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When de Kooning Was King

How the Dutch Abstract Expressionist helped redefine New York cool.


Willem de Kooning with Ruth Kligman, in Water Mill, New York, 1959.  

Willem de Kooning returned to New York in the fall of 1956, not long after Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash. The art world was now prepared to crown as its unrivaled leader the Dutchman who had arrived in America more than 30 years before as a penniless stowaway aboard a freighter from Rotterdam. New York had replaced Paris as the center of modern art, or so many critics and painters regularly proclaimed. If New York could not have Picasso, it must have its own reigning genius.

The middle years of the fifties were a halcyon moment in the life of de Kooning and the New York art world. Success, still fresh and unexpected, had not yet imposed its burdens; and the future remained rich in possibility. De Kooning was too tense a man—and too committed to the difficulties of art—to pursue any version of the good life without ambivalence. But he seemed during this period to live in a happier light. Not only had he left behind the gloomy Fourth Avenue studio where he had struggled endlessly to finish his darkly mythic Woman I, he had also risked revealing his demons in that painting and ended up earning praise rather than scorn. Working in a brighter studio on 10th Street, he had swept through the remaining paintings of the “Women” series without suffering any major blocks and then moved on to a new series of large, commanding abstractions.

Many in the art world were in a mood to celebrate with him. The Museum of Modern Art was preparing a show of Abstract Expressionist works to send to cities across Europe that would not only attract crowds but also deliver the implicit message that New York now dominated high culture. The art world was even beginning to glitter. It was not impossible that, on some stray evening, a fashionable person like Gloria Vanderbilt would show up at the Cedar Bar—the favored haunt of the downtown artists—although that was still rare. De Kooning’s uptown dealer, Sidney Janis, was aggressively signing up additional contemporary artists and beginning to sell their work. Leo Castelli, recognizing the developing market, was making plans to open a gallery. The modern-art world, the one known today, was beginning to take form.

The New York scene jelled on de Kooning’s doorstep. Throughout the fifties, young artists poured into the city, typically settling in the area becoming known as “Tenth Street,” a low-rent section of the Village between 8th and 12th streets and First and Sixth avenues. The center of the district was de Kooning’s street; a number of the more established artists of the period already lived on this block between Third and Fourth avenues, including Esteban Vicente, Philip Guston, Michael Goldberg, and Milton Resnick. Early in the fifties, the Hansa Gallery, the Stable Gallery, the Martha Jackson Gallery, and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery began showing the art of emerging artists in the neighborhood. As the art scene grew, young painters also began to form cooperative galleries managed and financed by the artists themselves. The first to open was the Tanager Gallery in 1952. By 1957, the Camino, Brata, March, and Area galleries had joined the Tanager on de Kooning’s block. De Kooning’s main hangouts, the Cedar and the celebrated meeting place known as “the Club,” were also in the neighborhood, further intensifying the sense of cultural momentum. Although a few young artists in the Tenth Street galleries were already resisting de Kooning’s influence, many adopted his gestural “language” and almost all revered him.

After two drinks, de Kooning became a brilliant and seductive talker. Before that he was too reserved; later, too drunk.

After a lecture or panel at the Club, de Kooning would typically walk to the Cedar with a group of friends, some of whom would carry the arguments of the evening onto the street. Familiar greetings would ring out from old friends as he entered the bar. “Hiya, fellas,” de Kooning would say. “Hiya, fellas.” From the crowd, Elaine de Kooning—who remained married to the artist but lived on her own—would toss him a wave. Robert Rauschenberg would smile. Frank O’Hara would make room for him at the bar. The Cedar smelled of spilled beer and tobacco smoke. The air was thick, the light a putrid yellow-green, which, according to one Cedar regular, “made everyone look worse than they already looked.” In the low light, you could not be sure, at first, who was sitting in the booths along the wall. The Cedar—reminiscent of the “brown bars” of Rotterdam that de Kooning grew up around—was a working-class saloon entirely without distinction. And that, in the New York of the fifties, was precisely its distinction. It was not French, not tasteful, not smooth, not witty. These were important “not”s to painters determined to declare their independence from Paris. The Americans were hard drinkers at a dive whose existential aura owed more to Brando on the docks than to Sartre at Les Deux Magots.

Often, de Kooning would belly up beside Franz Kline, who always seemed to be finishing one beer and calling to Sam or John, the owners, for another. Franz, people said, lived on beer the way a baby lived on mother’s milk. De Kooning, like other regulars, would lay a bill on the bar and begin to run a tab. While waiting for Sam to fix his drink, he might make a small crack about the conversation at the Club—“Yaaah, it was a lot of baloney”—as if to brush aside the fancy philosophizing of poseurs and get down to the more serious business of discussing paint. In the circle around de Kooning and Kline, there was still a working-class suspicion of newcomers who talked big but did not know firsthand what it meant to be a day-to-day artist during the hard Depression and war years. Although de Kooning usually changed into clean clothes when he went to a party or to an event at the Club, he sometimes wore his paint-stained overalls to the Cedar. The poets and younger artists regarded the stains with admiration.

De Kooning would order scotch, which was stronger and cost more than beer—a symbol of the growing prosperity of the art world. The New York painters now lived in a way that others increasingly wished to emulate. The fifties would eventually become their version of the Roaring Twenties. De Kooning and his contemporaries came from roughly the same generation as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but unlike those writers, they had not enjoyed youthful success and now appeared determined to make up for lost time. After two drinks, a close friend said, de Kooning—usually a shy man—became a brilliant and seductive talker. Before that he was too reserved; later, too drunk. This kind of fine distinction was often voiced in the hard-drinking fifties. Businessmen took pride in three-martini lunches, and many painters believed alcohol stimulated art, conversation, and sexual desire. De Kooning’s conversational style was pungent, unexpected, gestural, and utterly distinctive. There was something sui generis in his manner, something irreducibly individual. Saul Steinberg, one of the great wits of the time, relished de Kooning’s Dutch accent and way with words, such as when de Kooning called the rich “the ritz.”

The marvelous thing was his homemade eloquence. It was a real act of creation. . . . I would watch him starting to say something partly because of the fume of the drink, partly because he was bored. Then he would make a U-turn in midair. What it amounts to is to be able to catch up with your thinking while talking. Also to think while you’re talking. . . . The secret of interesting talk is not to deliver lines but to invent. . . . He mostly spoke in malaprops, but they were beautiful. The fact that he used primitive English for refined purposes is the essence of poetry.

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