de Kooning: An American Master
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
The peccadilloes of the ribald cast who populated New York’s mid-20th-century art explosion are better tabloid fodder than Star’s weekly binge of celebrity diets and affairs, for some culture vultures. Kudos go to art critic Mark Stevens and arts journalist Annalyn Swan for unflinchingly portraying this generation’s seamy, self-destructive era without dwindling into nothing but tawdry tales. A decade’s worth of research went into De Kooning: An American Master, and painstaking details of people and scenes bring Willem de Kooning to towering life with paint and pain, even if Stevens and Swan infrequently resort to that rueful decision to explain the work only through the life, as if exorcising internal demons through external media is an artist’s only creative well.
Those few instances are De Kooning’s lone missteps. Otherwise, this rich and immensely readable tome is a model for the artist biography that balances reportage with critical insight. Starting with de Kooning’s 1926 stowaway voyage to America (when the lone English he knew was “yes”) and continuing through his slow slide into a probable Alzheimer’s-related dementia and 1997 death, Stevens and Swan winningly chronicle stories well known—de Kooning’s apprentice-like association with Arshille Gorky; the post-World War II critical rivalry that pit team Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock against Harold Rosenberg and de Kooning; de Kooning’s alcohol binges—with the lesser known, easy to forget, and hardly known at all. The investigation of de Kooning’s impoverished early life in Rotterdam, Netherlands, with an absent father and punishing mother are new insights even to well-versed de Kooningites, as is the reminder that until the Art Institute of Chicago bought his 1950 Excavation for $4,000 de Kooning really didn’t earn money off his work. And by this time he was in his late 40s.
Through most of the book, and de Kooning’s life, runs a grandly tempestuous love affair. Elaine Fried met de Kooning in 1938, they married in 1943. And though the marriage emotionally exploded by the late 1940s and de Kooning womanized (and had a child with another woman) well into his autumn years, Fried remained attached to the opposite end of his mind and life until her death in 1989.
Perhaps that tangle of affairs, wife, and mother explains why Stevens and Swan choose to put de Kooning’s 1950s “Woman” paintings on the analyst’s couch. This critical stance doesn’t overpower the readings—Stevens and Swan deserve credit for recognizing the genius of “Woman I” not only in subject matter but also in de Kooning’s fierce combination of sophisticated and uncouth techniques, stately smooth curves cheek-by-jowl to violent canvas attacks—but titling this chapter “Bitch Goddess” is a bit too precious. Luckily it doesn’t take one smidgen away from what the authors accomplish here: capturing a man with all his foibles and massive, contrarian intelligence intact in a way that only enhances an appreciation of the work.