b. Brooklyn, New York City, 1918, d. Southampton, New York, 1989
Elaine de Kooning (b. 1918, Brooklyn, New York d. 1989, Southampton, New York) was exposed to art through frequent museum and gallery visits with her mother from a young age. Shortly after enrolling at Hunter College, New York, she withdrew in 1937 and began studying art at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York with Conrad Marca-Relli, who became a close friend, and taking drawing classes with Willem de Kooning, who would become her husband. Her early works are still lifes and portraits distinctly influenced by Cubism, but in the 1940s she began making abstract paintings as well as writing art criticism. In 1948, she began worked as an editorial associate at Art News under Thomas Hess, writing essays on her contemporaries such as Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, and Franz Kline, and making Abstract Expressionism accessible to a broader audience.
In the summer of 1948, de Kooning spent two months at Black Mountain College studying a mélange of topics and diversifying her work while her husband taught at the college. Here, she created a series of paintings titled “Black Mountain Abstractions.” The following year, de Kooning and her husband were part of an exhibition entitled Artists: Man and Wife at the Sidney Janis Gallery, which featured several artist couples. While de Kooning was happy being associated with her husband, she also pursued her own private and professional life, with an amalgam of spontaneity, improvisation, violence, and energy that matched the forces and style of action painting.
Though a fierce defender of Abstract Expressionism, she eventually became known for her portraits. After receiving a teaching appointment at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 1958, she traveled to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where she saw her first bullfight. The experience inspired a series of bull paintings on horizontal canvases, rendered in a bolder palette than that of her previous work. In 1961 she was included in the Whitney Annual (later the Whitney Biennial), New York, and in 1962 was commissioned to paint John F. Kennedy’s portrait, in part because of her reputation for quick execution. Despite an entire year obsessively working on the portrait, after the president’s death in 1964 she ceased painting altogether for another year.
De Kooning had several solo gallery shows throughout her lifetime at museums including the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey (1973), and Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York (1989). Her work was featured in the Museum of Modern Art–organized exhibition, Young American Painters (1956–58), which traveled throughout the United States (but was not presented in New York). De Kooning was also included in group shows at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1956); Pittsburgh International (now Carnegie International, 1956); Art Institute of Chicago (1964); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (1980); and Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton (1990).