A seminal figure of Abstract Expressionism, although her career as an artist was often overshadowed by the celebrity of her husband, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning was one of the few women of her generation to be respected as an artist in her own right. She crafted a style of abstract figuration that distinguished her from her contemporaries, using the framework of portraiture, in particular, to her advantage: “Portraiture has always fascinated me, because I love the particular gesture of a particular expression or stance … the instantaneous illumination that enables you to recognize your father or a friend three blocks away… or, sitting in the bleachers to recognize the man at bat. Working on the figure, I wanted to paint to sweep through as feelings sweep through.” Some of her sitters include defining figures of her generation, such as the poets and writers Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and John Ashberry, President John F. Kennedy and, of course, her husband, the subject of our work.
Bill at St. Mark’s, one of four known paintings she made of her husband, is among the artist’s most important works. It was executed at a studio she occupied for a brief period of time on St. Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village. 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 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 MoMA. It was also the year Elaine and Willem de Kooning decided to amicably part ways.