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January 20, 2005


Bunny Smedley

Well, I'm currently somewhere in the early 1950s ('Woman I' just finished, Rosenberg denouncing 'apocalyptic wallpaper') and increasingly convinced that de Kooning has been uncharacteristically lucky in his biographers. Sure, there are moments for all of us when knowing too much about a life can get in the way of encountering the art that came out of that life, and some lives that make better stories than others. But given that de Kooning, as a major figure in a major period in American painting, really needed a serious biography, and given that his life had the tone and trajectory that it did, it's hard to see how anyone could have made a better job of it than Stevens & Swan.

What's to like about it? The serious but lightly-worn research. The relative hard work that must have gone into reconstructing de Kooning's early years. The lack of bathos. The intelligent and illuminating treatment of de Kooning's actual practice as an artist, avoiding both biographical reductiveness and the soaring cliches of AbEx-worship. The attractively cold-eyed appraisal of everyone who isn't de Kooning, from girlfriends to gallery-owners to critics to fellow artists - Elaine, Clem, and, wait for it - Robert Motherwell, of all people, get lengthy and well-aimed kickings. Then there's a refusal to come to easy conclusions either about de Kooning's relationships with women or with booze. There are decades of art-world background sketched in with both memorable detail and unusual lightness of touch.

And so on, and so on. (No, I am not employed to produce PR copy for this book!) Really, though - you can ignore all this, but for me, the proof was that reading it has already sent me back to look, again and in greater depth, at paintings. [Well, at reproductions of them, anyway - sadly, these here parts are a bit de Kooning-deprived.] For anyone trying to make sense of the possibilities of figurative art, or the social history of self-proclaimed Triumph of American Painting, or de Kooning's cute spoken prose style, or plenty of other worthy preoccupations, this book offers plenty to ponder.

But hey, that's just me. I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts about it.


I am envious! Being too cheap I have had this book on hold at the library since it came out. Currently I am 8th in a line of 33 library customers. I wish I could turn them all on to Evelyn Wood's Speedreading classes. Thanks for the tidbits.I was low enough to gobble up "Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage : The Lives of Willem and Elaine De Kooning", which like tasty snack food clogging my arteries, I have no remembrance of, except maybe it is a bitch to live in a cold water flat.

Bunny Smedley

Incidentally, there's a mistake in Stevens & Swan - or is there?

On p. 354 we are told that 'Because both Rudy Burchhardt and Frank Auerbach had photographed versions of 'Woman I', Hess was able to depict several stages in de Kooning's struggle with the painting [...]'

Surely, though, this can't be the Frank Auerbach who - intensely, importantly influenced by de Kooning - became a major figure in the British figurative art of the 1950s and thereafter? I am really interested in his work, but can't find any evidence that he was in the USA while 'Woman I' was being painted. So surely this is wrong? But on the other hand, the de Kooning connection is such a strong one ...

Help! I have often been fascinated / delighted / alarmed by the erudition that crops up here - so if you can sort this out for me, I shall be eternally gratefully.

Miguel Sánchez

I have often been fascinated / delighted / alarmed by the erudition that crops up here

Uh, thanks - I think (alarmed?).

I want to respond to all the above in greater detail when I have time, but for now: I'm stunned and stumped by the Frank Auerbach business. I mean, it can't be the Frank Auerbach. As far as I can tell, he was a student in London at the time the painting was done. If he made a trip to New York at the time - let alone photographed a de Kooning in process - I would imagine some of the brief bios out there would mention it. The Grove Online entry for Auerbach does not, and the Getty's Union List of Artist Names doesn't include photographer in its listing for him, nor is there another for someone with the same name. I've not heard of him doing anything like this, and I can't find a mention of it. Given how important an artist he is, I would think this would be better attested. I'm guessing either it's someone else with the same name, or an error. But truth, stranger, etc.

Bunny Smedley

Oh, come on - alarmed in a good way, obviously - as in, 'wow, how on earth does anyone know this much?'

The more I look at this Auerbach point, the more I suspect the authors meant Ellen Auerbach, a well-known photographer working in New York at this point - who indeed appears elsewhere in the book. Not that finding one mistake is exactly a damning indictment of the quality of research and presentation - it's a big book and proof-reading it must have been a nightmare.

It's a funny slip, though, if only because there are such interesting affinities between the two painters' work, both in terms of process and commitment to figuration.

Miguel Sánchez

Oh, come on - alarmed in a good way, obviously

Well, okay then. I think you must be right about Ellen Auerbach. I had the same thought, but couldn't nail it down. Far more likely, however.

Mark Stevens

Good catch. Sorry. An embarrassing slip of the mind. It was Walter not Frank Auerbach. Walter was a photographer who for a time was married to Ellen.

I can't believe my eye slid over that...Mea Culpa.

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