Jane K. Bledsoe, curator of the Elaine de Kooning retrospective that opens at the Maryland Institute College of Art this week, says that when the artist taught at the University of Georgia in the 1970s, "there was this one particular book on art and culture, and this was the shining light and path to everything. She carried it around with her and insisted that everyone read that book.
"She would do that with people. Whoever she took under her wing she became absolutely intensely involved in helping them, nurturing them, making them be artists, do whatever it was that they wanted to do."
It was true with nonartists as well.
"Sally Adair was a waitress in a restaurant in Athens [Ga.] where Elaine went for breakfast every morning," said Ms. Bledsoe. "She spent so much time talking with Elaine that she got fired. So she got another job, and Elaine changed her restaurant."
The same sort of commitment marks Elaine de Kooning's art. When she found a subject, whether it was bulls, Bacchus or basketball players, she made not just one painting but a whole series, all informed by the essential Elaine.
Fellow painter Grace Hartigan identifies two major characteristics of her longtime friend's work: "[There was] the exuberance and tremendous belief in and commitment to each subject as she moved from one to the other. And she was a superb draftsman in the kind of open drawing that is known as gestural."
Those qualities will be in evidence in not one but two Elaine de Kooning exhibits opening in Baltimore Thursday. The retrospective (the first), organized at the University of Georgia, comes to the Institute, which gave her an honorary degree in 1985.
It covers her whole career, said Ms. Bledsoe. "It ranges from the very early work [of the 1940s] up to virtually the last painting she made." The artist died in 1989.
The C. Grimaldis Gallery will open a smaller but also wide-ranging show. "Every decade except the 1970s is represented," according to gallery owner Constantine Grimaldis.
It is work that may not be as well-known as it should be for two reasons. First, de Kooning was also known as an art writer, the author of articles on such artists as Franz Kline, David Smith, Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko. "People focused on that, and it probably diminished some of her attention as a painter," said Ms. Bledsoe.
Her husband's fame
The second and more compelling reason is that she bears one of the most famous names in 20th-century art. The name is associated first and foremost with her husband, Willem de Kooning, one of the leaders of the American abstract expressionist movement. Unlike Helen Frankenthaler, once married to Robert Motherwell, or Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock's wife, Elaine de Kooning used her husband's name professionally, which may not have been the wisest career move.
According to Ms. Hartigan, she was devoted to her husband's career as well. "She put Bill's work and career before her own, and that was not necessarily Bill's desire. It was her desire to see that he got the attention and recognition he so much deserved."
Married in 1943, they separated in the late 1950s and reconciled in the 1970s. According to Ms. Bledsoe, Elaine de Kooning's devotion to her husband and his work was steadfast. "She adored Bill," Ms. Bledsoe said. "He was her hero. She absolutely refused to ever say that she stood in his shadow. She said, 'I stood in his light.' "
She was his student before she was his wife. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, she dropped out of Hunter College after a year, took up art and began to study with Willem de Kooning in 1938. Her work became marked by the energy and gesture of abstract expressionism.
As Ms. Hartigan notes: "She was bound to be affected by the development of painting as image rather than images and deep space within painting. It was the most important discovery of a new way to paint since cubism."
But unlike many of the abstract expressionists, E de K (as she signed her paintings) only flirted with non-representationalism. Most of her work contained something recognizable, however abstracted it might be.
Karen Gunderson, a fellow artist and younger friend, describes the interpenetration of image and abstraction: "She understood the essence of a form and was able to describe that with a particularly personal and yet incredibly descriptive abstraction of energy. The underlying abstraction was feeding the reality."
Audrey Flack, an artist and friend of many years, identifies another quality of E de K's painting. "There was something tough and strong about her work, but something else was there, too, if you look. . . . Women . . . had to exhibit a toughness, and they paid a heavy price for it. Part of that price was not dealing enough with the warm, compassionate, romantic side, all of those things that we condemn women for being.
"And yet, whatever you are comes out in everything you do, no matter how much you try to disguise it. Some of those essences emerged in Elaine's work, and that's for the good, but had it been accepted as something of value at the time, that side of her could have developed more in the work. I would have liked to have seen that happen."
Of all her works, the most admired today may be her late series based on the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, France.
In them, says Ms. Hartigan, "Elaine developed a sense of color to an extent that she hadn't before, with those beautiful transparent washes."
But Ms. Hartigan also likes the series of basketball players. "I like them for their sense of movement and excitement, and it was interesting for a woman to approach this really male kind of subject. She said to [poet] Frank O'Hara that she loved those great buns they had."
Ms. Gunderson also admires the cave paintings. She said, "I think the Bacchus series is among her best for that close combination of abstraction and reality."
Abstract sculptor and friend Ibram Lassaw says he responds most to E de K's purely abstract work. But, he adds, "I respect other aspects of her work. She did a number of portraits, you know, and she captured the personality of the subject very well."
Ms. Bledsoe also admires the portraits, and E de K for doing them. "The portraits as a group are more important than she thought they were. They are very intimate portraits of a group of people -- Tom Hess, Leo Castelli, Harold Rosenberg -- who were major characters in postwar American art."
And, she adds, "There are no other abstract expressionist portraits. It just wasn't done. It was declasse. If you wanted a picture of someone you took a camera. She did it because she loved these people and because it was something nobody else was doing.
"She liked to do portraits when surrounded by people. It was a very social kind of occasion. Apparently, she'd suddenly say, 'Sit down, I'm going to paint your portrait.' Yet when she started to do what she thought serious work, she required absolute solitude. She couldn't bear to have anyone else around her."
Other parts of her life, however, were more like her portrait sessions.
Including other people
Ms. Gunderson remembers, "She was the most inclusive person in the world. Once, after a group of us had been to a Fairfield Porter show in Boston, we were sitting around in the cafeteria with coffee and sandwiches having a great time, and outside of our group was a woman sitting alone.
"Elaine looked over and said, 'Why don't you join us?' So she did, and she was delightful. I don't know her name and I've never seen her again, but that was one of the things about Elaine. She was able to connect with people."
Ms. Hartigan remembers her as "an electric personality. She was beautiful, charming, brilliant, witty, stimulating to be with and an extremely loyal friend."
Ms. Hartigan's friendship with Elaine de Kooning goes back to the 1940s, and embraces the heady years of postwar abstract expressionism.
"When Elaine died," Ms. Hartigan said, "something ended for me. That whole time."
ELAINE DE KOONING
Where: The Maryland Institute, College of Art, Decker Gallery in Mount Royal Station building, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street.
When: Opening reception, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (Thursdays and Fridays to 9 p.m.), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 21.
Call: (410) 225-2300.
4 Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St.
When: Opening reception, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 27.
Call: (410) 539-1080.