RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
If you were holding a fantasy dinner party, say, in the arty New York of the 1940s, painters Willem de Kooning and his wife, Elaine would be a couple you would want to be there. He was inventing abstract expressionism. She was his former student - part of the movement, but also painting landscapes and people. Now, her portraits are featured at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see them.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Elaine de Kooning had a way with words, as well as paint. She once said this about making portraits.
BRANDON FORTUNE: Like falling in love...
STAMBERG: Curator Brandon Fortune is quoting de Kooning.
FORTUNE: ...Painting a portrait is a concentration on one particular person, and no one else will do.
STAMBERG: Elaine de Kooning said that about her portrait of John F. Kennedy. For a 1963 commission, she made dozens of drawings, sketchings, paintings of JFK. The Portrait Gallery owns one - vivid, all the lush, green foliage and her characteristic quick, bold brush strokes. It's 10 feet high.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELAINE DE KOONING: I'm scampering up and down a ladder to do this painting.
STAMBERG: That's de Kooning herself in a 1976 recording. Why so big?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DE KOONING: The idea of a man who happens to be president of the United States. Well, already, right there, he's bigger than life.
STAMBERG: Kennedy was golden, she said, incandescent. He never sat still - the perfect subject for her busy brush - an extremely confident brush. It just races across her canvases, indecisive, athletic strokes.
FORTUNE: You know, Elaine was a dancer throughout her life and, I think, practiced yoga. She was always moving. In fact, she said that she thought of painting as a verb not a noun.
STAMBERG: De Kooning painted Robert De Niro, Sr. in 1973. The actor's father was a respected artist. He's sitting on a couch, his right elbow slightly bent. He has dark, wild hair, and he is scowling. De Kooning rarely paints un-frowning people.
FORTUNE: He looks, to me, to be absolutely exercised about something. It's a ferocious expression.
STAMBERG: And de Kooning's brush is equally ferocious, except on one knee, where the colors get muddy. That's unusual for her. Her boldness as an artist matched the boldness of her spirit. In the '40s and '50s, the New York art world was dominated by macho men - Jackson Pollock, France Kline. Elaine de Kooning was not intimidated.
FORTUNE: She said and thought she was as good as any male artist.
STAMBERG: An important artist to be reckoned with.
FORTUNE: As she put it, she's at the red-hot center of everything that's happening in New York, and she's determined to take her place there.
STAMBERG: Now, remember that her place was also next to Willem de Kooning, her husband, a giant in the field, as vigorous and prominent as Jackson Pollock. He was 13 years older than Elaine. They married in 1943 and stayed married for 46 years, although they lived apart for 20 of those years, a tumultuous relationship, you might say - and tricky - both of them painters, but he was the famous one.
FORTUNE: One of Elaine's friends asked her later in life what it was like to work in the shadow of Willem de Kooning. And her reply was, I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.
STAMBERG: Unlike her husband, unlike most artists in those days of abstract expressionism, Elaine was painting portraits. That was a brave decision. In the 1960s, Elaine paid less attention to the face and more to the body, how her subject sat or stood.
FORTUNE: She said that the pose was the person.
STAMBERG: In some portraits, she started wiping out the face. Her full-length painting of poet Frank O'Hara in 1962 shows him jutting out his right hip a bit. His left hand is on his left hip.
FORTUNE: The face is really covered with a sort of lavender wash of color. And while there's some slight hint of his eyes underneath that wash, his facial features are not there.
STAMBERG: It's mostly obliterated. It's as if she painted him and then scrubbed over him.
FORTUNE: Well, she did.
STAMBERG: And then, she said, it was more Frank O'Hara than ever.
FORTUNE: She had captured what you might see with a good friend walking toward you on a beach. You would recognize that person, before you could ever see their facial features, by the shape of their head, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk.
STAMBERG: A viewer does not have the advantage a friendship, but what we can recognize instantly in these rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, where the show remains up until early January, are the confidence of Elaine de Kooning's dancing brushstrokes, the vivid colors and the devotion of a lifetime spent making art on her own terms. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg.
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