Elaine de Kooning was born in Brooklyn and later rose to prominence as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist and Figurative Expressionist painter. She is best known for her exuberant, large-scale portraits of fellow artists and scholars, many of whom were her close friends. In 1952, her first solo exhibition was presented by art dealer Leo Castelli. She also wrote extensively about the art of the period and was an editorial associate for ArtNews magazine. Her marriage to artist Willem de Kooning is well known and has overshadowed her own artistic achievements. Her artistic legacy has been augmented in recent years with the major museum exhibition Elaine de Kooning: Portraits, presented by The National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC in 2015. She was one of twelve female artists included in the exhibition Women in Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum the following year.
Like other Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s and 50s, Elaine de Kooning mastered drawing technique only then to choose to discard purely realist imagery for a less representational approach. Alongside other countercultural artists, in 1948 she and Willem went to study at the experimental, anti-hierarchy Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Even after Willem left, Elaine remained, taking classes under Josef Albers and working through her own, brief Surrealist period. Elaine was an active member of New York’s Eighth Street Club (39 East 8th Street) during its early and most thought-provoking years (1949–1957). There, she and her artist colleagues weighed in on the Existentialism of Martin Heidegger, the analytical psychology of Carl Jung and the latest art exhibitions and reviews. She herself joined the fledgling Art News magazine as an editorial associate.
Paradoxically, the artist whose friendship and support Elaine de Kooning most enjoyed was Fairfield Porter, the preeminent pictorial painter of his day, a landscapist-portraitist both criticized and revered for adhering to figuration as a counterweight to the dominance of the “action painters.” By the early 1950s, Elaine was showing at Stable Gallery and painting the type of portrait which would be her greatest contribution to Post-War America. Even at their most gestural and schematic, these paintings and the drawings which accompany them are respectful renderings of readily recognizable figures in her life. She was mostly intrigued by the male figure and, eager to flip the age-old gender relationship of artist to model, almost always painted men, usually seated. Fascinated by how male poses denoted their personalities, how their clothes divided their bodies, in 1951–52 Elaine completed numerous portraits of Willem, then in the Summer of 1953 of art dealer Leo Castelli, followed in 1954 by a series of Fairfield Porter, and in 1956 of art critic Harold Rosenberg whom she painted again in 1967.
Elaine de Kooning’s success and notoriety led to her receiving a commission to paint President John K. Kennedy the year he was assassinated. After Elaine and Willem separated in 1957, she held numerous teaching positions at esteemed institutions across the country. Although apart for nearly twenty years, she and Willem never divorced and eventually reunited (at least as close confidants) in The Hamptons, Long Island, in the late 1970s. Willem died in East Hampton in March of 1997. He was preceded by Elaine who passed away in Southampton in February, 1989.