Elaine de Kooning was a prolific and versatile painter, writer, and teacher. Although she was a major figure in both the Abstract Expressionist and American Figurative Expressionist movements of the 1940s and 1950s, she is better known as the wife of the famous gestural abstract painter Willem de Kooning. Her greatest achievements as an artist are her abstract and figurative paintings, including the “faceless men” series from the 1950s.
Born in Brooklyn, de Kooning briefly attended Hunter College. In 1937 she studied in New York at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School and the American Artists School where she met Willem de Kooning. Fourteen years younger than her husband, they married in 1943. She tirelessly promoted her husband by writing about his art and by having affairs with men – art critics, writers, and gallery owners – who could help his career.
She quickly gained prominence in the burgeoning New York School art scene, becoming a member of the male dominated Eighth Street Club alongside Franz Kline, Clifford Still, Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman, solidifying her place within the canon of American Expressionism. She and Lee Krasner were the only two females in this group of artists, critics, and poets. She served as a role model for women by circulating within this elite New York art world and by demanding access to the Club, the unofficial art school and salon which met at a tavern on University Place that was named the Cedar Street Bar.
She often painted friends and contemporary figures. Her 1952 painting of her husband – one of her faceless paintings – conjures up his swagger in a flurry of brushstrokes. She painted several portraits of President John F. Kennedy, and her official 1963 portrait of him was unveiled in 1965, a year and a half after his assassination. Her style veered from realism to abstraction and featured loose, thick brushstrokes in bold hues executed in an energetic, improvisational mode. In the late 1950s, she made Action Paintings of bulls and bull fighting. In the 1980s, she produced works that were based on the Paleolithic Art of Lascaux and Altamira as seen in her lithographs.
In 1957, she and her husband separated after his many affairs and his relationship with Joan Ward with whom he had a daughter in 1956. Willem moved to East Hampton in 1963 while Elaine stayed in New York City. They did reunite in 1976 when she moved to Long Island to be with him.
Elaine de Kooning was a gifted writer, art historian, and teacher. She used her expertise as a painter and her personal knowledge of art and artists to analyze and explain the work of her husband and other artists. She wrote over 100 articles for “Artnews.” She was instrumental in developing contemporary American art and shaping young artists through her many teaching positions held at influential institutions such as Yale University, Bard College, University of Pennsylvania, University of New Mexico, U.C. Davis, Carnegie Melon, Southhampton College, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, R.I.S.D., University of Georgia, and the New York Studio School in Paris.
In 2016, she was one of twelve female artists exhibited in “Women in Abstract Expressionism” at the Denver Art Museum. Her work is in the permanent collections of MoMA, Metropolitan Museum, Guggenheim Museum, and LACMA.