Abstract expressionism is the art of gesture: process over product, surface over subject. Portraiture is the art of the literal, of documentation. The painter Elaine de Kooning tried to fuse these two apparent opposites, and the show “Elaine de Kooning: Portraits,” which opens Friday at the National Portrait Gallery, is a narrative of someone wrestling with seemingly irreconcilable differences, with varying degrees of success.
The canvases are certainly arresting. They employ the free gestures of abstract expressionism, but with a face, a likeness intruding on the pure relationship of paint to surface. Figuring out how to deal with that face is the central preoccupation of the work shown here, from the earliest self-portraits in the 1940s, visibly influenced by her teacher and husband, Willem de Kooning, through a colorful gallery of family and friends, artists and lovers: Merce Cunningham and Fairfield Porter, Donald Barthelme and Alex Katz, and, of course, John