Chris Byrne (CB): I understand that the National Portrait Gallery
has the largest collection of Elaine de Kooning’s portraits—do you
feel that it is a good time to reevaluate the artist’s work?
Brandon Fortune (BF): Yes, I believe we have some perspective on
mid-twentieth century art now; we can see, for instance, that there
was a place for and strong interest in figuration and portraiture at
mid-century. Critics swore that portraiture was dead, but it wasn’t!
And of course Elaine de Kooning was navigating that male-dominated art world, finding space for all of her work, including her
CB: During my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, we discussed
the work of Alice Neel. I remember being aware of Neel’s work in a
sort of peripheral way during art school and then in 1998, seeing the
show Men in Suits at Cheim & Read that completely galvanized me.
How would you compare the portraits of each artist? Do you believe
that certain paintings from the current show are important to the
history of portraiture?
BF: The National Portrait Gallery also owns a number of Alice
Neel’s portraits, including a painting of Frank O’Hara, whom Elaine
also painted. Neel’s work was also very expressive, and could be
intense. We own her nude self-portrait, created when she was eighty
years old—it is one of the iconic works in our collection. Elaine
spoke about Alice Neel in a 1975 interview. She said that Alice Neel
“tears people apart.” And although I don’t know of an actual rivalry
between them, she noted that Alice “wanted to paint me, but I said,
‘Well, look, Alice, it’s going to be a duel. If you attack me in this area,
I’m going to attack you.’”
I do think that Elaine de Kooning’s portraits deserve
a prominent place in the history of art. It’s hard to choose some
paintings over others in our exhibition, but her portraits of John
F. Kennedy, Harold Rosenberg, and Merce Cunningham, all
from our collection, are important. And her full-length painting
of Frank O’Hara is unforgettable. Elaine was a great draftsperson,
too. Her drawings of Ornette Coleman, probably done while he was
playing in New York around 1965, are pictures of the rhythms of
CB: One of the things that I enjoyed about the exhibition is the
documentation of Elaine’s process. In the film Elaine de Kooning by E.
Deidre Pribram, the artist paints Aladar Marberger’s portrait in her
East Hampton residence, and I noticed that she was working near
the sunroom in the main house as well as in the studio—was this
typical of her practice? Did her entire residence become the studio?
BF: I don’t know to what extent she used other areas of her home
in East Hampton as settings for portraits. As you note, the portrait
of Aladar Marberger was done near the light of the sunroom. She
painted Pelé on the deck, I believe. And with both of those portraits,
she continued her life-long practice of making multiple paintings
at the same time. She made three paintings and two large-scale
charcoal-on-canvas drawings of Marberger, and several paintings of
Pelé, in different sizes.
CB: What were the other significant series of paintings that Elaine
made in her East Hampton home and studio?
BF: I have seen films depicting Elaine in her East Hampton
studio where she is surrounded by some of her Bacchus series of
paintings, and there are photographs showing her toward the end of
her life with the huge Cave paintings. It seems to me that by the late
1970s, when Elaine settled into year-round life in East Hampton,
punctuated by travel, she had the freedom to be enormously creative.
She was engaged with old and new friends, and reconnected with
Willem de Kooning. Many of her portraits from this time portray
family members, children of her good friends, and fellow artists
who lived near her.
CB: How was her painting received during her lifetime? Was
the post-war dogmatic climate hostile to her portraits? How salient
were her last series of paintings—Bacchus and Cave Walls—to her
portraits of that time?
BF: Elaine’s work was well received during her lifetime, and
her exhibitions were reviewed in the important art journals of the
day. But like many artists working in those post-war years, she found
that portraiture was, as her friend Larry Rivers put it, an art form
that “no one in the New York art world doubted was disgusting,
dead, and absurd...” She and her contemporaries, including Rivers,
Alex Katz, Alice Neel, Jane Freilicher, and many others, were
actually defiant in their interest in the figure.
She was, for the most part, doing abstractions or large paintings
incorporating figures of animals, like the paintings inspired by
bullfights, throughout her life. She did say that those paintings
would sometimes intersect with her portraits. I think the Bacchus
paintings certainly informed her portraits of Pelé, for instance.
CB: It now seems not only accepted, but admired for an artist to
be a teacher, critic, exhibiting painter, and commissioned portraitist.
How significant a model is she in this history? Do you feel that her
willingness to delve into different genres challenged the notions of
prescribed isms and served as a liberating role model for a younger
generation of artists?
BF: These are great questions. Elaine was one of many artists of
her time who found support for their work through teaching. She
taught all over the country for at least twenty years, wrote feature
articles for ArtNews throughout the 1950s, exhibited throughout her
life, and did commissions at times, especially in the 1960s and 70s.
She was a great model for creating a wide-ranging body of work—
she certainly did not fix on one “look” in her work—and she looked
for support wherever she could find it. Many women navigating the
male-dominated art world in New York during these years did the
same, but Elaine was one of the most successful.
CB: Her lifetime of work was considered meaningful and her
obituary ran in newspapers across the country including The New
York Times and Los Angeles Times and in major art publications
including Art in America. Do you feel that there has been a delay in
recognizing all of her contributions? Do you think that during her
lifetime, female artists were often viewed as secondary to their male
counterparts? Is this “late” recognition similar to Dr. Gail Levin’s
reintroduction of Lee Krasner’s contributions as a painter?
BF: As painting and drawing have regained a strong standing
within the art world, and with the resurgence of interest in
portraiture and figuration just in the last 10 to 15 years, broader
recognition for Elaine de Kooning’s work was perhaps inevitable.
However, I am glad that my colleagues at the National Portrait
Gallery saw the value of her work and collected it over the last
twenty years. The strength of our holdings and our commitment
to showing the best examples of portraiture at the museum led
to the organization of this exhibition of Elaine’s portraits. Many
individuals joined us to support the show, which was made possible
by “Elaine’s List.” Recognition for women like Elaine is starting to
grow, and I am delighted that we can be a part of that movement. P