Taking the "Definitive de Kooning
Biography" Personally
by Ed McCormack, Managing Editor of
Gallery & Studio Magazine

Briefly, as a young artist in the 1960s, showing at the Brata Gallery on East Tenth Street and damned near starving, I took a part-time job knocking off “de Koonings” in a kind of artistic sweatshop in a downtown loft that produced paintings for the lobbies of apartment buildings, banks, movie theaters, and other places that strove to affect an artifice of culture for the clueless. They weren’t exactly forgeries, because I didn’t sign de Kooning’s name to them (nor my own, God forbid!). But at a quick glance, or what de Kooning himself referred to in his wonderful Dutch-inflected English as “a slippery glimpse”; they might have fooled the undiscerning eye.

It was easy. Every artist on the Tenth Street gallery scene, which started when he had his studio there, knew de Kooning’s style; those fleshy pinks, vibrant yellows, and brilliant blues; those juicy, gestural strokes by heart. Imitating de Kooning was part of paying one’s dues; you had to work through him, to get him out of your system, before you could arrive at something halfway original.

Now, it was fun to wallow once more in the manner of the master and get paid for it besides. But my very admiration for him eventually made what I was doing untenable: de Kooning was such a god to me that it came to seem almost sacrilegious, and I just had to quit.

I might have been less rash had I known then all that I know now, having recently read De Kooning: An American Master, the definitive new biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). Who knew, for example, that in his own early struggles to survive and support his art, Willem de Kooning actually did window designs for A.S. Beck Shoe stores, freelanced “pretty-girl and pretty-boy pictures” to Life magazine, did hairstyle illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar, and shades of Andy Warhol! even put together a portfolio of fashion illustrations?

Those of us who came later had an exaggerated fear of “selling out” that would have made fashion illustration, especially, seem impossible to reconcile with our macho mental image of the man we strove to emulate. Fashion and art had not yet met. Young artists back then did not dude themselves up in chic black designer duds. Like de Kooning himself, we wore evidence of our vocation spattered all over our proletarian dungarees as blatantly as a heart on a sleeve.

* * *

According to Stevens and Swan, Tenth Street was “the center of the art world in the late 1950s.” But by the time my generation arrived on the scene in the mid-sixties, all that remained was the low-rent atmosphere and the communal spirit. Yet, there were still raucous openings on Friday nights, where even winos from the nearby Bowery could wander in, help themselves to cheap wine and feel like they’d stumbled into Seventh Heaven. Indeed, the line of demarcation between Bowery bums and hard drinking artists often grew vague. We had all heard the stories (confirmed in the present biography) about de Kooning’s friends sometimes discovering him sleeping off a drunk in the gutter. Far from being put off by them, we found such excesses romantic.

After the Tenth Street openings we’d often continue to party at the Cedar Tavern, where our heroes once drank, emulating world class boozers like de Kooning, Pollock, and Franz Kline with an enthusiasm that caused more than one of us to succumb to alcoholism and others to eventually go on the wagon.

Stevens and Swan evoke the ambiance of the Cedar vividly: its smell of “spilled beer and tobacco smoke,” its low light, its “existential aura,” which “owed more to Brando on the docks than Sartre at Deux Magots.” They also provide memorable word portraits of its patrons: Pollock was pugnacious, boorish, given to “cowboy-on-spree drunks.” Kline, a more sophisticated drinker who prided himself on his resemblance to the suave film actor Ronald Coleman, was a nimble conversationalist who “invented a kind of fantastic double-talk.” Although tense and reserved when sober, after a couple of drinks, “de Kooning began to talk in a way that seemed to undermine authority, confront unspoken rules and crack language itself into surprising new pieces.”

With its cast of colorful characters, delicious gossip, and steamy sexual intrigues, this book is such an entertaining read, that one can’t help casting the movie in one’s mind. The main question is: What Hollywood leading man will play Bill de Kooning? Jude Law looks right for the role and might be a logical choice, given that the painter emerges as a womanizer to rival “Alfie” himself.

