Elaine de Kooning

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Elaine de Kooning (March 12, 1918 - February 1, 1989) was an Abstract Expressionist and American Figurative Expressionist woman-painter in the post-World War II era. She wrote extensively on the art of the period and was an editorial associate for Art News magazine. On December 9, 1943, she married painter Willem de Kooning.


  • A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.
  • When I painted my seated men, I saw them as gyroscopes. Portraiture always fascinated me because I love the particular gesture of a particular expression or stance.. .Working on the figure, I wanted paint to sweep through as feelings sweep through..
    • Quote of c. 1977, as quoted in 'The Portraitist', Berkson, Bill (1992), Modern Painters: pp. 40–42
  • When I painted Frank O'Hara, [in 1962] Frank was standing there. First I painted the whole structure of his face; then I wiped out the face, and when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there.
  • Bill [Willem de Kooning] was working on a huge canvas. It was black and white. And I said to him, 'It's very curious.' You know, I came into the studio. I had my separate studio and I walked in and I said, 'It's very curious. There are no treelike shapes in that painting. The forms are all like animals more or less and organic shapes that don't resemble the forest at all, but I get the feeling of Faulkner forest from that painting.' Bill said, 'That's extraordinary.' And he went over and lifted up a pile of papers and underneath was a book by Faulkner and later he named a painting 'Light in August' [he painted in 1946].
  • [In the past] women painted women: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I thought, men always painted the opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects.
    • In the exhibition's catalog book 'Elaine de Kooning Portraits' - Brandon Fortune quotes Elaine de Kooning, telling scholar Ann Gibson in 1987; - - read more
  • I always say I'm an escape artist, Style is something I've always tried to avoid. I'm more interested in character. Character comes out of the work. Style is applied or imposed on it.
    • Sketches for a Series, interview with art-critic Rose Slivka; as quoted in 'Elaine de Kooning, Artist and Teacher, Dies at 68', New York Times, Grace Glueck, February 2, 1989
  • Nowadays, when an artist discovers 'the sky,' it's like a bride who has never done any housework raving about her first vacuum cleaner. It's just not news." (Yet she confessed that the experience prompted her to deviate from a more controlled linear style and work freely with lively, confrontational colors directly influenced by the Southwest)
    • as quoted on Portrait of the Art world - A Century of art News, Photographs], referring to the photo of w:Rudolph Burckhardt's Gelatin silver print, 1960 (printed 2002), Published December 1960; Estate of Rudolph Burckhardt; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York City
    • Quote, after Elaine de Kooning was returned to New York from her teaching at the University of New Mexico [her studio was full of energetic paintings of bullfights in Juárez, Mexico, and of the expansive western landscape when Burckhardt portrayed her there.]

Painting a Portrait of the President (1964)[edit]

Painting a Portrait of the President, by Elaine de Kooning; in 'ARTnews', December 1964
  • One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait [of president J. F. Kennedy, winter of 1962–63, destined for the Truman Library, Independence, Mo] is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting (after a couple of preliminary sessions of sketches to determine the pose and familiarize myself with my impression of the sitter). After years of working on my portraits (mostly of friends) for months at a time, I found myself getting bogged down in overly conscientious effort and discovered that by working swiftly I could enter into an almost passive relationship to the canvas and get closer to the essential gesture of the sitter. However, working at top speed this way, I require the absolute immobility of the sitter. This was impossible with President Kennedy because of his extreme restlessness: he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to another, always in action at rest. So I had to find a new approach.
  • I began [to portray president Kennedy ] with fragmentary sketches—first in charcoal, then in casein, sometimes just heads, sometimes the whole figure. For the first session (during a Medicare conference), I sat on top of a 6-foot ladder to get an unimpeded view of him. Concentrating on bone structure, most of my first sketches of him made him look twenty years younger. This was also because the positions he assumed were those of a college athlete. I made about thirty sketches at the first session and rushed back to a big studio that had been turned over to me by the Norton Gallery, made further drawing combining different aspects, and finally, after a couple days, decided on the proportions and size of the first canvas—4 by 8 feet. In succeeding sessions of sketching, I was struck by the curious faceted structure of light over his face and hair—a quality of transparent ruddiness. This play of light contributed to the extraordinary variety of expressions.
  • Beside my own intense, multiple impressions of him, I also had to contend with his 'world image' created by the endless newspaper photographs, TV appearances, caricatures. Realizing this, I began to collect hundreds of photographs torn from newspapers and magazines and never missed an opportunity to draw him when he appeared on TV. These snapshots covered every angle, from above, below, profile, back, standing, sitting, walking, close-up, off in the distance. I particularly liked tiny shots where the features were indistinct yet unmistakable. Covering my walls with my own sketches and these photographs, I worked from canvas to canvas (the smallest 2 feet high, the largest, 11) always striving for a composite image.

