by ELAINE DE KOONING
He's one of those people that once I knew him, I seem to have known him always. I would meet Rothko at parties. Jeanne Reynal gave the most superb parties. She'd have perhaps 18 people and have drinks before dinner-wonderful, luxurious drinks-and wine with dinner and drinks after dinner. And the walls were covered with Gorkys and then she had a superb painting by Mark Rothko. And later she bought some paintings of Bill's. So I would meet him often at Jeanne Reynal's and also at the Artists Club, and at parties of Yvonne Thomas's.
Often at these parties at Yvonne Thomas', the discussion would not be about art. It would be about the comparative merits of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Yvonne Thomas had a huge apartment up on Park Avenue and she also gave wonderful parties. So it was a great period for parties. Really scintillating, sparkling parties when the conversation was just absolutely wonderful. And Mark Rothko was very social, very smooth socially. He had kind of an aloof manner. He would stand up very straight with his head tilted back looking down and with a little archaic Greek smile on his face and make these dry little wisecracks. And I found him very witty and also a very attractive man. He had an atmosphere of sensuality that I found very appealing. So I would say I met him in 1950.
His earlier work in the '40s that was influenced by André Masson and had those contours and had a tension to his work. But then when he came out with the first paintings of the floated on areas, the turpentine washes where there were no contours and the edges were indistinct, one color floated over another.
I was absolutely captured by the magic of the presence of the colors, the fact that they did not inhabit shapes. That interested me very much. The shapes, they weren't really shapes. They inhabited areas and the areas were approximate. It was, to me, very enthralling. So I wrote Rothko a letter explaining my response to his work, and he told me that he was very touched by the letter, that it meant a great deal to him, that it was the most intelligent sense of a response that he had received to his paintings because, of course, they had been covered by critics. So from the day of that letter forth, we were fast friends. He was always very flirtatious with me. And his relation to certain women was one of you know, the kind of flirtation that's not intended to lead anywhere, but up in the air is that sense of, wouldn't it have been wonderful?
Gorky had a role in mind that he played, but Rothko was hypnotized by his own role and there was just one. The role was that of the Messiah — I have come; I have the word. I mean, Rothko had a very healthy self-worship and he did feel that he had discovered some great secret. He felt that this was of universal import. Gorky in one way seemed more arrogant, but on the other hand, Gorky also had streaks of humility. He had tremendous reverence for other artists. Rothko became totally involved in his own mythology, more than anyone I know except Barney Newman. They both were tremendously involved with their self-image. As the Kennedy White House was, where everything was done in terms of its fitting in with the self-image.
Someone once asked me if by looking at a painter that was new to me, if I had an instinct about that painter or if I had to think about it and develop it. And I said instinct. My instinct is irrevocable. I've never changed. The painters have changed, so I've liked certain painters' work more or less. But the earlier work that was analytic and so on didn't have nearly the presence, the grandeur of the style for which he became famous.
When I saw the retrospective at the Guggenheim, his paintings, as far as I'm concerned, shrank tremendously from when I saw them fresh. I mean the colors had dimmed. Well, that happens just physically with turpentine washes. The turpentine is not a substantial enough vehicle to maintain the color. Also, they didn't have the impact that they did at that time. But those big black paintings, they took me by surprise, because I had had them described and I doubted it. I mean, I didn't think that I would be as impressed as my informant was. But I was. I was tremendously impressed. I found them very grand and the scale of them, the size, it was just quite amazing. I felt that they had this sense of content and awareness of death. He didn't specify whether it was death, but this is the kind of thing in back of what he was talking about.
Milton Avery influenced Rothko. Rothko explained to me that Avery was the first person that Rothko knew who was a professional artist 24 hours a day. And he gave Rothko the idea that that was a possibility. But also Avery's attitude toward color I mean, Rothko had much more to do with Avery. Of course, what Rothko had that Avery did not have was scale. And also Rothko freed the color from shapes. I mean, with Avery the color always inhabited shapes and, you know, logical divisions. So Avery was a very powerful influence on Rothko's life.
When I mentioned that in my article about Rothko, he wanted me to delete it. He had this curious lack of generosity that certain artists have toward people to whom they are in debt. I mean, I was a bit disappointed in Rothko that he wasn't more accurate. I mean, where generosity was a matter of accuracy, he wasn't more generous. He should have been generous, but he didn't want to give credit where credit was due, which is very characteristic of a great many artists.
He was a secret drinker. You know, at parties you didn't feel that Rothko was drinking more than anyone else. He never got drunk, and his secret drinking also did not make him drunk. But he would start at 10 o'clock in the morning. I discovered this when I went to write about him, I think in 1956. He offered me a drink at 10 o'clock in the morning and I said, "No, I haven't had breakfast yet." And Rothko said that he took one drink an hour all day long. Of course, that's really deadly drinking, because it makes liquor part of the bloodstream. But he never, ever got high. You never saw Rothko so that you felt he'd had a drink. It was always completely contained.
His place was very tiny at that time and I remarked on it. I said, "Mark, I can't understand how you can work in such a small space." And he said, "I'm very nearsighted," which he was. He wore these extremely thick glasses. I said, "How lucky." He told me at that time — that was again in '56 — that he was lonely. He enjoyed my coming there and he enjoyed our discussions. He enjoyed talking about art from 10 o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon, which is what we did.
Always when I look at anyone's art, I get flashes of the person. If I walk into a room and there's a painting by Joan Mitchell, I say, "There's Joannie." Or Grace, if it's Grace Hartigan. And to me all art is self-portraits.
Elaine De Kooning died in 1989. This excerpt is taken from her oral history with the Smithsonian.