By Cathy Curtis

Oxford University Press. 292 pages. £22.99/$34.95. ISBN 978-0-19-049847-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States has often been seen as almost an exclusive boys’ club. Certainly all the well-known names – Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning – belong to men. So do the names of many lesser-known artists who were, at one time or another, and in one way or another, associated with the Abstract Expressionists, or Action Painters, as some preferred to call them. Leaving aside the actual work, it’s a man’s world that’s largely seen in the photographs taken in the Cedar Tavern or at the meetings of the Club, and that is exemplified by the tales of excessive drinking, bar-room brawls and other escapades.

And yet there were women painters around, among them Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Helen Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning, the subject of Cathy Curtis’s informative biography.

She was born in Brooklyn in 1918 and as a child was encouraged by her mother to read extensively, and was taken to museums and theatres. But she later described her mother as autocratic, and  Elaine and her brothers and sister were neglected in other ways, with the result that their mother was committed to an asylum. Largely left to her own devices, Elaine “roamed Manhattan from the age of nine”, and when she was fourteen she “encountered one of Paul Cézanne’s Bathers”, and was “enthralled by it”. From there she went on to discover the work of Picasso, Degas, and Soutine. She enrolled at the Leonard Da Vinci Art School, which offered free tuition for the city’s poor. It was there that she met Milton Resnick.

Resnick himself was hard pushed to get by economically: “He breakfasted on nickel cups of coffee and rolls left behind by customers at the Bradley Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue”. A student at the American Artists School, Resnick “cobbled together money from modelling, selling his blood, running errands, and operating the school’s elevator”. It was the 1930s and the Great Depression had put millions out of work and affected the economy in extreme ways. Resnick persuaded Elaine to move to the American Artists School, “a reincarnation of the Marxist-allied John Reed Club School of Art, said to be a recruiting centre for the Young Communist League (YCL)”. There is no evidence to show that Elaine ever became a member of the YCL, though she retained a broadly liberal, if not left-wing, stance throughout her life.

It was around this time that she met artists like Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, then like so many others struggling to survive in New York. It’s perhaps difficult for people accustomed to the stories of instant success, quick sales, and high prices that seem to typify areas of the art world today, to understand how long it took someone like Willem de Kooning to establish himself as an acknowledged artist. Fame and fortune didn’t come easily or early, and like most of the other Abstract Expressionists he followed a frugal existence for many years.

Elaine and Bill were married in 1943 in a ceremony described as a “barebones affair”. They were already living together when they married. Their home was a loft that Bill, a practical person, made into a habitable place to live. There were some problems in their relationship because Elaine had little or no interest in cooking, cleaning, and other domestic responsibilities. His somewhat conventional views about marriage imagined a situation where she would have some sort of job to cover the necessities while he painted. But she made it clear that it wasn’t the kind of life she’d envisaged for herself. She was determined to gain a reputation as an artist. She had a talent for painting portraits, as well as for producing still lives and work in an abstract style.

If life was hard in terms of material possessions, paying the rent, and so on, there were compensations in the fact that Bill and Elaine were involved with an art scene that was on the cusp of a breakthrough that would delight or dismay critics, and the public, according to taste. Painters clustered together in parts of the city where accommodation and studio space were cheap: “Elaine loved the ‘blue-collar working life’ that existed in the neighbourhood, now known as Chelsea”. They could go into bars and restaurants where no-one made a fuss about how they were dressed, and meet their friends and fellow-artists. Eventually, conscious of the need to have some sort of meeting place where questions relating to art could be raised and discussed in a relatively staid atmosphere (compared to bars), they formed what became known as the Club.

It’s an undeniable fact that meetings of the Club were largely a male affair, though women weren’t barred from being members. Elaine was noted for her willingness to speak up during the debates, and for not allowing male artists to talk her down. She played an active part in the Club’s policies in relation to what was discussed, being one of the only two women on the voting committee. And as the meetings broadened to include lectures by critics and other commentators, she sponsored a reading by the “New Poets”, with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler.

Close to where meetings of the Club were held was the Cedar Tavern, described by Cathy Curtis as “drab and smoke-filled, it had a bar where artists could greet colleagues as they arrived, and booths in the back, occupied by for hours by talkative groups huddled around a pitcher of beer”. There is a photograph of Elaine, flanked by Frank O’Hara and Franz Kline, taken in the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s which captures some of the atmosphere that Curtis refers to. And she recounts an anecdote that the writer and photographer, John Gruen, told about how he encountered Elaine in the Cedar and admired her “vitality and wonderful wit”. It struck him she “loved art, but she seemed to love people even more”. (John Gruen, The Party’s Over Now, Viking, New York, 1972).        