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists (1971)[edit]

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (eight woman-artists' replies to the article of Linda Nochlin, in a dialogue with w:Rosalyn Drexler, in ARTnews, January 1971; as reproduced in ARTnews, June 2015
  • Well, first—that term, 'women artists.' I was talking to Joan Mitchell at a party about 10 years ago when a man came up to us and said, 'What do you women artists think...' Joan grabbed my arm and said, 'Elaine, let's get the hell out of here.' That was my first response to Linda Nochlin's article ['Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?']. I was curious about how a man would react. Alex Katz thought it would be a cop-out to answer the piece. Sherman thought it would be a cop-out not to answer it. John Cage thought the question 'divisive and an over-simplification.' I agree with all of them.
  • When Miss Nochlin says: 'If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.' Well, I think the status quo in the arts is fine as it is - in this country [America] at least, women have exactly the same chance that men do. There are the same schools, museums, galleries, books, art stores. There are no obstacles in the way of a woman becoming a painter or sculptor other than the usual obstacles that any artist has to face.
  • In shows selected by artists where there is no consciousness of sex, as in the American Abstract Artist Shows which began in the late 1930's or the Artists Annuals of the early 1950's, the ratio [between male and female artists presented there] seemed to be between one third and one quarter women. The only way to arrive at a true ratio, I suppose, would again be to have artist-juried shows.
  • When I was five years old, my mother took me to the Metropolitan. I remember being overwhelmed by the hush — the glamor of the place. Also I used to be mesmerized by the stained-glass windows in church — but it never occurred to me that anyone made them. I thought they were just there, like trees, chairs, houses and the reproductions on the walls at home. I was always drawing, but I didn't make any connection. Then, by the time I was 10 or 11, other kids were asking me for my drawings and were referring to me as an artist. I hadn't given the matter any thought. I just loved to draw. I loved the activity. But when they bestowed the title on me (by then I was reading about artists and going to museums on my own), I thought, oh yes, I'm an artist, and from then on I took it for granted — and I began to compete. I'd read that Raphael had done something by the age of 12 and I'd get very anxious. I became very time-conscious. If I read about someone's great accomplishment at the age of 20, I'd heave a sigh of relief and feel, maybe there's still time. How did you start? [to Rosalyn Drexler ]
  • I reacted to Cézanne almost the same way as you [= Rosalyn Drexler ], the first time I saw him when I was 14.. .Then I saw my first Cezanne and it jolted me. It was a 'Bathers' [Cézanne painted several of them]. I didn't think he drew well at all. I thought the figures looked stiff and wooden, but I was enthralled by it. I knew there was something there that was going to take me a lifetime to understand. What I took to be the crudity of his technique — that opened a door for me. I began to look at everything differently. That was the year [1932] I discovered Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Soutine — I began to go to the Museum of Modern Art every week. At the same time, I loved New Yorker covers — and El Greco. I didn't mind mixing things up. Nobody was going to tell me what to like or what not to like. Until I was 17 I thought all real artists (I didn't count commercial artists) were dead or foreign with the exceptions of Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin, whose work I had seen at 'An American Place'.
  • I was overjoyed when I was taken to a show of the American Abstract Artists Group in '37. They were all alive and they were American! My escort further interested me when he told me the two best abstract artists in America were not in the show — Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, whom I met a couple of months later — when I began to study with him [with Willem de Kooning]. When Miss Nochlin says, 'What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history,' well, the point is, artists are always choosing their history from day to day and their history follows them as much as it precedes them. Were American artists 'facing up to the reality of their history' when they turned to the School of Paris or to German Expressionism or Dada or Surrealism or de Stijl or the Bauhaus instead of to Copley, Peale, Eakins, Blake or Ryder; was Picasso facing up to the reality of his history when he was snooping around African art for inspiration?
  • I think there are too damn many institutions on the face of the earth as it is. Robert Graves said: 'As soon as women organize themselves in the male way with societies, memberships and rules, everything goes wrong.' I think that applies to artists, too. The artist stands for everything against institutions.. [Rosalyn Drexler reacted: 'Institutions and clear thought are opposites. You can't have one with the other']. Right! Institution to me means authority, coercion, mindlessness, bureaucracy; it means the Pentagon, the CIA, the army, organized denominational religion, prisons, mental hospitals.

