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Recurring Waves of Arrival: Elaine de Kooning’s Portraits, from Loft Dwellers to JFK

Elaine de Kooning sketching John F. Kennedy, 1962 December/ Eddie Johnson, photographer. James Graham & Sons gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

WASHINGTON, DC – “I was enslaved by portraits.” That’s how Elaine de Kooning puts it to filmmaker Betty Jane Thiebaud to describe what happened after her arduous and rewarding commission to paint President John F. Kennedy’s portrait for the Truman Library.

The commission’s timing coincided with her peak creativity. As Elaine de Kooning: Portraits, the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., demonstrates, by the start of the 1960s, her Abstract Expressionist techniques have become more restrained. With increasing subtlety, her work seeks to arrest moments of personal recognition. This turn results in more meticulous and redolent portraiture than the work of the 1950s (see Instant Illuminations: Elaine de Kooning’s Early Portraiture).

Looking at the portraits in the exhibition’s spectacular midpoint, I felt as if I were actually seeing that elusive moment in her perception when the person standing or sitting before her passed from patchwork anonymity into an emergent distinctiveness. She recaptures some fleeting, somatic stage of vision. Neuroscientists must have a name for it. It is more than just distinguishing figure from ground. It is akin to the transitional instant when, adjusting a camera lens, the targeted object moves from blurriness to clarity. Rendering that phenomenon – a secular version of an annunciation — matters to Elaine de Kooning much more than excavating the psychology of her human subjects.

Yet there is undeniable insight stirred by her portraits’ churning and scissoring gestural brushwork. The brightening hues and ever-more detailed contours result in a less abstract, more viewer-friendly portraiture that somehow retains the crucial incompleteness that is the glimpse.

Elaine de Kooning, (left) “Ornette Coleman” (c. 1965), pencil on paper, 13 9/16 x 11 inches and (right) “Ornette Coleman” (c. 1965), graphite with stumping paper, 13 9/16 x 11 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

What she provocatively called her “addiction” to portraiture is an emotional and intellectual need to relive that exhilarating moment when human features and corporeal coloring are about to congeal into a solid identification. And in her best portraiture, these highs become the viewers’ as well. It is a cognitive pleasure most accessible in her portraits of lesser-known people, such as art power broker Ethel Epstein, Joe Louis’ sparring partner “Baby” Dutch Culbertson, and Caryl Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Asher.

“The Loft Dwellers” (1961) is arguably the best example from this new phase in her career. A life-sized double portrait featuring two tall artists named Eddie Johnson and Robert Corless, who were protégés of Elaine’s, caught the discerning eye of Fairfield Porter, who raved about it in The Nation, declaring, “it is the first time I have seen [Elaine de Kooning] handle in a portrait her abstract color so that is [sic] integrates with the drawing and the likeness.”

Elaine de Kooning, “The Loft Dwellers” (1961), oil on canvas, 90 9/16 x 67 1/16 x 2 inches. From the collection of the Shatan family (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

The devil lives in her details. The tall, lanky Eddie Johnson is a totalized figure, his personality revealed through the blood-red bandanna draped with an assured nonchalance around his long neck; the cresting wave of thick brown hair, the conspicuous gap between his dark eyebrows, the unassuming manner in which his long left leg is bent and crossed at the shin, the tip of his shoe perpendicular to the floor. So too the figure of Corless provides a window into the portraitist’s hidden perceptual cues about who he is; the shock of dark hair; the feline gaze of large gray eyes; the undulations of the black jacket around his shoulders and arms; and the particular way his right leg crosses over his left — ever so subtly different from Johnson’s comparable gesture.

Similarly, in the portraits she made of two writers, de Kooning infuses particulars with individuality. A Matisse-like gouache and ink drawing, “Meg Randall” (1963), conveys the glamorous young writer’s persona through the clasp of her right hand in her left; her piercing pupils; her partly raised eyebrows; and the fastidious elegance of her maquillage. Two exceptionally charming oil paintings of Donald Barthelme shimmer and glint so brilliantly that they seem like watercolors. The writer’s piercing eyes flicker through indoor light reflecting on his eyeglasses as he drapes a fatherly arm around the yellow and red figure of a young child. It is a touching portrait of the postmodern novelist as sagacious, middle-aged dad.

