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‘More Bill’, many Kennedys

A spotlight on Elaine de Kooning

from ‘Restoration Conversations’ with art collector Christian Levett

Restoration Conversations: Collector Christian Levett talks with RC presenter Linda Falcone. Ph. F. Cacchiani


“About eight years ago, when I began collecting what would eventually become the Levett Collection in Florence, I was buying purely post-war paintings by both males and females, without differentiating between the two, but the more research I did, the more interested I became in the women painters. There’s a trend now, of collecting female artists,” explains art collector Christian Levett, during our autumn episode of Restoration Conversations, featuring his home gallery, open to museum docents, scholars and collectors for private research tours. Christian’s more than 100-piece collection features an impressive array of Abstract Expressionist female artists, including several ground-breaking works by New York-based artist Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989).

“At the moment, everyone is trying correct the past, in that the media worked out ten years ago that 95 percent of artworks on museum walls were by white male artists. It was a slightly different path for me, I was collecting both male and female – so, I bought Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner and male artists as well. Then I bought Elaine de Kooning’s portrait catalogue and became familiar with the ‘Ninth Street Women’ show, where she and others were featured, and began thinking, ‘There is a whole group of women artists who should be brought back to the fore!’” The excerpts below, gleaned from Christian’s conversation, provides a ‘canvas-like window’ onto a few of the artist’s most famous works.

Levett Collection, Florence, Ph. Marco Badiani, Elaine de Kooning's Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue

The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue

One of the major paintings of Abstract Expressionism was by Elaine de Kooning who began experimenting with Abstract portraiture in the 1940s, and continued to do so throughout her career. Possibly her most famous picture is named after the famous Rodin sculpture from 1885, The Burghers of Calais. There are all sorts of Dutch connotations in it. It’s called The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue; Amsterdam Avenue runs up into Harlem. She is Elaine de Kooning, married to Willem de Kooning, who is Dutch; and she wants to set it out like a seventeenth-century portrait, like a Night Watch or an early Rembrandt-esque Dutch or Flemish family scene. When you stand back, you can see it’s a monumental multi-figured portrait, but if you take any 50 square centimetres of the canvas, eliminating the heads and feet, all you will see is pure abstraction.

A friend of Elaine de Kooning’s taught an art class at a drug rehabilitation centre on an island east of the Bronx, which is where de Kooning found these ‘sitters’. She wanted to create major political picture to draw attention to the terrible plight of drug addiction in New York in the 1960s – this was painted in 1963 – and it was the perfect year to paint a picture that would make a political splurge, because it was also the year she was painting the US president, JFK.

The Levett Collection, Florence. Ph. Marco Badiani

Portrait gestures

In 1962, Elaine de Kooning was given a commission by the Truman Library in Missouri and she spent nearly all of 1963 painting pictures of JFK. He was assassinated in November 1963, and because she was so focused on this commission, she went through a long period of mourning, and didn’t paint much in 1964, until she finally delivered the commission to the Truman library in 1965 – almost 3 years after the original commission. She did a hundred or so sketches of JFK, and over 20 paintings of all different sizes. This is the second or third largest one, in a wonderful pose, legs open casually, yet he was the president!

Another telling portrait by Elaine is her depiction of Willem (Bill) de Kooning, from 1952. In the mid-1940s she starts painting oil portraits, using quite a dark palate; the faces are largely wiped, with almost no features to the face. Regarding this one, she once wrote, ‘As soon as I wiped off his face, it was more Bill’. Theirs was a turbulent open marriage, but there was a sweetness and connection that remained between them. The reason she didn’t paint face details is that she always said you learned more about a person from their posture, the way they carry themselves. She wanted to bring that idea through, because normally, when you look at a portrait, the first thing you do is look at the face, and the expression. She wanted to do the opposite, for us to look at the mass of colour, the general feeling and the position of the person.

Levett Collection, Florence. Elaine De Kooning's Bullfight


She painted five of these ‘Bullfight’ paintings, and some are as large as 4 metres long – one is in the permanent collection at the Denver Art Museum, for example. This one is acrylic on canvas, and it depicts a fantastic charging bull – one can see the spears and feathers charging out… the back of his shoulders and this violent action, and it is one of her most famous series of works which was extremely popular. I often think that this is the time Picasso is trying to introduce bullfighting into the south of France, from Spain, and we see a constant minotaur occurring in his work. It was 1959, and, in Europe, everyone knew Picasso; he would visit New York time and again, and here, we have Elaine de Kooning portraying bullfights because she’s been to Mexico and seen them. It’s an interesting connection. The movement here is unbelievable. He is charging head down… he’s absolutely flying – spears, feathers and everything – it’s powerful! She painted movement tremendously.

Photos courtesy of the Levett Collection, Florence

To watch the Restoration Conversation with Christian Levett:


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