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Art: Instant Summaries

2 minute read

Elaine de Kooning, the amicably separated wife of the famous Willem de Kooning, is an abstract expressionist to whom portraits “have always been a passion.” Her pictures are hardly the sort that a board of directors would buy to put in a frame marked, “Our Founder.”

She works in broad strokes, so swiftly that she can finish even a group portrait within a couple of hours. She relies almost as much on pure intuition in portraits as in her abstract expressionist work. “If I paint fast, the painting becomes unconscious, almost as if someone else was doing the painting and I the manual labor.”

In beginning a portrait, she may, as any abstract expressionist might, start anywhere—the feet, the head, even the background. What she is after is not an exact likeness “like the right kind of nose, but rather, character resemblance.” As she explains it: when someone sees a familiar person in a flash of light, he does not recognize the person feature by feature but by the total impression, the bearing, silhouette, posture or some dominating characteristic. In her portrait of Art Critic Frank O’Hara, on view at Manhattan’s Graham Gallery last week, the face is painted out. but the man is perfectly recognizable by his peculiarly liquid and languid stance. To Painter de Kooning, each person even has his own light: “One subject of mine has a silvery light that just isn’t the same light that falls on others; another has a kind of lavender light.”

Elaine de Kooning paints only people who interest her—cops, collectors, critics, or a bunch of teen-aged slum kids she calls the Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue. Viewers who do not know her subjects personally may get an uneasy feeling that the work is sometimes slapdash, sometimes arbitrary. The judgment would be wrong, for the portraits are virtually instant summaries—the unconscious summing up that one friend makes of another when the two unexpectedly meet.

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