Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sex, Hype, and Abstract Painting: The Secret Life of Willem de Kooning

Elaine and Willem de Kooning. (Photo: Rudy Burckhardt)

A married couple, the painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning had what might be called an open relationship. From their wedding in 1943 until Elaine's death by lung cancer in 1989, both de Koonings were known for their sexual promiscuity. He had several partners, but she had many, many more. Their bedroom was overcrowded, which is perhaps why author Lee Hall used a plural noun when she called her 1993 book about them Elaine and Bill, Portrait of a Marriage: The Lives of Willem and Elaine De Kooning.

As Hall details in her controversial but thought-provoking biography, Elaine’s conquests were as legendary as her drinking, and her gift for inspired
 – and inspiring – chatter. Said by all who knew her to have been a legendary beauty and feisty femme fatale, she had no trouble bedding whomever struck her fancy. But there was method to the sexual madness: Mrs. de Kooning slept primarily with men who would advance her husband's career. Elaine’s lovers included Harold Rosenberg, the influential art critic, Tom Hess, the trend-setting editor of Art News, and Charles Egan, a leading New York gallery owner. By sleeping with these men Elaine ensured that her husband was crowned the king of Abstract Expressionism. Merit seems to have been beside the point. In Portrait of a Marriage, Hall quotes an anonymous dealer that "if Elaine had slept with different people – or, God forbid, if she had remained faithful to Bill – the whole history of American art would be different."

It’s a fascinating thesis which the author supports with solid, if sometimes subjective, evidence. Exploring the social milieu in which the work was generated, Hall called on a number of so-called first-hand sources, a disconcerting number of them anonymous, to illustrate how Elaine’s courtesan-like practices elevated Abstract Expressionism to a high status of cultural acceptance that might not otherwise happened on the merits of the art itself.

In her book, she writes that when Willem de Kooning  who died in East Hampton in 1997 had a particularly favourable review by Harold Rosenberg or Tom Hess, or when a reproduction of his work appeared in Art News, or when his work was included in any prominent art exhibition, it was said around town that everyone knew that "Elaine had been sleeping with someone again. When Elaine slept with Hess, Bill got publicity in Art News. When Elaine had an affair with Rosenberg, he paid Bill off with attention."

These were fighting words, however, to those who considered the Dutch-American artist a genius deserving of all the accolades heaped at his feet by the day’s powerful influencers. Fans of de Kooning quickly denounced Hall as a gossipmonger and spreader of lies almost as soon as her book came out. I
t was reported in The New York Times that Joan Ward, a mistress of de Kooning’s and the mother of his only child, issued a statement calling the book “a practically illiterate smear of Bill and his painting, plus a sordid, demeaning picture of Elaine.” 

The de Koonings in the studio. (Photo: Rudy Burckhardt)
But Hall, who had served as president of the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s and 1980s, remained unapologetic until dying last year of cancer at age 82. Much of her information had come from Elaine herself, who had been a close friend. The rest she gleaned from her own observations and experiences of the New York scene. Hall was a New York art world insider.

A noted painter herself, she had shown her lyrical abstract paintings at New York’s Betty Parsons Gallery, which had also launched the careers of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, among other American modernists. When her gallerist died in 1982, Hall wrote her biography, published in 1991, called Betty Parsons: Artist, Dealer, Collector. Hall knew the scene, perhaps too well: “Don’t ever underestimate the political fervour of the art world,” she told The Washington Post when being attacked for her de Kooning book. “It’s a very tight group, and they’re trying to maintain a myth.”

But if her conclusion is true, that de Kooning's status as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century is a product of his wife's sleeping around, then what does this say about the value and legitimacy of so-called great art? Is it, as Hall suggests, a product of hype, a media-driven machine of false importance?

Holding nothing back, she exposes the myth-making tendencies of the modern age in Portrait of a Marriage, highlighting what Joni Mitchell has called "the star-making machinery behind the popular song." Hall argues that it’s the art of marketing more than the art which has enabled de Kooning’s abstract gestural paintings to sell for tens of millions of dollars in the marketplace. A recent and significant example is Interchange, de Kooning’s painting from 1955, which Christie’s sold in 2016 for a record-breaking $304-million (USD). On loan to the Art Institute of Chicago, Interchange was the most expensive painting ever sold at auction until Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which in November sold for $450-million (USD), knocked it to second place.

“To be written about as an artist bravely searching for new forms of human expression, to be photographed as an archetypal artist-hero or -saint, or -clown, to be publicized as individualistic and outside the common mire of humanity  in short, to be the object of attention  was tantamount to being certified an artist,” writes Hall in her book. “In an age of uncertain standards, publicity  more than work  bought an artist entry into that contest for the title of Genius."

But while she has strong opinions about the art world she knew and fully inhabited, Hall tends to be ambiguous when it comes to the de Koonings themselves. On one hand, she emphasizes the couple’s hard work and unwavering dedication to art, highlighting them as painters with marvellous ideas who jostled sensibilities and made people look at themselves and their surroundings with renewed insight. On the other, she portrays them as harpies hungering after fame and fortune, calling them phonies who "elevat[ed] ruthless ambition to the status of aesthetic cause." As for Abstract Expressionism itself, the style both de Koonings helped to pioneer, Hall poses a rhetorical question: “Was the movement a hoax? Or, as its proponents insisted . . . the first sign of a new world of the mind and spirit?"

The answer could be found in the work. But Hall tends to steer away from an in-depth look at the de Kooning paintings, except in those chapters exploring whether or not the canvasses produced late in Willem’s career  and bearing his signature  are indeed by the artist's hand or, more problematically, by Elaine, or studio assistants. Willem reportedly had Alzheimer’s disease and wasn’t painting in the final years of his life. Hall’s book forces a reassessment. But ultimately the verdict is not what Hall might have predicted. Given the growing value of the paintings, Willem de Kooning is not that easily dismissed.

Like many of his art-world contemporaries, Willem strove to open up a new chapter in art history with paintings that addressed spiritual truths but in a startlingly fresh manner. Classically trained, he brought to modern painting an understanding of past traditions reinvigorated with new insights and images. A prevailing ambition was to "best" Picasso, for Willem the greatest living painter of the 20th century. Whether he ultimately surpassed his mentor is now up for posterity to decide.

The effect of environment is important to an understanding of all art, an idea Hall emphasizes in her book. But it is misleading to suggest that art history would have ignored de Kooning had his wife not prostituted herself. That Willem, along with Elaine, actively used the "arsenal of hype" which has grown up around modern art does not make him a lesser artist. His paintings live on, increasing in value, and without the thrust of sex to make them sell. Regardless of her intentions, Hall hasn’t diminished their importance. What she has done, though, is call into question the ethics behind the aesthetics.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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