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Forging Her Own Path Apart from a Famous Husband © Cathy Curtis 2017

In 1943, when twenty-five-year-old Elaine Fried married Netherlands émigré Willem de Kooning, he was a struggling artist. But by the mid-1950s, he and Jackson Pollock were the two acknowledged leaders of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Although Elaine was becoming an established artist in her own right, during these years she was still best known as an incisive ARTnews writer, capturing the essence of artists past and present in witty, down-to-earth prose. Within the small, close-knit group of downtown New York artists, her effervescent personality made her the queen bee.

Elaine always credited Willem’s tutelage, and remained a lifelong supporter of his work. But she made some decisions early on that allowed her to forge her own path.

Willem (known to everyone as Bill) had dabbled in portraiture early in his career—most memorably, an immaculately detailed drawing of Elaine—but he had long since moved on to abstract painting. Even when he began to allow figures into his work, they were not of recognizable people.

For Elaine, portrait painting was a field she could rightly call her own. As the fifties progressed, she became noted for bravura images of her artist and poet friends, painted with unusual speed. When famously restless John F. Kennedy required a presidential portrait for the Truman Library, Elaine’s fast brush was her calling card. Her largest and most exuberant JFK portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

Elaine also painted other subjects throughout her life, none of which were shared with her husband. Her early dance training, participation in sports, and visits to a family farm gave her a lifelong fascination with people and animals in motion. Over many decades, she devoted canvases to leaping basketball players, cornered bulls in the corrida, and the wondrous ballet of creatures arcing across the walls of prehistoric caves in France and Spain.

There was another facet to Elaine’s stress on self-determination. In the early 1950s, when Bill began to paint ferocious-looking, large eyed women that many observers believed to reflect his mixed feelings about Elaine—whose eyes are the most striking element in his early portraits of her—her public stance was to remain outside the fray.

She was chagrined to see that a photograph she had posed for in Bill’s studio made it look as though she were embraced by the wild-eyed creature in one of these paintings. But her critic’s eye didn’t blink: she insisted on the artistic validity of Bill’s Women. When someone pointed to what appeared to be bloody bullet holes on one of these figures as symbolic of the artist’s angry intent, she explained that the red marks were actually “very chic” stick-on rubies that Bill had seen in an issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

After Elaine and Bill separated, in 1957, she was sometimes criticized for leaning on the de Kooning name as her ticket to shows and sales. (In contrast, the painter Lee Krasner, married to Pollock, never used his last name professionally.) But Elaine signed her paintings simply as “E de K” and was temperamentally disinclined to pursue fame or financial success. When she talked about Bill—often in the context of the college studio classes she taught—it was in homage to something important she had learned from him.

In her personal life, she always insisted on autonomy, sometimes to an extreme degree. There were numerous men in her life; she and Bill were mutually unfaithful from the early years of their marriage. And while Elaine—like other leading women artists of her generation—had mixed feelings about feminism, she was too willful and idiosyncratic to see herself as beholden to anyone, least of all a famous husband.

People would ask what was it like to work under Bill’s shadow. According to her, it was the wrong question. She preferred to say, “I work in his light."

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Leaving New York / © Cathy Curtis 2015

In the 1940s and early ’50s, the avant-garde art world of New York was a small, clubby place, similar in many ways to the tight (and equally contentious) circle of the New York intelligentsia. Many artists rented cheap downtown Manhattan industrial loft spaces with rudimentary plumbing and heat. They knew each other because their numbers were small and their problems were shared. Chief among them was grinding poverty and the sad fact that hardly anyone was selling work.

While Parisian artists gathered in cafés, the New Yorkers initially huddled around 5-cent cups of coffee in dreary cafeterias where management clamped down on people who occupied seats for hours without buying a meal. The founding of the Club as an artists’ meeting place in late 1949 changed everything. Together with the nearby Cedar Tavern—drab, but alive with conversation and argument fueled by beer and Scotch—the Club became the place to go for fellowship after spending the day alone in the studio. Friday night talks and panel discussions by significant figures in the visual and performing arts constituted an ad hoc university for many Club members whose formal education was limited. Beginning in the mid-’50s, the Five Spot Café offered another convivial alternative for artists, poets, musicians, and dancers to hang out and perhaps catch a performance by one of the masters of modern jazz.

But by 1960, this sense of community had splintered, in part because several leading artists had left Manhattan. Philip Guston had moved upstate to Woodstock; Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers lived on Long Island; Franz Kline had bought a house in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Joan Mitchell had decamped for Paris.

Money was another divisive aspect. Painter Mercedes Matter remarked that she heard artists “talking about galleries over their bourbons instead of about art as before, over their beers.” There was now a huge gulf between the prices a famous artist could command and those of lesser-known painters. While de Kooning’s sold-out show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in May 1959 netted him about $80,000 (more than $600,000 in today’s money), Fairfield Porter’s sales for the entire year at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery totaled less than $3,000.

Most devastatingly, galleries and museums were turning their attention from the emotional heat of Abstract Expressionism to the cool styles of Pop Art and Minimalism. Art critics sniped that the freely brushed, energetic style born in the 1940s had hardened into formula—either a caricature of itself (a splattered canvas painted in a frenzy) or an earnest, lifeless imitation (drip here, slash there). Such was the rumbling of negativity that Art News magazine convened eighteen artists to discuss the issue and published edited versions of their remarks in the Summer and September 1959 issues. As the critic Dore Ashton noted, “The New York School as such had vanished and what emerged . . . was a scattering of isolated individualists who continued to paint.”

In 1960, Grace Hartigan—whose richly coloristic paintings combined energetic brushwork with hints of recognizable imagery—was still riding the last wave of Abstract Expressionism, the subject of flattering articles in popular magazines as well as astute reviews in art journals. That year, she fell in love with one of her collectors, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. She married him in 1961 and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, dreaming of creating an equivalent to her beloved New York gathering places—a salon where the city’s artists, musicians, poets, and scientists would exchange ideas and enjoy each other’s company.

This was not to be; Baltimore was a sleepy backwater with no contemporary arts scene to speak of. The poet Barbara Guest privately rued that her friend was making a big mistake, “disastrous for a career at its peak.” The New York art scene, Guest said later, “never forgives.” Indeed—despite the efforts of her supportive New York dealer, Martha Jackson—Hartigan’s sales began to dry up and reviewers were largely dismissive of her new work. In succeeding decades, as her styles and subject matter changed, she would cycle through several other New York galleries. But her moment in the sun was over.

During the next forty-seven years of her life, Hartigan engaged in a protracted dialogue with her favorite city. While Manhattan rents were zooming upward, she rented an inexpensive studio space in Baltimore. “Eat your heart out, New York!” she crowed. Yet she lamented her remoteness from the art capital that made international reputations possible. Artists need to be loved, she told an interviewer, “and to have rejection, silence, and indifference was very difficult.” As late as 1987, she called her move to Baltimore “the disaster of my life.”

At the same time, Hartigan realized that her queen-bee reputation in Baltimore—where she was a celebrated teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)—would no longer be possible in Manhattan’s contemporary art world. Over the years, she offered her students seasoned advice about the wisdom of trying to make it in New York. While she continued to believe that working there was essential to anyone aspiring to a major career, she admitted that an artist can have a good life elsewhere. But she cannily hedged her bets—in the mid-’80s, she acquired a pied-à-terre in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from her artistic beginnings on Hester Street.

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