This confident equilibrium between experimentation and realism animates the anonymous figures that populate “The Burgers of Amsterdam Avenue” (1963). Measuring roughly seven feet high by fourteen feet wide, the painting can be seen as a proto-feminist, figurative painter’s answer to such abstruse AbEx monoliths as Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” (1950), Clyfford Still’s “1957-D, No. 1” (1957) and Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1961). The portrait, which depicts nine young men, most of them African-American or Latino, who are housed in a special public school for narcotics offenders, proves that imaginative abstraction coupled with a brassy, Pop Art-like surface can deliver just as much political heft as the often heavy-handed symbolism and dour imagery of American social realism. It is a clever provocation to the cosmopolitan art-consuming public – marrying Richard Brooks’ 1955 film version of Blackboard Jungle to Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” (1889).

Elaine de Kooning, “The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue” (1963), oil on canvas, 88 x 166 inches. Private collection (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

The men appear self-aware and mature, their wary gazes underscoring their institutionalization. They look alternately candid, savvy, suspicious, bored and skeptical. Their colorfully painted lean, tapered bodies are arranged at odds with one another—standing, seated, turned away – communicating histories that exceed whatever their facial expressions reveal about who they “really” are. By monumentalizing such otherwise invisible people on the lowest social rung, the “Burghers” slyly critiques the hierarchies of power that portraiture has served to sanctify.

Hanging near “The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue,” one life-sized portrait and two larger-than-life portraits of President John F. Kennedy represent an inverse challenge that faced Elaine de Kooning, namely, how to humanize an overexposed, photogenic leader who had already been widely valorized and even self-mythologized as the trailblazer of America’s “New Frontier”?

This career-making commission was granted mainly through the intervention of New York gallery owner Robert Graham after the rejected candidacies of painters Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Banks Wilson. “Mrs. de Kooning,” the White House informed Graham in December 1962, “is a painter acceptable to President Kennedy.” A few days after Christmas that same month, she and her assistant Eddie Johnson arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida, for a two-week-long residency in the company of the Kennedy family at their “Winter White House.”

Building on an approach she had refined over two decades, de Kooning paid the most attention to her daily first impressions of Kennedy as he sat before her, alone studying classified briefings, or conferring with military attachés and domestic policy aides. Though she drew and painted the president in countless poses and varied attire, she persisted in reclaiming those initial, subjective sparks, which acted as the catalyst for the drawings and paintings. Her subject would be the figure of Kennedy as well as what the critic Simona Cupic calls the painter’s “personal awareness and a memory of the moment when she saw him.”

And when she saw him, he was, in her words, “just radiant.” To her credit as an expressionistic artist, she let that impassioned, resonant reaction become her guide. She resisted any institutional or civic obligation to solemnize the president’s image or to decorate the man in the courtly trappings of power and notoriety. Given America’s media-age “imperial presidency” and the social and political stakes implicit in the Truman commission, her willingness to follow her individual responses seems daring and even rebellious. Her vivacious portraits of Kennedy — there are nine in the exhibition — seem like they were made last week..

Elaine de Kooning, “John F. Kennedy” (1963), oil on canvas, 101 1/2 x 44 x 1 1/2 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

Despite her strong reactions to Kennedy, her presidential portraits harmonize with the approach of her contemporaneous portraits. She rendered Kennedy with the same unaffected humanity as she did her other subjects. He seems so available in her renditions that the viewer can virtually register what Elaine de Kooning felt in his presence.

In one larger-than-life-sized oil painting, the sun-drenched landscape of West Palm Beach seems sublimated within the figure and its abstracted setting. The president, wearing a white dress shirt and tie, sits slightly forward in his chair, his left hand gripping the armrest, his elbow jutting outward at nearly a right angle. His right hand rests on the slope of his crossed leg. That anatomical and gestural distinctiveness registers JFK’s individuality as instantaneously as the air of peculiar quietness in his facial expression. The figure’s colors — his tan complexion, brown hair, and black pants — bleed into the picture’s background, where they are intensified by the polyphonic green, yellow and pale blue brushstrokes that erupt around him.

