Cathy Curtis is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. A graduate of Smith College, she holds a master’s degree in art history from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2018, Curtis was elected to a two-year term as president of Biographers International Organization.
Her new book is A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning, 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
“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 nominated for the 2016 Plutarch Award presented by 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