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Entries in elaine de kooning (2)


In Which We Still Know Nothing Of His Work

Mark Rothko


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.

The Irascibles protest their exclusion from a New York exhibition in 1950. Back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and Hedda Sterne; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Bradley Walker Tomlin; front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko.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.

Abstract artists in group discussion in Milton Resnik's East 10th St studio; Elaine De Kooning (2nd R)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.

No. 5/No. 24, 1948

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.

Untitled, 1946

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.



In Which We Are Psychologically Attached To Willem De Kooning

In or Out of Hell


de Kooning: A Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art
on display until January 9, 2012

Clear even in Willem de Kooning's earlier work, in the beautiful pants on "Seated Man" and in the pretty, pensive "Portrait of Elaine" is his uncanny talent for dynamic composition, an ability to deliver serenity and the verge of madness in the same package. So it is only natural that his shift from realism to abstraction was graceful, intelligent. Just a few years later, in his early 1940s portraits of men and women where deliberately articulated design elements and limbs float on color-blocked fields of turquoise, yellow, pink, de Kooning would already be the de Kooning we know.

This is also the period in which Elaine, who would become de Kooning's wife, morphs into the painter's better-known women of the early forties. I think even 1944's famous "Pink Lady" looks an awful lot like her. These ethereal, amorphous women will have her eyes as long as they have eyes at all. Even without exception of the famous black-and-whitening of his paintings that took place after his term at Black Mountain College (fine, let’s except a couple of paintings, 1951's "Untitled," and other sapolin on enamel works), his color palate remains recognizable. Pinky, fleshy tones he used in the forties and fifties populate a plurality of paintings in the show. Familiar slatherings of yellows and turquoises offset the human tones.

in East Hampton, 1953

A retrospective at a major museum is an interesting tribute, especially when a very famous artist is involved. What would be a more natural way to demonstrate that artist’s value, his mark on the world, than to guarantee he join the immortals as really, tremendously important? The homage is a function of, or will almost certainly result in, a critical reevaluation and revision of cultural memory of the artist exhibited. It makes a mark on a personal level too. Pacing madly around galleries that claim to contain a complete record of a great artist’s career, one can’t help but wonder what it means that immortality can be distilled in such a way or what it means to be so close to it.

Well, I agree with the whole world even if I don’t love Willem de Kooning quite as much as Peter Schjeldahl does. MOMA’s de Kooning, A Retrospective, selected and mounted meticulously by chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield, is wonderful. Much has been written on the painter, but only now are we presented with the opportunity to meditate on his prolific genius in person, freed from comparisons to his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock (to whose his fame, prestige, influence his has been considered runner-up). Its transcendental beauty is that it documents the painter's uncanny ability to portray the complexity of human emotional life, even if it is just his own, as it evolved.

"Portrait of Elaine" 1940-41

I must mention two things. One, Willem and Elaine were married in 1943, five years after they met (his 1940 drawing was made early in their relationship). And they remained married until her death. Both painters were passionate in their personal and creative lives, and it was by all accounts a strange and stormy sixty years, replete with interloping third parties and alcoholic binges. This may be putting it mildly: for most of their marriage they lived separately; he had a daughter with his longtime lover, Joan Ward, and Joan would eventually host Elaine’s funeral.

I think it is possible he really hated her on a subconscious level, but Elaine was equally strong-willed, a driven perfectionist determined that her husband would succeed, and while she maintained her own career separately she supported him publicly, promoting his work in a way he was never capable of doing. As Marc Stevens and Annalyn Swan recorded in their excellent 2004 biography, de Kooning: An American Master, Elaine once commented that, for her husband, "a woman is a woman is a woman." This quite apart from his comment: "We have no life together but I'm psychologically attached to her."

"Woman" 1949

Second, if the more famous remark he made that "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented" resounds in his work, I think just as interesting is the statement he made regarding abstraction, which can be found mounted on a card in the gallery containing "Excavation":

I’m not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.

I mostly take this to mean that de Kooning paints more like Cy Twombly than Jackson Pollock: he is dealing in signs, flesh and feeling. These unequivocal statements are cues, and evidence in favor of the assumption that no matter how abstract a form it takes it, flesh is a major part of the extraordinary appeal of de Kooning’s work.

Women occupy a lot of the work in the exhibit in a fairly obvious way, tempering abstraction, facilitating an observer’s entry into the paintings. There are exceptions. Take two roughly contemporaneous works: "Gansevoort Street," from 1949, is awash in red meat, butcher blood, isn’t it? This and his largest easel painting "Excavation" are hard to love. I think this is because they are too red, too white, and therefore drained of life: too inhumane. "No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell," wrote Antonin Artaud, and I can't help but agree that this is the case for de Kooning.

Post-"Excavation" came more women and some of de Kooning’s most famous work. Presented in a gallery called "Women to Landscape," are a series of large format paintings: "Woman I," 1950-2, was a work he painted and repainted, and the various iterations are shown on the MOMA's exhibit website. The canvas is populated by a scrapped city of women over time, or an exploding woman layered in frames on top of herself. De Kooning stabs "Woman III" with smears of red, but she is nothing compared to the gruesomely bloody "Woman V." I find these paintings deeply violent, profoundly disturbing. But then again, the rather abstract "Woman Wind Window II" from 1950, is a cheery, almost Pop-y work.

In the next two decades de Kooning distanced himself from such evident violence (from "Women to Landscape," was born "Full Arm Sweep"), as if his rage has suddenly mellowed. This period was characterized by a new painterly expansion of strokes, a freedom from black, from line. A total departure from the urban landscape of 1955, "Gotham News," was de Kooning’s subsequent foray into abstract pastoral landscape. "Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point" is beautiful in a new way, calmer and bright; de Kooning’s flesh tones have returned, this time in pale sand that blushes under the yolky sun.

"Clam Diggers", 1963

Beginning in the sixties flattened fields of female flesh also frolic on the shores of eastern Long Island. "Clam Diggers" seems to prefigure the doughy bodies of "Montauk III" and "Montauk I." In the "The Visit," a bare splayed nude appears to me as a mother nursing a baby. Most creepy is "Woman, Sag Harbor" from 1964, which, perhaps because of the context from which it has emerged, reminds me more of a Soutine animal carcass stitched with shocks of red than anything else. One or two works from this period incorporate collage, reminders of historical context: 1964 was also the year Robert Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale (in 1953 Rauschenberg had produced the sensational "I Erased de Kooning").

"New Directions" (1969-1978) encompasses his final and mad effort to squeeze life out of life. De Kooning’s sculpture of this era is a fascinating, palpable embodiment of the physical and emotional expression of which he had become master. Beginning in the late 1970s though it became evident that de Kooning was entering the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and his eyesight began to deteriorate. He would continue to work through the mid-eighties. In the words of John Elderfield: "I think there's something poignant about an artist painting his own disappearance. It's something that doesn’t happen much..."

Finally come the "Late Paintings," including an almost cartoonish "Garden in Delft" and his most contemporary painting in the exhibition, 1987's "The Cat’s Meow" — which is now owned by Jasper Johns — in which de Kooning is no longer to attack entire canvases, and he has returned to the line. For the first time in his life, he does not spread himself over every breath of canvas, and this is a strange moment indeed. Just two years later he would be in such a diminished state that he never knew Elaine had died.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her summer.

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