Instant Illuminations: Elaine de Kooning’s Early Portraiture

Rudolph Burckhardt, “Elaine de Kooning” (1960) (courtesy Estate of Rudy Burckhardt and Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York. © 2014 Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

WASHINGTON, DC — While at the retrospective of Elaine de Kooning’s portraiture here at the National Portrait Gallery, I recalled reflections by the late figurative painter Sherman Drexler at his loft in Newark a couple of years ago. “You paint your desire, you paint your passion,” he said.

He was speaking about his free-spirited New York comrades in the 1950s, including his friend Elaine. By today’s technocratic standards and philosophical artists’ statements, Drexler’s observation seems refreshingly naïve — and interestingly subversive.

Undoubtedly, Elaine de Kooning, who worked mainly in portraiture, painted her desire. Her passions ran toward people. And that’s whom she painted. This massive exhibition —astutely organized by the museum’s chief curator, Brandon Brame

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