Portraits & Passages

Chapter 5

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Photo Collage, 1969

Be generous, be grateful. We can’t know what the divine intelligence has in mind.  -Rumi

Elaine de Kooning, Spring of 1971, New York

I can't say that Elaine de Kooning was ungracious when Barbara Schwartz first introduced me, but there was an undercurrent of hesitancy surrounding my visit.  What I didn't know but should have guessed when Barbara mentioned how Bill Jensen's paintings had something in common with mine was that she was more  interested in him than she first let on. Their meeting was inevitable as Bill was being given a lion's reception at Fischbach Gallery where Barbara's oldest best friend,  Aladar Marburger was director. There was matchmaking there since both were being groomed, and everybody knew that a strong, handsome couple would  operate very effectively in the then still very small art world. While that encounter was evolving there I arrived in the picture. It was most likely very awkward for all  concerned, and Barbara alternated between a warm welcome and an annoyed patronizing.

Death Has No Master, 1970

Barbara was just passing from one stepping-stone to another on her way to establishing herself. The four months that she was my guest at the  Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris gave her uncertain artistic goals a direction. And I more than casually shared my advice. In reality Barbara became my private  student. People assume it had been Bill Jensen’s influence that informed the work of her first few shows. To some extent that might have been so, but I got her on  track. The lessons that I set up for her directly led to her focus on painted sculpture whose textured surfaces were suggested by the example of alternating color layers  found in my grattage paintings. The simplified figurative motifs that I encouraged in the gouache works on paper that she did on my studio floor would lead to her vertebrae, bone-like early pieces.

Jacob in Mourning (detail), 1971

So, if one were to say that Barbara had genius, it was ingratiating herself with the strongest friends she could find. She knew how to follow, take advice, and when  the benefit was exhausted, to move on and upwards.
Her biggest problem then came later when she was on her own in the limelight. She didn’t really know where to go. But that would be evident much later.

In the spring of 1971 she was everyone’s darling- befriended by powerful senior members in the art world’s feminist circles including Elaine’s close friend, Rose  Slivka, editor of “Crafts Horizons”, and not without a certain feline allure to captivate a little spark from the men. Being in the sign of Leo she assumed it was all  her due and was already drunk with the prospect of her ascension to stardom. From her throaty voice she dispensed endearments and benevolence. She was in her glory!

So everybody was just playing for time waiting for my exit while in the meantime accepting my presence as Barbara took me along with her. I believe Elaine was  genuinely helpful to many young people around her, and she did her best, sending me to a number of dealers. If I could have made my first definite move to the city  then something might have come of these first introductions, which included Aladar’s recent “friend” John Ashberry, the poet and former managing editor at  “Art News”. I met him at his townhouse in mid-town, and over some scotch he confided to me that it might not do to send me over to Knoedler Gallery after all  the young artists of modest talent that were already sent. He apologized and wished me well.

But Elaine was also a very unhappy alcoholic. At the end of her first party celebrating her newly renovated loft, once everybody had left but Barbara and I,  Elaine lay down on her bed and forgetting that I was there, entered into a wailing, mournful, bitter plea for Barbara's understanding and soothing words that she was  still beautiful. It was the pain of her separation from Bill de Kooning that she could not bear. It was unfortunate, because I was too much a stranger for her to ever  forgive me being there and seeing her in so vulnerable a moment. When she looked up I saw it in her eyes- her anger that I saw her pain. It was a definitive look.


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