Sexualized, contemplative and emphatically Irish-looking, Elaine de Kooning’s Kennedy frequently also looks vulnerable, gazing out at us like a man aware that the presidential persona is a compulsory and temporary mask. In one painting he is standing upright with his arms straight down and jaw clenched as if responding to the back pain that famously tormented him. In another portrait, a collage drawing dated 1963, he appears thickset and boyish. The collage’s cutouts resemble bandages randomly applied to his handsome face. It is a strangely disturbing image: depending on what month in 1963 it was completed, the collage is either a portentous image about that fateful Dallas motorcade or a posthumous homage to the already slain leader.

Having returned from Florida, back in New York, we are told by curator Brandon Frame Fortune in the exhibition’s monograph that Elaine struggled to retain the spontaneity of her impressions, a project significantly complicated by Kennedy’s assassination. In Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of her from Life magazine, taken in her Broadway loft in 1964, she is standing on a ladder gazing up at one of her larger-than-life-sized portraits of Kennedy while surrounded by countless alternative likenesses. She found it nearly impossible to work on the portrait after his killing and confided her exhaustion and concerns to her friends and studio assistants. And by her own admission, she may have failed to produce one quintessential portrait, admitting that, “I feel now that when you see all these paintings and sketches together they crystallize into THE President.”

For a painter invested in alternative habits of seeing and feeling, getting at the quintessence of a person was, at best, a secondary goal. Still, the exhibition speaks to the blessing and the curse that the commission turned out to be. Her “enslavement” to portraiture, which she refers to in the Thiebaud film, seems to be a self-imposed attempt to summon the same obsessive energies for other subjects that she had unleashed on the Kennedy project. And it also seems that by the late 1960s, she had turned to a reassuring, intimate and somewhat less daring style of portraiture.

The highlights from this period include a rare 1973 portrait of Robert De Niro, Sr., her famously reclusive contemporary from the New York School. De Niro sits on a blue-gray couch, his left arm leaning into its cushions. He sits askew, with a furrowed brow, staring downwards as if to look beyond the present moment, which Elaine de Kooning is trying to preserve on his behalf.

Elaine de Kooning, “Robert de Niro” (1973), oil on canvas, 36 x 54 inches. Aramark (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

A surprisingly realistic, up-close painting of the perpetually lean Alex Katz, also from 1973, employs a smooth minimalist surface, depicting the painter in a sumptuously red button-down shirt, his prominent forehead matching the color of the wood panels behind him.

A triptych of tondo portraits from 1983 featuring John Ashbery, created for a limited edition of prints to accompany a republication of the poet’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), replicate the shape of the circular mirror used by the Mannerist painter Parmigianino. Inspired by the optical distortions characterizing the Italian painter’s self-portrait, Ashbery’s masterpiece contemplates the compelling distortions and interactive nature of seeing and representation — what he calls, in the title poem, vision’s “recurring wave of arrival.” Elaine de Kooning’s renditions of Ashbery rely on lively semicircular lines and crosshatches that concentrically accentuate the poet’s wide eyes, prominent jawline and iconic mustache.

The final portrait paintings hint at a direction where she might have gone, had she world enough and time. The loving portrait of her sister, “Marjorie Luyckx” (1983), hints at a renewed interest in abstraction. The undulating greenery behind Luyckx parallels the cascading reds, oranges and black of her billowy sleeves.

The large, lyrical likeness of her former student, Fischbach Gallery’s then-director Aladar Marberger, stands out as her swan song. It is a most fitting one.

Elaine de Kooning, “Aladar Marberger #3” (1986), oil on canvas, 64 x 42 inches. Donna Lynne Marberger & Dr. Jon L. Marberger (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)

Painted three years before her own death from lung cancer, Elaine de Kooning’s portrait retrospectively reads almost like a coded self-portrait, as her close friend Marberger was himself fighting a losing battle with AIDS. Marberger’s thin, rosy, oval face, with its blue eyes and crystalline gaze, combined with his blue-sleeved elbows resting on the arms of a large wicker chair, lend him an air of imperial defiance. The autumnal leaves of the East Hampton woods loom everywhere above and behind him, while dark green plants inside the studio intrude on his left and right. Landscape painting seems to be suddenly invading the realm of portraiture, mitigating the solitude of its human subject and, in doing so, preserving forever its life-giving sunlight.

Elaine de Kooning: Portraits continues at the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.) through January 10, 2016.

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