On the Spirit of Willem de Kooning: An Interview With His Assistant Tom Ferrara

The eight years Ferrara, also a painter, worked for de Kooning were some of the most productive of the late artist’s career.

Tom Ferrara and de Kooning in 1982. Tom Ferrara

The painter Tom Ferrara met Elaine De Kooning in 1976 in Maryland. Ferrara had been making sculptures that, she told him, “look like Bill’s sculptures.” Because Tom was also a painter, carpenter and cook, in 1979 Elaine asked if he would come to East Hampton on Long Island and become an assistant. Thus began a working relationship between Willem de Kooning, 75, and the 25-year-old Tom Ferrara. The next eight years were some of the most productive years of de Kooning’s career. In the 1980s, he completed hundreds of pictures. After Ferrara left to pursue his own painting career in 1987, de Kooning was mostly finished with painting, and died in 1997 at the age of 92, from complications of Alzheimer’s. “Bill knew his days were dwindling, and he was propelled,” Ferrara said of the years when he was de Kooning’s assistant. “He was not struggling. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. He just breathed them out.”

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At first, Ferrara made bookshelves and cooked his meals while living at Elaine’s house about a mile away. Soon he moved into de Kooning’s studio to help with organizing, stretching canvases and cataloguing the work. “When I first started with Bill, he was trying to quit drinking,” he told Observer. “Because of this struggle, he hadn’t painted much for a couple of years. But with Elaine’s help and mine, as well as the help of other friends and family, he was able to quit drinking.” He was then able to return with renewed focus to what he loved most: painting.

De Kooning in his studio. Tom Ferrara

Initially, he was not sure of the direction he wanted to go. He spoke often of Matisse and admired his freedom from classification (‘he has no ‘ism’), his freedom from cubist structure and most of all, what he called ‘that floating quality.’ There was a lot of experimentation and failed attempts but by 1981, he had a clarity that laid the path for his next six years of painting and some of the resultant works were absolutely transcendent.

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In 1979, when Ferrara first became his assistant, de Kooning had been famous since 1948 when he had his first solo show in New York. Today he is considered one of the greatest painters of the last century with a career spanning fifty years. “There was no greater champion of artistic freedom than Bill. He did the Women paintings when everyone was saying figurative painting was dead. He did it anyway. This spirit continued all the way through his painting life. He was so open to possibilities.”

Ferrara recounted a conversation in the studio when de Kooning asked Ferrara about one of his paintings:

de Kooning: “It all fits pretty good, don’t you think?”

Ferrara: “Yeah, fantastic.”

de Kooning: “That’s the problem. There’s no contradictions.”

“He avoided a set approach,” Ferrara said. “He stressed the importance of being counterintuitive. Doing the opposite of his first impulse. He said the way Arshile Gorky explained it to him, ‘If your first impulse is to go to the upper right, then go to the lower left. If you first think to go with green, then go with red.’”

Drawing was de Kooning’s one constant, according to Ferrara. He always started with drawing. Then he’d keep the paint thin to keep his options open. He called it controlling the surface. If the paint became too thick, he’d scrape it off with a spackle knife. “With an old painting that he wanted to rework, he’d lay them flat on saw-horses, pour turpentine on them and sand them down. The image comes through he said, ‘like a Pompeian mural.’”

Ferrara’s paintings are powerful abstracts, often with an industrial, urban feel, and musical, like jazz. These are confident works made over a lifetime of study and practice. The marks are strong and dynamic, with lyrical turns of line. Rusted steel, bridges, girders. Some are large: 68” x 60”. During our interview, he was sitting in front of one of his earlier paintings and, during the five hours we spoke, the painting grew larger behind him and more powerful. I had a hard time focusing on what Ferrara was saying and kept returning to the painting. It, too, was speaking to me. Ferrara is 70 years old now and has been teaching painting and drawing at Dartmouth College for the past twenty. “Painting has to have the soul in it, loud and clear. It uncovers something deep, something vital.” You can see his work at www.ferrara.studio.

Tom Ferrara’s Notation, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 66″ x 60″. Tom Ferrara

Today there are seventy-eight works by de Kooning in Venice at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, including abstract paintings, charcoal on paper and bronze sculptures, on view through September 15. Much has been written about the exhibit, mostly exemplary, which continues to illustrate how popular he remains. Alastair Sooke of The Telegraph called the show a “dazzling tour de force.” Laura Freedman in The Sunday Times wrote, “an exhilarating five-star knockout.” A few reviews were less enthusiastic, but it is still one of the most written-about exhibits in the Venice Biennale. And de Kooning remains popular with collectors. In 2015 his painting Interchange was sold for $300 million by billionaire producer David Geffen to Citadel’s Ken Griffin. In 2022, two of his paintings sold for more than $60 million each, and ten sold for between $20 million and $60 million.

Installation view of ‘Willem de Kooning and Italy,’ Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, 2024. © 2024 The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE. Photograph by Matteo de Fina, 2024

The Venice exhibition demonstrates de Kooning’s unique signature in painting: free, energetic lines, sweeps of yellow and pink. He drew with oil paint. His artistic journey was affected by the Italian Renaissance, Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto—a sophistication that set him apart from other Abstract Expressionists of his time. He lived in Rome for some months, absorbing the art and culture, and there, he took up sculpture. “Bill’s sculptures are an extension of his paintings with an emphasis on gesture,” Ferrara said. “He made his first sculptures in Italy with the help of the sculptor Hertzl Emanuel. Clay is immediate and flexible. You could take away from it and add to it. I think he started making sculpture because he liked the physicality and wanted a break from painting.”

In 2012, I saw his retrospective at MoMA. What struck me most in the exhibit were two things. I marveled at his inventiveness and rigor. Here was a lifetime of relentless change. de Kooning’s famous saying was, “I have to change to stay the same.” This trajectory led to the last paintings in the show, his late work. Here he was, with his memory dying, creating paintings as if without gravity, floating in space with such clarity and power. The colors were mostly primary: red, white and blue, sometimes black and yellow. A lot of white space. They were electrifying.

On the Spirit of Willem de Kooning: An Interview With His Assistant Tom Ferrara