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Forging Her Own Path Apart from a Famous Husband

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."


© Cathy Curtis 2017

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