Cathy Curtis is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She majored in philosophy at Smith College and earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of California, Berkeley. A past president of Biographers International Organization, she is now working on a book about the life and work of Edna O'Brien, the great Irish novelist, short story writer, and playwright.
Forthcoming in 2021 from W. W. Norton, Events and Upheavals: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick, is the first biography of Hardwick (1916-2007), an extraordinary essayist, short story writer, and novelist, best known for Sleepless Nights.
Curtis's biography Alive Still: Nell Blaine, American Painter was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. Among the women artists who came to prominence in the postwar era in New York, Virginia-born Nell Blaine had a uniquely hardwon career. In her mid-thirties, her horizon seemed limitless. Her shows received glowing reviews, ARTnews honored her with a lengthy feature article, and one of her paintings was acquired by the Whitney Museum. Then, on a trip to Greece, she developed polio, rendering her paraplegic. Angry at being told she would never make art again, she decided to throw her energies into regaining her skill as a painter rather than relearning how to walk. This biography investigates the way illness colored her personality and the evolving nature of her work—she would become one of America's great watercolorists—as well as the importance of her two longterm lesbian relationships in sustaining her quality of life.
Praise for Alive Still from Booklist (starred review):
In her third vivid, defining biography of an underappreciated American woman artist . . . Curtis illuminates the zestful spirit of a painter who contended with extreme adversity. . . . Thanks to Blaine's diaries and correspondence, Curtis is able to fully chronicle the intimate and constant assistance Blaine needed; her romantic relationships with the two women who worked as her aides; her vulnerability, heartaches, transcendent resiliency and drive to create; the sensuous joy and 'intense gratitude' for beauty that charge her gloriously prismatic and vibrant paintings; and her triumphant success. Blaine's story, which Curtis skillfully tells with lucidity and perception, is engulfing and awe-inspiring.
from The Wall Street Journal review (August 31, 2019):
"Alive Still: Nell Blaine: American Painter" is the third biography by Cathy Curtis about a female New York artist (following studies of Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning). These books share a vital project. They celebrate the New York School . . . rescuing some of the great painters whose reputations have faded because they don't fit with the era's macho mythology. In Blaine, Curtis certainly has a fascinating protagonist—she celebrates Blaine as a symbol of sexual liberation, of feminism, of self-overcoming. . . . "Alive Still" . . . is a valuable and even noble [biography]. It salutes a painter whose quiet virtuosity has been overshadowed by brasher, febbler talents for too long.
A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning is the first full-scale biography of a woman whose intelligence, droll sense of humor, and generosity of spirit endeared her to friends and gave her a starring role in the close-knit world of New York artists. Her zest for adventure and freewheeling spending were as legendary as her ever-present cigarette.
Flamboyant and witty in person, she was an incisive art writer who expressed maverick opinions in a deceptively casual style. As a painter, she melded Abstract Expressionism with a lifelong interest in bodily movement to capture subjects as diverse as President John F. Kennedy, basketball players, and bullfights.
In her romantic life, she went her own way, always keen for male attention. But she credited her husband, Willem de Kooning, as her greatest influence; rather than being overshadowed by his fame, she worked “in his light.” Nearly two decades after their separation, after finally embracing sobriety herself, she returned to his side to rescue him from severe alcoholism.
Based on painstaking research and dozens of interviews, A Generous Vision brings to life a leading figure of twentieth-century art who lived a full and fascinating life on her own terms.
Praise for A Generous Vision includes the following:
“Curtis chronicles Elaine’s diverse accomplishments and channels her radiant spirit and vibrant genius to indelible effect.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
"The book makes clear that far from being defined as Willem de Kooning's wife, Elaine was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. . . . she was a notably powerful, independent personality and a deeply engaged painter, as ambitious and dedicated to her work as her husband was to his. —Karen Wilkin, The Wall Street Journal
“Cathy Curtis brings the bold, flamboyant, chain-smoking, boozy, sexually captivating de Kooning out of the shadows of abstract expressionism and into the spotlight as an important American painter, critic, and cultural force.”
—Linda Leavell, author of Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
“As lively, deft, and insightful as its subject, Cathy Curtis's biography will leave you feeling that you have done the town with Elaine de Kooning, painter, writer, and queen bee of mid-20th century American art.”
