The Woman in Woman I
I moved to New York City in 2008. In the fall of that year, I started graduate school and Lehman Brothers went under -- the world, small and large, changed. But those events were weeks away the summer afternoon that I, having just moved into a room about sixty blocks uptown, visited MoMA for the first time.
Inside, I saw the paintings that made New York the epicenter of the twentieth-century art world, the icons of Abstract Expressionism. Turning a corner past Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist (1950), de Kooning's Woman I (1950-1952) confronted me. A mammoth painting, Woman I depicts a woman's figure, her sex only discernable by her immense breasts, her humanness by her wide eyes and gnashed teeth. De Kooning's brushwork is ferocious, with thick slashes of bold brushwork obscuring the contours of her body. It's a scary, nightmarishly transfixing painting based in reality. Figuration, or representational painting, was controversial in the 1950s. By the late 1940s, the New York art world had largely eschewed realism of any kind for what critic Clement Greenberg termed "pure" painting; painting that represented the artist's psyche in the plastic, fluid forms that paint organically takes on a canvas. Greenberg advocated Pollock as the model of such painting, pitting him against all others who might find inspiration in the exterior world. Woman I was almost completely abstracted, however, the figure's pink legs abruptly chopped off at her ankles.
Back home, before my move, I tore through Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's page-turner biography, de Kooning: An American Master. In it, Stevens and Swan recount the art world gossip of de Kooing's 1950s heyday: juicy tales of booze-soaked love affairs and vicious, passionate fights between artists, writers, wives, and lovers. Woman I heralded de Kooning's rise to prominence in this small, heady world, and cemented his reluctance to abandon figuration totally for the sake of total inward abstraction. Personally, it embodied the troubled, complex relationship between de Kooning and his wife, Elaine -- who Woman I represented. Elaine had long influenced on her husband's art, her presence shifting his focus away painting sad, gray-looking figures of men to full-bodied, opulent pinkish women after they met in the late 1930s. The couple spent their courting hours exploring the New York museums and galleries lately championing "non-objective," or abstract, painting. "And yet, the critical event of 1939 for de Kooning was not the stimulating confrontation with Kandinsky and Picasso but, rather, the private hours spent with Elaine," write Stevens and Swan. "A new spirit began to course through his art. His palette seemed to stir, then awaken... Now a blushy tint -- perhaps the reflection of Elaine's hair as well as body -- became bolder and more fleshy." After finishing de Kooning, I glanced through the bibliography, hoping to find a comparable study of Elaine. Instead I found The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism, a collection of Elaine's art criticism and occasional prose, published posthumously in 1994.
Elaine Fried was born in Brooklyn in 1918 (after moving across the bridge to Manhattan in 1938, to study mathematics at Hunter College, she told everyone she'd been born in 1920). Physically striking, precocious, and creative, Elaine quickly ditched college to move downtown and become an artist. She supported herself working as a model and studied at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School and the American Art School. The Artists' Union voted Elaine "Most Beautiful Model," and Elaine dated a number of artists before meeting the handsome, shy Dutchman known as "Bill" de Kooning. Bill was first Elaine's teacher, then her husband.
Unlike her artist-wife contemporaries, such as Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, or Joan Mitchell, Elaine wasn't a terribly great painter. A portraitist grounded in figuration, Elaine's style largely echoed that of her husband, her mostly male subjects enveloped in urgent color swathes. (Elaine painted JFK with such a style in 1963.) A lifelong diarist, Elaine was, however, a lucid and literary art writer. Conversational and eloquently discerning in her criticism, Elaine began writing seriously for publication in the 1940s when she'd accompany music critic and her husband's friend Edwin Denby to dance performances throughout the city. Intoxicated by a Stuart Davis show at MoMA, Elaine composed a ten-page flourishing acclamation of the artist. In 1948, she started writing regular reviews for Art News. Many of those reviews (as well as an edited version of the Davis essay) are reprinted in The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism.
"The atmosphere of controversy is consciously encouraged by the authors who carry their own differences of opinion into print," writes Elaine in a 1953 book review of two books dealing with the controversy of surrounding painting the human (female) form. "This seems an excellent idea, since it immediately places private attitudes into a correct perspective and liberates the book somewhat from the dogmatic tone so common to art criticism." Direct and honest, Elaine rejects dogmatism or pedantry in her writing. Though at times breathy and rhapsodizing in her vivid descriptions of a painting and the private place it was created, Elaine is never recklessly lavish or confrontational. Her prose is literary, and more parallels her Beat contemporaries than the caustic battle cries of Abstract Expressionist critics proponing figuration and de Kooning. Art News Editor-in-Chief Thomas Hess and writer Harold Rosenberg led that camp; Hess and Rosenberg became close friends of de Kooning's, as well as Elaine's lovers.
In her criticism, the person of the painters reviewed is always central, their humanity the thing that informs their painting and thus shapes the tenor of her study of them. Elaine was conscious of the part that reviews play in an artist's career (it can make or break, garnering institutional attention and patronage), and treats each subject sensitively. Her Art News reviews are vignettes, exploring an artist studio and painterly practice, perpetuating the sacred myth of the artist-genius while simultaneously reinforcing his fallibility. Elaine's allegiance to de Kooning and his cohort, artists that addressed and derived from art history, and to the immediacy of "action painting" is not subtle, but doesn't overwhelm. Elaine imposes the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, but in doing so, creates a mystical essence of the era that is written in art historical record.
The most poignant and tender essay of these seminal times is "Gorky: Painter of His Own Legend," a tribute as much acute, learned criticism. Written in 1951, just three years after Arshile Gorky hanged himself, Elaine's essay disparages Gorky's many denigrators, almost ridiculing the belief that all art must be entirely original before cozily describing his practices when putting paint to brush, brush to canvas. She also demystifies the various fictions that Gorky created around himself. "Like many a good artist before him, he regarded himself with a warm biographical interest which led him to fabricate or embellish incidents of his personal history, shuffle a few dates on his paintings... But for his friends, who every now and then walk past Union Square park and catch themselves looking his long stride and dour face, the least convincing fact that Arshile Gorky ever wove about himself is the one of his death."
Elaine emphasizes the inescapable fact that all artists must face, no matter their aesthetic or style; that they are human, and must confront reality daily, just like the rest of us. They must go about their mundane days, finding motive and means to paint, their greatness only marked in their resolve to do so no matter what. Politics, place themes, even subjects -- these are secondary in the painter's emotion toward these and how they're translated into paint. Gesture and color in painting embody the world. "If the gestures are inhabited by landscapes, arenas, bodies, faces or just by colors, it makes no difference to me," Elaine writes in "Statement" from 1959. "However, if red is blood or wine or a rose or a box of matches or a muleta or earth, if red is smeared or dripped or dragged or glazed or spattered or trowelled on, it makes all the difference in the world to red. Likewise yellow, blue, green, black, etc. Every color has a million ideas about itself -- but fortunately desire has veto power, otherwise nothing would ever get painted."
I thought of Elaine as I whirled through the de Kooning retrospective at MoMA late last fall. I thought of her as the daring, incandescent woman who aspired to be an artist in an ardently masculine art world, who stared down the ultra-macho men of that world and perpetuated their greatness with her writing. I imagined the humiliation of being the presumed subject of Woman I, and at time with the body in art was so openly debated. Then I remembered an image from the introduction to The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism of a group of men huddled around a cafeteria table littered with coffee cups and ashtrays, debating such topics, with Elaine center. I hoped The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism was available in the gift shop.