Quotes about Elaine de Kooning[edit]

  • Mrs. de Kooning, who was married to the artist Willem de Kooning, was a highly versatile painter whose work ranged from realism to abstraction but was grounded in the gestural Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. Her landscapes, portraits and studies of athletes in action were notable for their verve and freshness.
    • Quote of Grace Glueck in 'Elaine de Kooning, Artist and Teacher, Dies at 68', New York Times, February 2, 1989
  • After Elaine de Kooning returned to New York from teaching at the University of New Mexico, her studio burst with energetic paintings based on bullfights in Juárez, Mexico, and the expansive western landscape. De Kooning dryly observed 'Nowadays, when an artist discovers 'the sky,' it's like a bride who has never done any housework raving about her first vacuum cleaner. It's just not news.' Yet she confessed that the experience prompted her to deviate from a more controlled linear style and work freely with lively, confrontational colors directly influenced by the Southwest.
  • It was Elaine de Kooning who perhaps best described the nature of Abstract Expressionism when she wrote: 'The main difference, then, between abstract and non-abstract art is that the abstract artists does not have to choose a subject. But whether or not he chooses, he always ends up with one.'
    • Quote of Mary F. Francy, in her biography-notes: 'De Kooning, Elaine', for 'Dictionary of Women-artists, Vol. 1, ed. Delia Gaze, Taylor & Francis, 1997, p.442
  • It's time for a disclaimer. Elaine de Kooning and I were friends. She was a great mentor to me, and in memory continues to be. We met during her time at UNM. I was an incipient poet, she already an accomplished painter. But I was able to introduce her to the bullfights in Ciudad Juárez, a subject she would paint for many years. I followed her back to New York (as did several others who knew her here) and we remained friends until her death. March 12th would have been Elaine's 97th birthday. I wished this honoring of her work could have happened when she was alive, or that she might have lived to experience it.
  • Gesture is so well executed in Elaine's portraits that in a number of them she deliberately erased some or all of the facial features. This is true in several images of the painter's brother Conrad Fried, and of her fellow painter Fairfield Porter. An early critic, otherwise complimentary, wondered if she was unable to draw or paint faces. Nothing could be further from the truth, as many of her other portraits attest. But Elaine often said the face's features change with age, while the way one sits, stands or moves is more of a constant throughout one's life. Her figures often seem to be quiet and in movement simultaneously.
  • One of Elaine's friends asked her later in life what it was like to work in the shadow of Willem de Kooning, curator Brandon Fortune says. And her reply was: 'I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.'

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