Her marriage to Bill had never run smoothly, and both of them had indulged in affairs with other people. Elaine had relationships with the influential critic, Harold Rosenberg, and with Thomas Hess, editor of ARTnews, a publication she wrote for. This, of course, led to gossip and accusations about her sleeping with each man to either further Bill’s career or her own, or both! By the mid-1950s it was obvious that, though they remained married, and kept in touch, they had effectively separated. Curtis is not reticent about Elaine’s personal life, though she certainly doesn’t go into a lot of details about it (her book is, as the subtitle suggests, largely about her creative life). but other accounts do suggest that she didn’t bother to hide her promiscuity and may even have pushed Bill into his. (see Lee Hall’s Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage, HarperCollins, New York, 1993).

There were also indications that Elaine’s activities as an art critic “may have stalled her recognition as a painter”. It may have been significant that she didn’t have a one-person show until 1954, “six years after her first review appeared in ARTnews”. There is a collection of some her work as a reviewer (The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings, George Braziller, New York, 1994) and it’s well worth looking at. She wasn’t an uncritical writer, though she was once accused of writing only favourable reviews. Her response was that “the function of criticism is to open doors, not sit in judgement”. It’s something that might be recommended to many reviewers, especially young ones who think that they need to destroy someone else’s reputation in order to further their own. 

One of the problems that beset quite a few of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism was their drinking. It seems to have been alcohol more than drugs that was prevalent in their community. And it was a difficulty that affected some of the women as much as the men. I suppose the fact that, in the 1940s and 1950s, most socialising was done in bars, or at parties where alcohol was freely available, meant that everyone was expected to drink. The male macho culture of those years no doubt also contributed to the need to consume alcohol on a regular basis. The behaviour of the drinkers could lead to social disasters at times.

There is an account of an event in 1952 held by Fritz Hensler, a German-born intellectual whose intention was that, by inviting artists and critics like Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Milton Resnick, Elaine, Lionel Abel, and others, along with their wives or girlfriends, there would be a polite dinner with wine and a philosophical discussion about Heidegger’s theories. The artists had other ideas, a party to their minds being “an occasion to get sloshed”. And they had accordingly brought bottles of Scotch, gin, and vodka. The atmosphere, Curtis says, became “as raucous as that of the Cedar Tavern”.  Abel was disgusted, and said his fellow guests “seemed to have gone all the way out to New Jersey just to prove that they had never left Eighth Street and University Place”. (Abel’s account can be found in his The Intellectual Follies, Norton, New York, 1984).

Curtis makes it clear that Elaine had a drink problem for some time (Bill’s was even worse, and it probably contributed to his later slide into dementia), as did other women artists like Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan. There is an interesting suggestion that increasing affluence was responsible for the high levels of alcohol dependency among the artists. Leaving aside individual temperaments (Jackson Pollock was getting dangerously drunk even in the 1930s), most painters couldn’t afford to drink too much, too often. Beer was the tipple they could afford. But as they became more successful, and had money to spare, they switched to the hard stuff. Or so the story goes.

The expansion in the higher education field in the 1960s benefited Elaine from the point of view of providing opportunities for her to travel to teach courses and give lectures. She was popular with students, being friendly, encouraging, and always ready to mix with them on a social basis. She taught in New Mexico and other locations in America, and also participated in summer schools in Paris.

The 1960s also saw her reputation as a portrait painter growing, to the extent that she was commissioned to paint President Kennedy. Curtis explains that painting portraits “enabled her to blend the precise observation of her exquisitely detailed early drawings and her Abstract Expressionist brush stroke into a personal style”.  The Kennedy sittings, in particular, brought wider public attention, but although Elaine earned more she was always short of money because she tended to have expensive tastes in many things. She didn’t like to travel by public transport and used taxis whenever she could. And she invariably ate in restaurants.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Elaine’s life-style would affect her health, even though she had managed to give up drinking. She continued to smoke heavily, and was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1989 at the age of 70. Despite his hard-drinking past, and the onset of Alzheimers, Bill survived until 1997 and died when he was 92, though his final years were hardly happy ones. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, in their large biography of him, de Kooning: An American Master (Knopf, New York, 2004) say that “His final years, when he was hardly there, became a Balzacian story of melancholy, gossip, money and decline”.

A Generous Vision is a fascinating book both for its story of the life of a vibrant and talented woman, and its picture of the New York art scene of the 1940s and 1950s. It adds something to other accounts of those years and can stand alongside Cathy Curtis’s Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter (Oxford University Press, New York, 2015) in showing how women artists played an important part in the development of art in New York in the post-1945 period.