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When de Kooning Was King

It was during the middle fifties that de Kooning’s way of thinking, talking, and behaving became the essential model for many New York artists and poets. That model depended, above all, upon the pleasures of subversion and the violated boundary. Pollock was often regarded as the pioneer in this regard, the man who broke the limits of conventional European practice not only in his painting but also in his cowboy-on-a-spree drunks. De Kooning, the immigrant from Europe, forever caught betwixt and between cultures, engaged in a more subtle and poetic subversion than Pollock’s, one that led him not toward Pollock’s boundary-smashing rages but toward an elliptical celebration of ambiguity and a seduction of everything fixed. After two drinks, de Kooning began to talk in a way that seemed to undermine authority, confront unspoken rules about what one could or couldn’t say, and crack language itself into surprising new pieces.

The New York of the mid-fifties revered de Kooning’s kind of individuality, which stood out in an era that was often conformist in outlook. Many artists of the time picked up some of the speech patterns and affection for slang that de Kooning made his own—such as the use of the word terrific and “How do you like that.” But the most common form of imitation was a self-conscious desire on the part of many younger artists and poets to present themselves as notable “individuals” who violated boundaries in the manner of Pollock and de Kooning. This crowding toward the individual had begun earlier in the fifties. (Harold Rosenberg, one of de Kooning’s champions, referred drily to the “herd of independent minds.”) But no young painter could use Pollock’s technique without being accused of overt copying. De Kooning’s brushstroke, by contrast, celebrated a kind of personal handwriting, a living record of one’s feelings and sensations. At a certain moment, to move a brush like de Kooning seemed to represent the epitome of grace under pressure: His brushstroke was manly, beautiful, despairing, and he attracted followers much as Hemingway did. “De Kooning really took a whole generation with him,” said Clement Greenberg, “like the flute player of the fairy tale.”

Many painters especially admired the open-endedness of de Kooning’s approach, which seemed to fill the world with possibility. His decision to return to the “Women” earlier in the decade reassured those who, searching for their own way, feared or disliked the diktats of a critic like Greenberg. “Bill had the attitude ‘I want to reverse it all the time. So give me something to reverse,’ ” said Conrad Marca-Relli. “He was not a guy who was going to find a dogmatic idea, invent one image, and stay with that, like Rothko and Newman.” But it was not merely the charm of his idiosyncratic outlook that explains why de Kooning became for many in this period such an inspiring figure. Artists loved his workingman’s attitude and unpretentious manner. He worked hard, he suffered hard, he played hard. He paid his dues. De Kooning, everyone instinctively knew, was never just a performer. He was an immigrant with no choice but to invent himself. A New Yorker by necessity.

Was de Kooning still competing with Pollock? “Going with Ruth really put the stone on Jackson’s grave,” said one friend.

The neighborhood galleries would often organize joint openings on Friday evenings, creating a kind of floating cocktail party along Tenth Street. De Kooning, as he came down the steps to the street from his studio, was acknowledged as a modern master at work in New York. He would unfailingly encourage the new kids on the block and find something respectful to say about their work, whatever his private doubts, even if it was just his trademark “Terrific, terrific.” Everywhere he turned on Tenth Street, he would come upon complimentary reflections of himself, as if he lived surrounded by admiring mirrors. He saw his importance not just in the eyes of artists and hangers-on but in the paintings of followers who worked in what was sometimes called l’école de Kooning. (“They can’t do the ones that don’t work,” he said of his imitators.) He did not have the reputation of Picasso, of course—no living artist did—and he could not compete with the sainted dead, such as Pollock. But the camera loved de Kooning, as it did Picasso, and de Kooning, too, led a private life that attracted gossip. His drunks were becoming legendary, and behind his fair countenance seemed to lie a brooding darkness that the sentimental could regard as romantic, for weren’t geniuses supposed to suffer?

At openings or at the Cedar, de Kooning could not fail to notice the stares of the young women painters and poets who, intoxicated by dreams of art, were eager to sleep with the American Picasso. In 1956, de Kooning had a daughter, Lisa, with Joan Ward, a pretty and talented commercial artist who, with her twin sister, Nancy, was a popular figure at the Cedar. Although he adored his baby daughter, de Kooning was not a domestic man and engaged in many affairs during the period. And in 1957, the star of the scene took a theatrical lover. Hardly anyone at the Cedar who heard that de Kooning had begun seeing Ruth Kligman could believe it. Or perhaps it was poetic injustice. Kligman was the sole survivor of the car crash that killed Pollock and Kligman’s friend Edith Metzger. In the eyes of most artists, she was the hot young thing who had swooped into the drunken Pollock’s deteriorating life, driving away the painter’s wife, Lee Krasner, and behaving with a va-va-voom flamboyance new to the art world.

Kligman had about her the air of the earthy, voluptuous movie stars of the era, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren. She wore clingy dresses, and her voice was throaty and seductive, as if it were made for sharing secrets. But what understandably excited and impressed the gossips, drinkers, and armchair psychiatrists at the Cedar was how psychologically strange and revealing the new relationship appeared. Was Bill still competing with Pollock, even now, after Jackson’s death? “Going with Ruth really put the stone on Jackson’s grave,” said one friend, “and it was often regarded that way at the time.” Kligman believed that sex alone was not what attracted either Pollock or de Kooning to her: They were no less interested in her mind. According to Kligman, what she and de Kooning mostly did together was talk, passionately, often about art. If Kligman was swept up in a romantic dream of the artist’s life, however, de Kooning himself was probably somewhat more calculating: It’s remarkable what intelligence a middle-aged man will find in a young woman he wants to bed.

And yet, it was certainly not just a come-hither look that interested de Kooning. When he was with Ruth, his life seemed to play out on a grand stage. The critics Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess might praise de Kooning without reservation, but they were also intellectuals and instinctive skeptics. Elaine might call him a genius, but she also knew him too well and from too far back. His old friends might acknowledge his achievement, but they were not going to stand around genuflecting. In Ruth’s adoring gaze, there were no such qualifications: He was Picasso, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. And she made him feel youthful. All his life, de Kooning worried about advancing age and death, but Ruth made a point of living as if there were no tomorrow. Her willingness to stay up all night talking between drinks and kisses was characteristic of the young. He liked that she came from poor beginnings, as he himself did, and was making her way in the world. And he always retained a certain admiration for theatrical figures. After the lean years, Ruth was de Kooning’s fleshy reward, the fruit of the strange, imperial interregnum in his life.