At the same time, Mark Stevens, the art critic for New York magazine, and Annalyn Swan, a former senior arts editor for Newsweek, both write knowledgeably about art. They cover every important development and period in de Kooning’s career, from his fruitful early friendships with Arshile Gorky who “provided the critical model and moral outlook that helped de Kooning decide how he would live his life”; to his early figurative works; to his seminal abstract expressionist paintings; to his sensational “Women” series; to his rapturous abstract landscapes of the early 1960s and the controversial paintings he produced late in life, befogged by Alzheimers and increasingly manipulated by studio assistants. They are especially enlightening about technical matters, such as his use of safflower oil instead of the standard linseed oil to get that lush, “blubbery” quality, as he called it, that he liked in his paint surfaces. And they give us invaluable glimpses of the artist’s origins in the book’s first chapter, “Hard Beginnings,” assiduously researched in Rotterdam, where de Kooning was born into poverty in 1904, the abused child of divorced parents.

We follow young Willem, whose drawing ability was recognized early, to his first job as an apprentice in a commercial design studio at age 12, and on to the Academy, where he studied classic art and guild techniques. Not far from the academy was the bustling seaport’s red-light district, where he reveled in the rakish subculture of sailors, shipbuilders, slumming businessmen, confidence men, pimps, and prostitutes. It was here, watching the whores who would sometimes flash their breasts provocatively to attract customers, that de Kooning first became fascinated with the “slippery glimpse,” as he would later describe what he tried to capture in paint. The authors explicate it as “those quick, oblique but illuminating moments that the eye registers almost subliminally.”

Arriving in New York as a stowaway in 1926, he lived for awhile in Hoboken, New Jersey, birthplace of that other mythic personality, Sinatra. (Musing morbidly late in life, the painter would say “I would like to have Frank Sinatra’s record ‘Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week’ played at my funeral and imagine that all my friends’ eyes should be drowned in tears.”) In Hoboken, de Kooning found work as a house painter, and, remembering that time, would later often say, “I learned a great deal on how to mix pigment with water and oil.”

Fellow artist Conrad Marca-Relli, who met de Kooning soon after he arrived in America recalls, “He was like the Dutch Boy on the paint cans, blond and blue-eyed. He was like a little boy. He had a thick Dutch accent. He was a very Chaplinesque character, that little immigrant. His whole manner was very humble. If he came into a room, he was awkward, like with his hat in his hand...”

Although de Kooning never lost either his accent or his outwardly humble manner, he gained a great deal more confidence as he became a part of the vibrant art scene already brewing in downtown New York. By 1929, he was living in Manhattan with his first American girlfriend, a vaudeville performer named Virginia “Nini” Diaz. He designed window displays for A.S. Beck shoe stores during the day, toured art galleries on his lunch hour, and sometimes hurried home after work to paint modernist canvases indebted to Matisse.

Fast forward to 1938. De Kooning is living with a Martha Graham dance student and sometime artists model named Juliet Brown, who will later marry the famous surrealist Man Ray. While cohabiting with Juliet, de Kooning is having an ongoing affair with his former live-in girlfriend Nini Diaz. At one point, returning from abroad after a vaudeville tour, Stevens and Swan tell us, “Nini arrived in New York with no money and nowhere to stay. And so she turned to de Kooning for help. For awhile, she recalled, she slept in the same bed as Bill and Juliet with Nini on one side of Bill and Juliet on the other.”

Obviously, the little Dutch Boy from the paint can had undergone a radical bohemian transformation. His relationships with women were both casual and complex. Although he was not yet successful in worldly terms, he was already known downtown as a rising painter, and his good looks and charismatic manner attracted lots of groupies. There were one-night stands with women he picked up at the Cedar, as well as relationships that went on for years, all often occurring simultaneously.

* * *

Bill finally met his match in Elaine Fried, an art student from Brooklyn, soon to become the painter Elaine de Kooning, who came into his life in 1938 and remained an important part of it, in one way or another, up to the very end. Beautiful, brilliant, artistically ambitious, Elaine was the first woman de Kooning actually fell in love with and the only woman he ever married. Yet, as he was soon to find out, she was not only as ambitious about painting as he was but had no interest in keeping house or submitting to the double sexual standard that was routine among downtown painters and their wives in their era.

