Mary Gabriel’s brilliant account of the women who stood behind then painted toe to toe with their male counterparts had to end the story at some point. After all, Ninth Street Women is 700 pages long. But its final chapter, appropriately entitled “Epilogue” summaries the next phase of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism as if it died in 1960 when Frank Stella’s rigorously painted canvases in black housepaint set the art world on its ears. Truly, there was more than a seasonal change in the air of Manhattan, but for three women — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning — nothing could be further from the truth. Much of their best work would come in decades ahead. As for Elaine, by 1957 she had won a hard-fought battle to achieve self-sufficiency. She was free of Willem, had her own car, and as if to emphasize that fait accompli, she traveled west, experienced the color and expanse of the landscape, and tasted the drama and color of the corrida at the Plaza Monumental in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Her paintings and drawings were inspired by the dozen bullfights she attended. They are transmutations of that experience; swirling dervishes of color and heart-pounding action. The fervor with which she attacked the canvas or paper support changed forever. Suddenly, here was an artist who lived up to Harold Rosenberg’s ideal when he called the birth of “action painting…an arena in which to act” and stated that what appeared on the canvas “was not a picture but an event.”
When Elaine returned to New York in 1960, she not only continued the corrida theme, but typical of a New Yorker, worked to create larger and larger canvases. Before long, she was loading a brush at the end of a six-foot-long pole to reach the top of them, the largest of which — 10 x 20 feet — would not fit through the studio door. As fate or fortune would have it, when she rolled the unstretched canvas on a cardboard cylinder, she became intrigued by the possibilities of painting a curved surface. With her new-found flair for color and slashing gestural style, she created a series of so-called cylinder, totem-like paintings; fourteen of which were shown at Robert Graham’s gallery in 1961 during April. They ranged from three to eleven feet and were installed as independent works suspended from the ceiling; a display that inadvertently devolved into a performance art happening that had become all the rage In New York City when the throngs of attendees caused the floor to buckle, and the cylinders fell en masse crashing to the floor. Still, an ArtNews review called Elaine’s painting here ‘luscious’ (Valerie Peterson, “Art without Walls”, p. 36-37) and it is clear from our view she was ahead of her time in creating hybrid sculpted paintings.
1961 proved an important year for Elaine and not simply for these marvelous, if unconventional column paintings or the ensuing mishap at the Graham Gallery. Her entries at the Whitney Biennial that year garnered high-level attention that prompted the offer of an important commission the following year — President Kennedy’s portrait for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Elaine was never more focused, empowered and dedicated to her work during the early 1960s and the cylinder paintings were in the thick of it. One was purchased in 1975 for the considerable sum of $4,500 and later gifted to the Amarillo Museum of Art.
Elaine de Kooning paints on a cylindrical sculpture in her New York studio, 1961
Elaine de Kooning, 1961, Frank W. McDarrah
The Graham Gallery exhibition of sixteen suspended cylinder paintings, April 1961
Elaine in her studio, 1963
“Untitled (Column)” 1961, oil on canvas on carpet tube, 107 ¼ x 12 in., Amarillo Museum of Art
“Red Bison/Blue Horse” (1985-86), oil and charcoal on canvas, 77 ¾ x 108 ¼ in. Sold at Christie’s New York: 9 March 2021 for $562,500 USD, a new record price for the artist at auction.
“Untitled” (c. late 1950s), oil on Masonite, 48 x 60 in. Sold at Doyle New York: 17 March 2021 for $428,400 USD, the second-highest auction price for the artist.
- The two highest prices for Elaine de Kooning paintings sold at auction were just set in March 2021, signaling the rising value of works by Elaine
- “Red Bison/Blue Horse” from the 1980s, set a new record for the artist at auction on 9 March 2021, selling for $562,500 USD.
- One week later, an Elaine de Kooning bullfight painting from the late 1950s sold for $428,400 USD, the second-highest auction price for the artist.
- We are seeing artworks by historically undervalued artists such as Elaine de Kooning continue to increase in value.