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Elaine de Kooning (American, 1919-1989)


Also known as:  De Kooning, Elaine; Miss Elaine Maria Catherine Fried; Kooning, Elaine Marie Catherine de; Elaine Fried

Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York

Elaine de Kooning Elaine Marie Catherine Fried was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. Although she spent most of her life overshadowed by her famous husband, Willem de Kooning, she was an eccentric personality and talent, who as a child excelled at almost everything in school. After only a short time at Hunter College, she began studying at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York. When she met fellow artist Milton Resnick, Elaine joined him and enrolled in the American Artists School, during which she became politically active and often attended meetings sponsored by the Communist party. An art teacher introduced her to Willem, and they married in December 1943, beginning a tumultuous marriage in which both artists increasingly grew apart through the years. Elaine fell in love with their time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she began teaching in 1948, meeting artists such as John Cage and Merce Cunningham for whom she designed a stage set for their production, exemplifying the artistic community’s collaborative nature.

Elaine also became one of the first writers to compose reputable reviews on artists such as Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers, making a name for herself as an art critic. In 1949, the same year she exhibited with Willem at the Sidney Janis Gallery, they organized the Artists’ Club along with fellow artists. She gathered inspiration from diverse perspectives, allowing her artwork and practices to evolve uniquely from that of her husband and contemporaries. Rather than pure abstraction, she almost always retained the representational in her gestural, expressionist paintings. As such, Elaine became a great portraitist, painting the inimitable personalities of several artists. One of her most famous commissions was a series of paintings of John F. Kennedy for the Truman Library in 1963, but when he died, Elaine ceased her painting for an entire year.

Although Willem and Elaine agreeably separated in 1957, they never officially divorced. She developed a large reputation as a teacher, working at Yale, Pratt, Carnegie Mellon, Wagner, and the University of Pennsylvania. As one of the most powerful female artists of her time, Elaine de Kooning was a great influence in the male-dominated world of abstract expressionism. She passed away from lung cancer in February 1989.

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