Stereotypically Dutch in his desire to have a hausfrau who kept a clean and orderly home and put a good meal on the table, de Kooning was probably as dismayed by Elaine’s disinterest in housekeeping or bearing him children as he was by her extramarital affairs. (“Vot ve need is a vife,” he once declared, surveying the mess in their shared studio, a line that thereafter became a bittersweet shared joke.)

Elaine caught a lot of flack for being a schemer and a manipulator. Yet no male painter was regarded as harshly for exploiting others both professionally and sexually, causing one to wonder if Elaine was simply condemned for being a feminist before her time.

“She was determined to assume the privileges ordinarily accorded to men,” the authors tell us. “Those privileges extended to sex. Like many men, she saw nothing wrong with playing the field.” However, they also note, “This relationship, in which she and Bill remained soulmates whatever the passing distractions of love and sex might bring their way, was not just a facade: it always remained true for her.”

Their marriage survived even Bill’s permanent liaison with the artist Joan Ward, mother of his beloved daughter Lisa. Ward, however soon realized “that the birth of Lisa would not transform de Kooning into a responsible father or renew his love for her. De Kooning, it was clear, was simply not going to inconvenience himself or his art to accommodate other lives. It would instead be Joan and Elaine, the women with the greatest claim upon him, whose lives would be upended.”

Although Bill and Elaine lived apart for most of their marriage, they never divorced. Elaine was Bill’s biggest champion, promoting him with as much wifely partisanship and pride as Lee Krassner hyped her husband, Jackson Pollock, in the “friendly enemies” rivalry between the two big guns of abstract expressionism. Each was intent on protecting her husband’s reputation as “the most significant American painter of his generation.” In this way, although both women were painters themselves and independent spirits, they remained traditionally supportive spouses, to some extent subordinating their own ambitions to those of their men.

If the sheer novelty of Pollock’s drip technique had gained him more publicity and earlier success, by 1952 de Kooning had turned the tables with “Woman I,” which boldly defied the contention of Clement Greenberg, Pollock’s biggest critical booster, that the only possible direction for progressive painting was now abstraction. This monstrous female icon with fang-like teeth and a voluptuous body slashed down in ferocious strokes was seen as shockingly misogynistic by some, a masterpiece by others. Perhaps synthesizing the public impact of screen goddesses like Marilyn Monroe and the painter’s private power-struggle with Elaine and the other women in his life, “Woman I” was a radical departure from “Excavation,” the abstract tour de force he had exhibited at the 1950 Venice Biennale, and which the authors acknowledge as a masterpiece, “a synthesis of the contrary passions animating painting during the first half of the twentieth century.”

“Woman I” was hailed in glowing essays by Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, the two leading critics for ArtNews. Rosenberg’s piece, especially, was so fulsome that some art world skeptics regarded it as “thunderous bullshit.” Stevens and Swan speculate that “Hess and Rosenberg each found in de Kooning a way to build a reputation: a critic often enters history on the back of a great artist.” A writer more given to vulgarity than Stevens and Swan might be tempted to amend that last phrase to read “on the belly of a great artist’s wife.” For the two biographers inform us that in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, “Elaine had affairs with de Kooning’s two main critical champions,” and, a few sentences later, add “Many, in fact, believed that she chose to sleep with the two critics in order to promote her husband’s career.”

* * *

Before I gave up drinking for good several years ago, I preferred to drink with people who could keep up with me. One such person was Ruth Kligman, a painter several years older than myself, who’d had a superb mentor in that regard: Jackson Pollock. In the mid-seventies, we sat in a brown, bummy gin mill downstairs from Ruth’s loft on West 14th Street and she regaled me with tales of Jack The Dripper. She had published a breathless memoir called “Love Affair,” all about her romance with Pollock some twenty years earlier, when she was a beautiful young art student and he was in the prime of his decline. However, the stories she told me privately about his drunkenness, impotence, depressions, and inconsolable fits of weeping seemed more pathetic than romantic.

