For Artist Elaine De Kooning, Painting Was A Verb, Not A Noun

For Artist Elaine De Kooning, Painting Was A Verb, Not A Noun

1:59pm May 13, 2015
De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches and paintings of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches and paintings of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
  • De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches and paintings of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

    De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches and paintings of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

    Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

  • Elaine de Kooning's 1973 portrait shows a scowling Robert de Niro Sr.

    Elaine de Kooning's 1973 portrait shows a scowling Robert de Niro Sr.

    Joseph Hu / National Portrait Gallery

  • De Kooning says she remembers "scampering up and down the ladder" working on her larger-than-life painting of Kennedy.

    De Kooning says she remembers "scampering up and down the ladder" working on her larger-than-life painting of Kennedy.

    Mark Gulezian / National Portrait Gallery

  • When asked what it was like to work in the shadow of her husband, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, shown above in a self-portrait, replied "I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light."

    When asked what it was like to work in the shadow of her husband, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, shown above in a self-portrait, replied "I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light."

    Gary Mamay / National Portrait Gallery

  • De Kooning believed that "the pose was the person" — and created a portrait of poet Frank O'Hara that does not show his face.

    De Kooning believed that "the pose was the person" — and created a portrait of poet Frank O'Hara that does not show his face.

    National Portrait Gallery

In New York City in the 1940s, painters Willem de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, were the people you wanted at your dinner party. He was inventing abstract expressionism. She, his former student, was part of that movement, but also painting landscapes and people.

Elaine de Kooning felt that making portraits was like falling in love — "painting a portrait is a concentration on one particular person and no one else will do," she said.

That's how she felt about her portrait of President John F. Kennedy, commissioned by the Truman Library — one of several de Kooning portraits currently on display in an exhibit of her work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches, paintings of Kennedy in 1963. The vivid Kennedy portrait on display at the Portrait Gallery — all lush green foliage and her characteristic quick, bold brushstrokes — stands 10 feet high. Why so big?

"The idea of a man who happens to be president of the United States — well, that's already, right there, he's bigger than life," de Kooning said in a 1976 recording. "I was scampering up and down the ladder to do this painting."

Kennedy was golden, she thought — incandescent. He never sat still, making him the perfect subject for her busy brush. It was an extremely confident brush, racing across her canvases in decisive, athletic strokes.

"Elaine was a dancer throughout her life, and I think practiced yoga," says curator Brandon Fortune. "She was always moving. In fact, she said that she thought of painting as a verb, not a noun."

De Kooning painted Robert de Niro Sr. in 1973. The actor's father was a respected artist. Sitting on a couch, his elbow slightly bent, with dark, wild hair, he's scowling (in fact, she rarely painted people who weren't frowning).

"He looks to me to be absolutely exorcised about something — it's a ferocious expression," Fortune says.

And de Kooning's brush is equally ferocious — except on one knee, where the colors get muddy, which is unusual for her.

Her boldness as an artist matched the boldness of her spirit. In the '40s and '50s, the New York art world was dominated by very macho men — artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Elaine de Kooning was not intimidated.

"She said and she thought she was as good as any male artist," Fortune says. "An important artist to be reckoned with."

As she put it: She felt she was at the "red-hot center" of art and culture in New York, and was determined to take her place there.

But her place was also next to her husband, Willem de Kooning, who was a giant in the field — as vigorous and prominent as Pollock. Thirteen years older than Elaine, he was her teacher first, then lover.

They married in 1943, and stayed married for 46 years — although they lived apart for 20 of those years. It was, you might say, a tumultuous relationship, and a tricky one, too. Both of them were painters, but he was the famous one.

"One of Elaine's friends asked her later in life what it was like to work in the shadow of Willem de Kooning." Fortune says. "And her reply was: 'I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.'"

Unlike her husband — and unlike most artists in those days of abstract expressionism — Elaine de Kooning was painting portraits, which was a bold, brave decision.

In the 1960s, she paid less attention to the face, and more to the body — how her subject sat, or stood.

"She said that the pose was the person," Fortune says.

In some portraits, she even started wiping out the face entirely. Her full-length painting of poet Frank O'Hara in 1962 shows him jutting out his right hip a bit; his left hand on his left hip.

"The face is really covered with a sort of lavender wash of color, and while there's some slight hint of his eyes underneath that wash, his facial features are not there," Fortune says.

She essentially painted his face, then scrubbed over it.

