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Published February 21, 2020

Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989), Bill at St. Mark’s, 1956, oil on canvas, 183 x 109.7 cm. MMFA, purchase, gift of Roslyn Margles in memory of her husband Max H. Margles. © EdeK Trust

Artist, writer, teacher and critic, Elaine de Kooning was a seminal figure of Abstract Expressionism. Although her career as an artist was often overshadowed by the celebrity of her husband, Willem de Kooning, she was one of the few women of her generation to be respected as an artist in her own right. Together with Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline, among others, De Kooning was featured in the groundbreaking Ninth Street Show (1951), widely considered to be the exhibition that launched the group of artists collectively referred to as the Abstract Expressionists or the New York School. She was also a founding member of the Eighth Street Club in the East Village, New York, which served as an important meeting place for post-war avant-garde artists, musicians and writers.

Bill at St. Mark’s is among the most important paintings the artist ever made and is arguably her most significant portrait. Executed at a studio she occupied for a brief period of time on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, it is one of four known paintings she made of her husband. In it, a seated male figure faces the viewer with his hands on his thighs and his legs open. Commanding the space with his monumental frontality and the aggressive openness of his posture, the sitter projects a strong virility that is amplified by the use of bold brushstrokes and rich colours – strong blues, mustard yellow, dark green, orange infused with red – that accent the contours of his body. His presence and persona are portrayed through pose, gesture and colour rather than through the features of his face, notably absent from this portrait. In fact, by eliminating the face, and thereby upending the conventions of traditional portraiture, Elaine de Kooning allowed for a certain kind of alchemy to transpire between observer and observed. The painting is in a constant state of becoming, in her words, “simultaneously still and in motion like a flag in the wind.”1 In perpetual flux, the portrait coheres most fully in the mind of the viewer, forcing him or her to look beyond the easily readable features of the subject to see signs of character in traits less conspicuous. “I want something there that’s more than just the visual,”2 she explained.

The year this painting was made, 1956, was an important one for both the artist and the history of Abstract Expressionism. It was the year Jackson Pollock died, and a major retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the MoMA. Elaine de Kooning, for her part, had a solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery. She was also included in the exhibition Expressionism at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, which travelled to several important venues in the United States, including the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Additionally, she was featured in the Young American Painters exhibition organized by MoMA curator Dorothy Miller that travelled to 16 cities, including Winnipeg. The year 1956 also marked Elaine and Willem de Kooning’s decision to amicably part ways. Never divorced, the two eventually reconciled 20 years later and remained close until the end of Willem de Kooning’s life.

This exceptional artwork marks the MMFA’s first major acquisition of an Abstract Expressionist painting. It is also the first piece by Elaine de Kooning to enter a Canadian public collection. This historic acquisition was made possible by the profound generosity of Roslyn Margles.

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

1 Elaine de Kooning to Ann Gibson quoted in “Fortune,” in Elaine de Kooning et al. (eds.), Elaine de Kooning: Portraits (New York: DelMonico Books, 2015) p. 29.
2 Ibid., p. 30.

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