As much as she seemed to enjoy reminiscing about her role as the femme fatale of the Cedar crowd, Ruth (who would later be portrayed by Jennifer Connelly in the film “Pollock”) never told me that she also had an affair with de Kooning. I only learned of it recently in Stevens and Swan’s book:

"In this extravagant period, the star of the scene took a theatrical lover. Hardly anyone at the Cedar who heard, in 1957, that de Kooning was seeing Ruth Kligman could believe it. Or perhaps it was poetic injustice. Kligman was the survivor of the car crash that killed Pollock and Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger. In the eyes of most artists, she was the hot young thing who had swooped into the drunken Pollock’s deteriorating life, driven away his wife, Lee Krassner, and behaving with a va-va-voom flamboyance new to the art world. Elaine called her ‘pink mink.’ Franz Kline preferred ‘Miss Grand Concourse.’ What understandably excited and impressed the armchair psychiatrists at the Cedar was how psychologically strange and revealing the relationship appeared. Was Bill still competing with Pollock, even now, after Pollock’s death?”

Perhaps Ruth chose to emphasize her affair with Pollock because her innate flair for the dramatic told her that it was more compelling for a love story to end in tragedy. Certainly it was more flattering to her own image to be seen as the bereaved lover of the starcrossed James Dean of the art scene than as a calculating groupie who moved in on Pollock’s only remaining rival almost as soon as the body was cold. Still, she was with de Kooning quite a bit longer than she was with Pollock, even convincing the reluctant traveler to take her to Italy. And if this book as a whole is the stuff of a major Hollywood movie, their affair alone was certainly tumultuous enough to qualify as a TV miniseries:

“Ruth relished the society and the heightened mood of la dolce vita. Among the Italians, she was likened to, and occasionally mistaken for, Elizabeth Taylor. Sometimes the paparazzi photographed her and de Kooning for the cheap papers and magazines. She bought as many clothes as de Kooning could afford, and persuaded him, too, to buy some fine Italian suits. But she and de Kooning often fought, especially when they had been drinking heavily, which shocked the Italians, who were unaccustomed to late-night noise and brawling.”

While the authors note that the affair with Ruth “with its daily pattern of long lunches, late nights, and heavy drinking seriously compromised de Kooning’s work habits,” they also acknowledge that she could also be something of a muse, reinvigorating the aging painter with her youthful enthusiasm:

“Coming into de Kooning’s studio one day, not long after their relationship began, Ruth Kligman saw a large blue and yellow painting on the wall and immediately exclaimed, ÔZowie!’, a piece of art criticism de Kooning relished. It might remain the ambition of de Kooning and his friends to create a ‘masterpiece,’ but in the late fifties it would seem corny and hifalutin, and too European to use a word like that. ‘Zowie’ was, instead, the sort of sinewy street slang that de Kooning and other painters of the period relished. In Ruth’s eyes, de Kooning had knocked one outta da park. Hit the jackpot. Scored big time. Kaboom!”

“Ruth’s Zowie,” as de Kooning named the painting, is one of several major works reproduced in full color in the book, and the authors read a great deal of erotic meaning into its “explosive coming together of brushstrokes,” its “knotting of forms into a climactic burst,” “feminine V shapes,” even attributing to the paint application itself “a slip-and slide quality that was sexual.” Anyone who writes about art can understand the temptation to seize upon the sensuality of such a painting and make easy assumptions about it’s connection to the artist’s personal life, especially since de Kooning’s affair with his young mistress lends itself so well to salacious musings. Yet whether or not this 1957 canvas is any more sexually inspired than many of de Kooning’s other paintings is debatable, given the pervasive sensuousness in the oeuvre of the artist who once said, “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented.”

Stevens and Swan are entirely correct, however, when they tell us that Ruth’s Zowie is “an early example of de Kooning’s muscular imperial style,” for he “seemed to throw his own body (not just an arm or a wrist) into the rhythms of the painting; the picture has his physical impress. This was the work of a painter at once public and personal, a master of his milieu, whose autobiographical ‘mark’ created wonder and applause. His eye was his ‘I.’”

* * *

I told myself it would be a nice gesture to show up with a bottle of something when I went out to East Hampton one afternoon in 1982 to interview de Kooning for Rolling Stone. Having profiled celebrities in print for years (after discovering it was less stressful than trying to make a living as a painter), I was not in the least impressed by famous people. Most of them turned out to be smaller than life. But this was different. De Kooning was more than merely famous; he was someone I had always revered, and I thought a drink or two would relax me. So I was not happy when I asked at the local liquor store what Mr. de Kooning liked to drink and the formidable matron behind the counter answered pointedly, “Far as I know, Mr. de Kooning is not supposed to drink.”

