Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning in her studio at the University of Georgia, ca. 1967-68.
The multi-faceted life and work of Elaine de Kooning, an equally accomplished artist, writer and teacher, makes her a captivating topic of study. Her contributions to the art world and the arts communities of the early 20th century at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement mean that she has remained a consistent source of public and art historical fascination, ensuring her position as an arts, and feminist, icon. We’ve explored this, and de Kooning’s striking work in the Georgia Museum of Art’s collection before here on Holbrook’s Trunk, but now, de Kooning is back in the spotlight with an excellent exhibition of her work currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and the conversion of her former East Hamptons residence into an inspiring artist colony. Although no survey of this prolific artist can ignore her unsettled marriage to Dutch émigré Willem de Kooning, who would go on to become one of the most revered and renowned artists of their generation, Elaine de Kooning’s accomplishments are decidedly her own, and her position in the history of American art is distinct and continuing.

De Kooning, a native New Yorker, had been creating works for much of her life but did not have her first solo exhibition until the early 1950s, at the city’s Stable Gallery, when she was in her mid-30s. Instead, she had focused on criticism, and became an esteemed writer and editor — she was one of the first critics to take note of the likes of Mark Rothko and became an associate editor at Art News in the late 1940s.

This exhibition at Stable Gallery became the first of many, and as her practice grew more distinctive, so did its public appreciation. While many of her post-war New York contemporaries, the renowned action painters that included her husband Willem, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, were making physical, powerful, Abstract Expressionist works, de Kooning took this gestural style and worked it into more figurative series, often veering into portraiture. This combination of the traditional form of posed portraits with the abstraction that was so attached to the zeitgeist is a fascinating blend that gives a great insight to the cultural landscape of the post-war United States. Elaine’s often faceless representations of the male form, which ranged from anonymous basketball players to her famed commissioned images of John F. Kennedy, pervert or subvert the traditional artist-sitter relationship, and make her sitter subject to a female gaze. The basketball players in particular almost appear as a 20th-century retroversion of Edgar Degas’ amorous, voyeuristic images of young female ballet dancers — nameless, faceless, elegant female forms drawn and painted tirelessly by a 19th-century male at the forefront of Impressionism, 100 years earlier, seeming antiquated alongside de Kooning’s expression of female power.

Elaine de Kooning, "Bacchus #81" (1983)

This progressiveness in de Kooning’s work is what is still recognized and appreciated today — the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington exclusively highlights her portrait work and has been years in the making, and examples of de Kooning's work are featured in collections across the world, from the Guggenheim to the Georgia Museum of Art. “Bacchus #81,” in the collection and on display at the museum, is a mesmerizing example of many of these features, and its position at the museum is a particularly appropriate choice — de Kooning held a long and interesting history with the University of Georgia. She taught at a variety of esteemed institutions from Yale University to the Parsons New School for Design, before settling for some time as a Dodd Visiting Professor here at UGA. She held a studio on campus during this time in the late 1970s, where her artistic output was particularly fruitful. In fact, de Kooning actually began her Bacchus series in this studio at the university, as seen in production in the picture at the top of this post, following an affecting experience with Jules Dalou’s “Le Triomphe de Silene,” a violent sculpture featuring Bacchus and figures in similar forms to those in the painting, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris.

“Bacchus #81” is one work in the museum’s collection of nearly 10,000 that is particularly at home. A stone’s throw away from where Elaine de Kooning began its series, it acts as a great representation of the museum’s — and de Kooning’s — contributions to the history of American art.

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