"She had captured what you might see with a good friend walking toward you on a beach," Fortune says. "You would recognize that person before you could ever see their facial features. By the shape of their head, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk."

A viewer doesn't have the advantage of friendship. But what we can recognize — instantly — in these rooms at the National Portrait Gallery are the confidence of Elaine de Kooning's dancing brushstrokes, the vivid colors and the devotion of a lifetime spent making art on her own terms.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If you were holding a fantasy dinner party, say, in the arty New York of the 1940s, painters Willem de Kooning and his wife, Elaine would be a couple you would want to be there. He was inventing abstract expressionism. She was his former student - part of the movement, but also painting landscapes and people. Now, her portraits are featured at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see them.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Elaine de Kooning had a way with words, as well as paint. She once said this about making portraits.

BRANDON FORTUNE: Like falling in love...

STAMBERG: Curator Brandon Fortune is quoting de Kooning.

FORTUNE: ...Painting a portrait is a concentration on one particular person, and no one else will do.

STAMBERG: Elaine de Kooning said that about her portrait of John F. Kennedy. For a 1963 commission, she made dozens of drawings, sketchings, paintings of JFK. The Portrait Gallery owns one - vivid, all the lush, green foliage and her characteristic quick, bold brush strokes. It's 10 feet high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELAINE DE KOONING: I'm scampering up and down a ladder to do this painting.

STAMBERG: That's de Kooning herself in a 1976 recording. Why so big?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE KOONING: The idea of a man who happens to be president of the United States. Well, already, right there, he's bigger than life.

STAMBERG: Kennedy was golden, she said, incandescent. He never sat still - the perfect subject for her busy brush - an extremely confident brush. It just races across her canvases, indecisive, athletic strokes.

FORTUNE: You know, Elaine was a dancer throughout her life and, I think, practiced yoga. She was always moving. In fact, she said that she thought of painting as a verb not a noun.

STAMBERG: De Kooning painted Robert De Niro, Sr. in 1973. The actor's father was a respected artist. He's sitting on a couch, his right elbow slightly bent. He has dark, wild hair, and he is scowling. De Kooning rarely paints un-frowning people.

FORTUNE: He looks, to me, to be absolutely exercised about something. It's a ferocious expression.

STAMBERG: And de Kooning's brush is equally ferocious, except on one knee, where the colors get muddy. That's unusual for her. Her boldness as an artist matched the boldness of her spirit. In the '40s and '50s, the New York art world was dominated by macho men - Jackson Pollock, France Kline. Elaine de Kooning was not intimidated.

FORTUNE: She said and thought she was as good as any male artist.

STAMBERG: An important artist to be reckoned with.

FORTUNE: As she put it, she's at the red-hot center of everything that's happening in New York, and she's determined to take her place there.

STAMBERG: Now, remember that her place was also next to Willem de Kooning, her husband, a giant in the field, as vigorous and prominent as Jackson Pollock. He was 13 years older than Elaine. They married in 1943 and stayed married for 46 years, although they lived apart for 20 of those years, a tumultuous relationship, you might say - and tricky - both of them painters, but he was the famous one.

FORTUNE: One of Elaine's friends asked her later in life what it was like to work in the shadow of Willem de Kooning. And her reply was, I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.

STAMBERG: Unlike her husband, unlike most artists in those days of abstract expressionism, Elaine was painting portraits. That was a brave decision. In the 1960s, Elaine paid less attention to the face and more to the body, how her subject sat or stood.

FORTUNE: She said that the pose was the person.

STAMBERG: In some portraits, she started wiping out the face. Her full-length painting of poet Frank O'Hara in 1962 shows him jutting out his right hip a bit. His left hand is on his left hip.

FORTUNE: The face is really covered with a sort of lavender wash of color. And while there's some slight hint of his eyes underneath that wash, his facial features are not there.

STAMBERG: It's mostly obliterated. It's as if she painted him and then scrubbed over him.

FORTUNE: Well, she did.

STAMBERG: And then, she said, it was more Frank O'Hara than ever.

FORTUNE: She had captured what you might see with a good friend walking toward you on a beach. You would recognize that person, before you could ever see their facial features, by the shape of their head, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk.

STAMBERG: A viewer does not have the advantage a friendship, but what we can recognize instantly in these rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, where the show remains up until early January, are the confidence of Elaine de Kooning's dancing brushstrokes, the vivid colors and the devotion of a lifetime spent making art on her own terms. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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