Elaine de Kooning’s Ode to a Vanished New York

For anyone who has been around the New York art world as long as I have,

the large exhibition of portraits by Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989) that is

currently on view in the capacious second-floor galleries at

Salander-O’Reilly is bound to stir a great many memories. Not only

have most of the painter’s subjects departed this world–among

them, Willem de Kooning, Edwin Denby, Fairfield Porter, Aristodemos Kaldis,

Harold Rosenberg, Tom Hess, Gandy Brodie and Charlie Egan–but the very

world they inhabited is now so remote from ours that it seems at times to

belong to a different civilization. What Henry James once called “the

landscape of life” has been altered beyond recognition or reclaim.

It is not only the artist’s subjects, moreover, that evoke a time

and place and spirit that are now lost to us. The freewheeling painterly

manner which Elaine de Kooning adopted for the most ambitious of her

portraits in the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s similarly recalls a

period, and indeed a period style, as fixed in its time-bound orthodoxies

as the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Unlike the latter, however, hers was a

style that favored the utmost in spontaneity and improvisation and spurned

anything remotely suggestive of finish or completion–in other words,

the style of second-generation Abstract Expressionism.

Critical opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of this style, which

is not to be confused with first-generation Abstract Expressionism of the

1940′s, varied a good deal when it was fashionable and has become even

more divided with the passage of time. In its day, there was a group of

writers in the circle of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery who adored

second-generation Ab Ex, overpraised it, and remained blind to its

failures. Their view of its accomplishments is succinctly restated in the

catalogue of the current Portraits show by poet Bill Berkson, who

describes what he calls the “Tenth-Street touch” as “nervily

loose, sketchy, grooved, juicy to overflowing,” and then ruins his

case by going on to claim that it was a “period style that looked

then, as now, as admirable as any in the history books.” Which, if it

means anything, means that the “Tenth-Street touch” of

second-generation Ab Ex is as admirable as the painting of, say,

Velázquez or Goya or Corot, and that is something that nobody really

believes.

To the extent that Elaine de Kooning’s portraits succeeded at times

in overcoming the worst features of this period style is owing, I think, to

the respect she felt for her subjects. Her most accomplished portrait

paintings are almost invariably devoted to artists, writers and other

art-world figures whom she regarded as her peers. She clearly felt an

obligation to get her subjects right, to make something permanent of their

character or their sensibility or their way of being in the world. That was

obviously more important to her than a perfectly organized pictorial

composition, which was in any case severely frowned upon by the esthetic

orthodoxies of the period in which she produced most of the portraits in

this exhibition.

The earlier portrait drawings and small paintings in the show tell a

different story, of course. The line drawing of Arshile Gorky (circa 1943),

the two pencil portraits of Willem de Kooning (1939 and 1940) and the

pencil portrait of Edwin Denby (circa 1948) belong to the early years of

her marriage to de Kooning, whom she met in 1937 and married in 1943, and inevitably

reflect his strong influence. So does the marvelous little Self-

Portrait of 1944. These are executed in a more classical style than the

later work. So is the portrait of Charlie Egan (1946), the dealer

who gave de Kooning his first solo exhibition in 1948. They thus belong to

the pre-Ab Ex period of Elaine de Kooning’s artistic development.

In first-generation Abstract Expressionist painting, the whole question

of a subject or content for painting was endlessly debated and finally too

problematic to be resolved. In second-generation Ab Ex painting, however,

the “subject” became for some artists–Elaine de Kooning

among them–an absolute necessity. It became a means of imposing order

and coherence on a painterly practice that was threatening to become an end

in itself. It became a way of anchoring an otherwise unwieldy art in the

realm of immediate experience.

About this development there is a very illuminating passage in Mr.

Berkson’s essay in the Portraits catalogue: “The point for

many artists in the early 50′s was to make pictures at once containing

recognizable images that possessed the same surface energy as the abstract

paintings they admired.… In 1961, Fairfield Porter wrote that

Elaine’s ‘abstract paintings, for all their dashing

contemporaneity, do not seem to liberate her talent.… They simulate a

life not her own. It is as though she were making conversation.’

Portraiture, Porter went or to say, was ‘the kind of thing that

liberates her talent, what she uniquely can do.’”

This strikes me as absolutely right, but what was required in her case

was a subject that commanded something more personal than a merely social

response. The single biggest painting in the current Portraits show

is the Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue (1963), which is nearly 14 feet

wide and depicts nine young men who are not otherwise identified. It is not

a success. It is second-generation Ab Ex salon painting, in which heads and

limbs are left to shift for themselves in a cataract of painterly gestures.

She needed a single subject she regarded as a peer, and in a painting like

Gandy Brodie (1971), for example, she found one that was worthy of

her ambition.

But it is not only as painting that this Portraits exhibition is

of great interest, of course. It is also a remarkable documentary of a

bygone age that remains, even now, imperfectly understood. Elaine de

Kooning: Portraits remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly

Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Jan. 30.