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Elaine and Willem de Kooning: Painting in the Light

August 3, 2021 - January 31, 2022
Palm Desert, CA


“I don’t paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.” – Elaine de Kooning on Willem de Konning

Elaine and Willem de Kooning were a cornerstone for Abstract Expressionism, straddling figuration and abstraction. Both were essential to the other in producing some of the most important works of the 20th century. Willem helped Elaine in her art practice and Elaine promoted Willem’s career. In bringing these works together, the exhibition seeks to understand the artists as individuals and as a pair.

The pieces by Elaine showcase her ability to work in both pure abstraction and to utilize abstraction in service to figuration. The totem is a rare sculptural piece demonstrating her explosive creativity. The work at once reaches back centuries while being modern. The painting of friend and fellow artist, Bill Brown known as William Theophilus Brown, is part of her important “faceless men” series. As in all her portraits, Elaine focused in on the pose that characterized her subject’s personality. Explore our page to find works by Theophilus Brown in our collection.

De Kooning’s reputation as a portraitist would lead to being commissioned to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Done during the live sitting, this work on paper captures the prismatic character and nonstop movements of the president.

“Woman in a Rowboat” is a seminal painting from Willem de Kooning’s second major series of Woman paintings. This landmark series upended both figuration and abstraction, pushing our understanding of art. A similar drawing is in the Walker Art Center.

While both artists fused figuration and abstraction, each approached their subject from unique perspectives and different agendas. They pushed us to consider how the brushwork shapes our understanding of painting and of the figure.

“If I do paint abstract art, that’s what abstract art means to me. I frankly do not understand the question.” – Willem de Kooning