

2. In her writings on figurative abstraction, de Kooning was at her best in "Subject: What, How or Who?," Art News, Vol.26, no.9 (April 1995), 61-2. For a discussion of this article, see: Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 96-99

3.Monro, 254.

4.Rose Slivka, Elaine de Kooning: Bulls, Basketballs, Bacchus, Bison, in E de K: Elaine de Kooning (Athens, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 1992), 39.

5. Lee Hall, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 299. [Adapted from The National Museum of Women in the Arts]

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