—Patricia Albers, author of Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life
"Elaine de Kooning was one of the most important figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement, a fact that has been largely ignored historically. Cathy Curtis’s A Generous Vision helps introduce this remarkable painter and writer to those who have never had the pleasure of encountering her, and reveals Elaine in greater depth to those who may have thought they knew her."
—Mary Gabriel, author of Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art
Curtis is also the author of Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, the first biography of this leading New York School artist (1922-2008), whose life was as colorful as her paintings. Restless Ambition was one of 10 biographies longlisted for the 2016 Plutarch Award of Biographers International Organization (BIO).
Praise for Restless Ambition, published by Oxford University Press in 2015, includes the following:
*Starred Review* "With impressive knowledge, empathy, and zesty language, Curtis has written her first book, the first biography of Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), a volatile and determined painter. . . . With perceptiveness and vibrancy, Curtis powerfully conveys the passion, anguish, and intensity of Hartigan's life and work."
—Booklist, February 2015
"Today [Grace Hartigan's] name generally draws a blank. The drama of reading "Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter," Cathy Curtis's engaging and thorough biography, is waiting for the curtain of non-recognition to fall. When did it happen, and why? Was it because she was a woman? . . . "Restless Ambition" doesn't settle those questions and certainly doesn't present Hartigan as a victim. Maybe that's because, as Ms. Curtis makes clear, Hartigan never saw herself as a victim, even when she was a nobody; she saw herself rather as a woman of destiny, a Joan of Arc."
—Sarah Boxer, The Wall Street Journal
“Hartigan's life is well worth documenting and makes for compelling reading, encompassing as it does crossroads into wider cultural debates over the conflicted role women such as Hartigan faced as daughter, wife, mother, and lover while seeking to be an artist above all. Curtis gives readers as intimate a look as possible, drawing from numerous published sources, archives, and personal interviews."
"In Cathy Curtis's new biography, we learn how Hartigan defied the standards for femininity prevalent during the 1940s and '50s to become a lasting example of the book's title, restless ambition. . . . When we look at Grace Hartigan's paintings, we see how power does become a kind of beauty, though not everyone will say that about the artist herself. Perhaps, though, we need to keep looking. This biography helps us do that."
—The Washington Post
"This spirited biography is the first to chart the career of Abstract Expressionist Hartigan (1922-2008), a painter with as much swagger as any of her male peers...an accessible portrait of a gutsy AbEx figure."
"The combination of [Hartigan's] life and her art as told in this biography makes for a fascinating book which fully justifies the author's passion for her subject. . . . Read this book to learn of life as lived and art as made by a remarkable woman."
—Svetlana Alpers, The Key Reporter
"Restless Ambition is a nuanced character study . . . Rather than debunking the male mythologies of Abstract Expressionism, Curtis painstakingly crafts Hartigan's childhood frustrations, financial sacrifices, and prodigious artistic accomplishments to portray a fuller picture of the artist's own world of reference."
—Aliza Edelman, Woman's Art Journal
"Curtis's biography captures the mute stubbornness involved in persisting with life, despite its many disappointments."
—Jenni Quilter, London Review of Books
“At last, a life of the incomparable Grace! Cathy Curtis's biography is as colorful, tough-minded, and incisive as Hartigan's work at its best.”
—Patricia Albers, author of Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life
“Cathy Curtis brings us a driven, determined, and dedicated Grace Hartigan who, as a rebellious young artist, attained a rare degree of success in the 1950s among the male abstract expressionist painters of the New York School. This expertly researched biography gives us a vivid, insightful, and fascinating glimpse into the world of the well-known artists and writers—including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Frank O'Hara—whom Hartigan knew so well.”
—Laurie Lisle, author of Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, and Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life
“A fascinating look at the life of Grace Hartigan, a tough Abstract Expressionist woman artist who drank with the best of the men and had a sexual appetite that equaled the alcohol. Ambitious, driven and wrestling inner demons, she abandons her only child for what she believed to be necessary for her life as an artist. Cathy Curtis deals with it all in her inclusive and well documented book.”
—Audrey Flack, artist
“Restless Ambition is a great and easy read. It really peels back the onion about the Abstract Expressionist Movement, seen through the colorful life of one of its gritty female members.”
—Jim Levis, Levis Fine Art, New York