Today I attended a lecture about famous artist couples. Last week it was Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. This week it was Willem De Kooning and Elaine (Fried) de Kooning. Both pairs had something in common — infidelity. True bohemians, the artist couples were certainly experimental with partners as well as with their artistic self-expression. Until today, I wasn’t a follower of de Kooning, nor his wife Elaine’s work. I had seen his work often in museum collections, and appreciated it, but that is as far as it went.
I had no idea, that like so many great abstract artists, he perfected representational drawing and painting before he launched into abstract expressionism. His inspiration was Guernica, (as was mine) and it made all the difference with his paintings of Elaine and the series of women each one more deformed and grotesque and abstracted. Note, I had been bothered by the fact that I had slowed down with my paintings. I have been taking my time, with each painting, (now working on three at once), I would not rush the progress and I was pleased to learn that de Kooning took his time. What looked rushed wasn’t. He was contemplative and not just tossing paint around to fill space on the canvas. Also familiar, like my artistic maternal grandfather, who worked as a house painter and wall paperer (and contractor), de Kooning worked as a housepainter the 1920s. Imagine having a house painted by de Kooning. What might that be worth today? Unlike Stieglitz, a wealthy German-Jewish immigrant, Willem de Kooning was a poor Dutch immigrant stowaway. He struggled to afford the supplies he needed to paint. He purchased paint at the local hardware store, at one point only black and white, and got buckets of enamel for less than than tubes of oil paint in his early years. Some of the painters I’ve met recently do the same with acrylic house paint bought at Home Depot. Willem moved to Greenwich Village and joined the Artists Union in 1934 and in 1935 was employed in the Federal Art Project in the WPA, until 1936, when it was discovered he was an illegal immigrant. Then, like now, the passage of the “Alien Rule” threatened his stay. He had to work on commissions and giving art lessons. Imagine if there is a de Kooning-like great artist in the making today, who is hiding from deportation in New York City…. People must realize the best in our art and culture comes from immigrants directly or indirectly. I wonder how de Kooning when settled later in his life in the Hamptons, LI, if he’d rally against Donald Trump’s policies. He may not have been politically active, but certainly he wouldn’t like it. Some of the attendees at the lecture today laughed at de Koonings masterpieces. When another artist had asked to have a piece of his to work on, and then erased it, and hung it up as “without de Kooning” he was angry.
People in the audience guffawed, and seemed to suggest they were pleased and agreed that his work deserved no attention paid to it. The lecturer, who was not an artist, nor art historian apologized for not understanding abstract art and did not challenge them.
I didn’t agree. I raised my hand, announced “I am an abstract artist,” and everyone looked at me, as if I was an ambassador from a foreign land. They were like many people I meet in art lectures and often the judges in LI art shows– traditionalists, who don’t do and don’t “understand” abstract art. I pointed out that I thought the other destructive artist was expressing the need for de Kooning’s work to exist, and it was an existentialist artistic approach . What I meant was that without de Kooning, a blank page would not exist without the opposite, which is the creative abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning. It seemed to be a creative philosophical defense of abstract expressionism, both that contrast and my positive spin on it. I didn’t know about the real incident, but I know that nothing cannot exist without something else. I know he influenced later artists and was an integral member of the New York School of artists, which included Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and Hans Hoffman, Phillip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Clyfford Still, and Elaine de Kooning. I really don’t know the circumstances of the event nor did I catch the name of the artist who negated de Kooning’s work, perhaps a competitor in the abstract circle, but I have my ruffled feathers. To laugh at de Kooning is sacrilege after I took the same slide tour they did today. I gained a great respect and admiration for his work and that of his abstract and mostly figurative expressionist wife, (whose work my mother may have loved, as her “Green Man” painting resembled work by Edith de Kooning).
At the break, I was surrounded by women, eager to understand why abstract art looks like it does. I explained there were many forms of abstract art and painting in particular. I was startled by the interest by people who were open to appreciating what had before been a mystery. I was the arbiter of abstract expressionism. Little ol’ me.
It was my moment — of celebrity. Suddenly there was interest directed at me about my own work, and wanting to know where I was exhibited and how I interpreted this work and that work and why was he painting as he was and I could only explain from my personal experience, about the the process of not copying what one sees, but filtering it though one’s own perception and expressing what that is for others to see it as it is.
It is personal and each artist has their own way of explaining what they do. I could not really speak for all abstract artists. I could do what I did and defend it and all abstract artists as the one representative of that way of seeing and executing art, which was so foreign to everyone else. Many people I meet prefer Degas and Turner and Vermeer to anything abstract. When I am feeling diminished not by people who want to understand, but by fiercely elitist anti-abstractionists, I arch my back and turn elitist, because it seems unfair, as I am original and I hold my tongue and don’t say what I want to say to blockheads, like “only highly intelligent, evolved people who think outside the box can appreciate it fully.” It may or not be true, but it is the best defense when your work isn’t recognized as it should be among copyists and emulators of dusty artist gods of centuries ago. I appreciate the old classics but they are dead and gone. Times have changed. I have free choice. Abstraction I think, is likely popular to do,because we are more individualistic in America, and with more individual freedom, we feel we have that right to interpret reality as expressionism, abstract and not.
I explained I had never taken an abstract art history course, (I thought that I had it down from all my years with art education from my mother’s trips with us to the museums and art exhibitions and with her painting and artist friends and my own studies and artistic endeavors. I live it); I could speak with confidence, without the actual ghost of de Kooning correcting me. I suggested that Hutton House should have an abstract art history and appreciation course. And then, the woman seated to my left proudly told me her son does abstract art digitally and she mentioned a gallery in Northport, which I will check out. I explained I live in East Meadow and haven’t gone to Northport yet, but I did hear there is a vibrant art community there and in Smithtown. I passed out cards of my mother’s artwork and my own, and I liked the stardom.
I mentioned BJ Spoke Gallery and the catalogues I’ll be exhibited in, and the shows I’ve been in; I realized , the passion is ripe and I want to get to where de Kooning did. On second thought, I don’t want the Alzheimer’s, which did him in, at age 92, in the Hamptons, March 1997.