WHAT DID THE WOMEN WANT?: REVIEW OF KOONING: AN AMERICAN MASJfK, BY MARK STEVENS AND ANNALYN SWAN. NEW YORK: ALFRED A. KNOPF. 2004. 732 PAGES, ILLUSTRATED.
In the 1950s, the loose group of downtown painters who later became known as "the New York School" began making a little money. They abandoned the Waldorf Cafeteria, where a nickel cup of coffee could last for a whole night of shoptalk, and began gathering at a workingman's bar called the Cedar Tavern. The painters, all men, sometimes brought women with them. In 1956 the most eye-catching couple was Jackson Pollock-already the most famous of the New York painters-and his flamboyant young girlfriend Ruth Kligman. Later that year Pollock drunkenly crashed his car against a tree and died instantly. But Kligman was thrown tree of the car and, once her injuries healed, she began showing up at the Cedar Tavern again-with Willem de Kooning. He -was now the most famous painter in New York. De Kooning: An American Master pursues many questions about these artists and their world, and one of the most interesting is, what did the women want?
Willem de Kooning, born into a working-class Dutch family in Rotterdam in 1904, was raised in poverty and squalor. His ferociously aggressive mother, Cornelia, dominated the home, scolding, screaming, slapping. "That's the person I teared most in the world," de Kooning said shortly before she died. His father took the highly unconventional action of divorcing Cornelia when Willem was two years old, and Willem grew up shuttling between the parental households, welcome in neither. He left school at twelve, like most boys of the working class, but a talent for drawing won him an apprenticeship in an upscale Art Nouveau decorating firm in Rotterdam, where he learned to build furniture and mix paint, among other skills that later proved useful. His employers rewarded his talent by paying his tuition for night classes in Rotterdam's academy for fine and technical arts, where he trained for six years in the draftsmanship that was to become a notable feature of his style as a painter. At age twenty-two, he stowed away on a ship bound for New York. Soon afterward he had settled in the bohemian artists' community of Greenwich Village, holding a well-paid day job and painting during his spare time. Then, in 1930, de Kooning formed a friendship with the immigrant Russian Arshile Gorky, whose example of total commitment to modernism set de Kooning on a path from which he never veered. In 1935, during the height of the Depression, de Kooning quit his job and bet on his talent; he was thirty-one years old. For the next sixty years, he lived mainly in his studios; he lived for painting.
One of the great strengths of this long, marvelous book is the clarity with which it historicizes de Kooning's changing aims as an artist and explains the technical strategies by which he struggled to accomplish them. But equally impressive is the biographers' shrewd understanding of de Kooning's character, including his resisting relationships to women.
There were two kinds of women in de Kooning's life. First, there were those who never doubted they had legitimate claims on him and whose efforts to press their claims aroused him to cruelty and flight, and when all else failed, to drunken oblivion: Cornelia, his mother; Elaine, his wife; Joan, the mother of his daughter Lisa; and Lisa herself. Then there were the numerous "other" women, whose intimacy with de Kooning lasted only as long as they did not behave as though intimacy gave them any rights at all.
By tar the most interesting woman in this story is Elaine, who had a way of talking "as though history would be listening," the biographers tell us. She met de Kooning through a fellow artist when she was twenty, attending art school; de Kooning was thirty-four. A chestnut-haired beauty with the lithe body of an athlete, Elaine was also a talented painter in her own right-her most important commission would be a presidential portrait of JFK in 1962-and she had an utterly compelling gift for expressing herself: in ardent conversation, in physical daring, in having fun. …