As it turned out, de Kooning’s down to earth personality immediately put me at my ease. Although he had a brush in his hand when we arrived and I felt a little sheepish for interrupting his work, he seemed genuinely amused when Alan McWeeney, the photographer assigned to my piece by Rolling Stone, exclaimed in his thick Irish brogue, “Why, you look like the living prototype of Gully Jimson!”

“Yah, is that so?” de Kooning said, obviously tickled to be likened to the mad artist protagonist of Joyce Cary’s novel “The Horse’s Mouth.”

When McWeeney insisted on dragging de Kooning out into the chill evening air to photograph him in what was left of the natural light, his young assistant, Tom Ferrara, didn’t seem crazy about the idea.

“Well, at least put a coat on, Bill,” he said, draping a shabby tweed sport jacket over the old man’s shoulders before he was led out into the yard to pose gamely, as though for a firing squad, a long-ashed cigarette shivering in his lips.

“I guess this is the wages of fame,” I told him, trying to finesse the situation.
like the wages of sin maybe,” de Kooning quipped.

Back in the studio, when Ferrara demonstrated the new mechanical easel, custom built to turn and tilt large canvases at the touch of a button, de Kooning mock-groused, “Never mind the paintings, that’s the first thing he shows off! To tell you the truth, that thing embarrasses me. Don’t you think there’s something creepy about it?”

Noticing two female figures sketched lightly in charcoal on a large canvas nearby, I asked if he was gearing up to paint a new series of “Women.”

He shrugged. “Could be, but I never know for sure what will happen. They may just disappear into the paint. It happens all the time.” Then, pointing to another large canvas across the studio he said, “So many of them turn out to be dogs like that big purple one over there. At a certain point, there’s nothing you can do about it, so I just stop...”

Studying the painting, an unfinished abstraction in his late, linear, “ribbon” style, of which it would have seemed presumptuous for anyone else to make so flippant an assessment, he shook his head and said, “Boy, what a dog!”

Then, after a moment of reflection, he added, “I probably shouldn’t complain, now that I have everything I need. It’s nice not to worry about eating or being able to pay the light bill anymore, like when I lived in a loft on Tenth Street and my lights were shut off and I had to run a wire out into the hallway to steal electricity from the landlord. But a funny thing, painting never gets easier. Wouldn’t you think it would get a little easier after all these years? But, you know, finishing one painting never solves the problem of the next one. You always have to start over the next day. Every morning when I come into the studio to work, I feel like I could have the potential to do better somehow. I still want to do just one terrific painting yet...”

His candor was disarming. Here was the greatest painter of our time and he was talking to McWeeney and me as though we were just three guys sitting around bullshitting about this and that. Admittedly, he was sometimes forgetful and repetitive when he spoke of recent events. But he was quite lucid when he reminisced, especially about his old friend Arshile Gorky, of whom he said, “Gorky was the cat’s meow. Even though he was self-taught and I had my training from the Academy in Rotterdam, he was way ahead of me. But even before he got so sick and his wife left him, he was always such a sadsack. You know, I could never understand why Gorky was so melancholy. After all, life is difficult enough without making a big deal out of it.”

* * *

“During the spring of 1981, Gorky, never far from his thoughts, became a particularly powerful presence. ‘In a way,’ de Kooning said in the early eighties, ‘I have him on my mind all the time.’” The passage above appears in the chapter of Stevens and Swan’s book called “The Long Goodbye,” which chronicles de Kooning’s slow but steady decline into Alzheimer’s dementia. Elaine had started living with de Kooning again for the first time in many years in 1978, weaning him from booze; taking over the hiring and firing of household and studio help; carefully refashioning his image: “As the aging de Kooning increasingly withdrew into his private world, Elaine created a seductive persona for him. He became the grand old man with a mop of white hair, a Matisse for the late twentieth century, walking about in his painting overalls, lost in profound reveries and yet smiling and full of charm.”