Prolific Years: Exhibitions and Alcoholism, 1949-1967



Franz Kline brought a Bell-Opticon projector to de Kooning’s studio at 85 Fourth Avenue in 1949, and it was then that he almost instantaneously converted to abstraction as he was able to project his small sketches onto large canvases. These large works would become his forte.

Willem and Elaine reconciled and in July rented a cottage in Provincetown. Despite heavy alcohol consumption, he painted Sailcloth and Two Women on a Wharf that summer. In the autumn o 1949, the Sidney Janis Gallery held an exhibition called Artists: Man and Wife, which included a portrait of Willem and Elaine. De Kooning was also featured in The Intrasubjectives exhibition, held at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery from September 4 - October 3, 1949.


Photo of Elaine and Willem de Kooning in studio, Parrish Art Museum.

Due to increasing hostility from the Waldorf Cafeteria, their favorite meeting spot, de Kooning and his artist friends decided to open their own restaurant. The Club, which was located at 39 East 8th Street. It was the product of Giorgio Cavallon, Peter Grippe, Franz Kline, Landes Lewitin, Conrad Marca-Reilli, Phillip Pavia, Milton Resnick, Ad Reinhardt, James Rosati, Ludwig Sander, Joop Sanders, Jack Tworkov, Charles Egan, Mercedes Matter, and Elaine and Willem de Kooning. The artists transformed the space during September. The kitchen was cleaned, a record player and speakers were installed, and secondhand furniture was added. According to Joop Sanders, "We had sort of comfortable furniture for awhile" before Milton Resnick threw it away because it was "too bourgeois."

De Kooning began painting his “Woman” compositions in 1950, which proved to be a major year for the artist. Excavation was painted in the spring, and in June, he began Woman I, possibly his most famous work. Although this was not his first Woman picture, having done a similar piece in 1944 and one in 1948, this painting was unique due to its enormity, standing nearly seven feet. Additionally, the portrayal was disturbing to most viewers, and de Kooning remarked that he was painting the irritation he often felt toward women, as opposed to their beauty.


Woman V, 1952-1953. Painting, oil and charcoal on canvas, 154.5x114.5cm; signed, not dated. Exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery, March 1953. National Gallery of Australia.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s selection jury was notoriously hostile toward the artists of the abstract movement, so Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt at Studio 35 attempted to form a group, calling themselves Abstract-Expressionist, Abstract-Symbolist, or Abstract-Objectionist. Ultimately the naming of a group was rejected in favor of writing a letter to The New York Times, in which the artists publicly objected to the national jury of selection. The group, supported by Jackson Pollock, picketed the museum and refused to submit art. The New York Herald Tribune called the group “The Irascible Eighteen,” attacking them for distorting facts. The protest received coverage from Time, Life, Art Digest, Art News, The Nation, and other magazines, and on November 26, Life magazine photographed the group, including Pollock who came from Manhattan for the shoot.

De Kooning was one of six artists chosen by Alfred Barr in 1950 to participate in an exhibition of young American painters in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Meanwhile, Sidney Janis Gallery held an exhibition called Young Painters in the U.S. and France. The exhibition, which Janis worked on with Leo Castelli, paired American artists with French ones. De Kooning's Woman (1949-50) was paired with Jean Dubuffet's L'Homme au chapeau bleu (1950).

In 1951, Excavation was exhibited in Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America in the Museum of Modern Art from January 23 - March 25. The show was categorized as “pure geometric,” “naturalist geometric,” and “expressionist biomorphic.” In February, de Kooning appeared at a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art, explaining his interpretation of abstract art.


Excavation. Oil on canvas, Isola di Rifiuti.

In April 1951, de Kooning enjoyed another one-man show, again at the Egan Gallery. The earnings were disappointing, however, as the limited sales (three drawings and two paintings) went to absorb the expenses of the exhibition. Despite increased publicity and acclaim, this was a financially poor year for de Kooning. Charles Egan had married Betsy Duhrssen in 1948, while having an affair with Elaine; and in 1950, Durhssen’s mother purchased Light in August for $750 from Egan’s gallery as a gift for the couple. These proceeds were also absorbed, and de Kooning received no money from the sale.

That year, the historic artist-organized Ninth Street Show was held at 60 East 9th Street, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, and James Brooks, along with de Kooning’s Woman. Sidney Janis began supporting de Kooning financially in the spring of 1951, advancing him money for art supplies on the condition that he change the name of his studio to the Janis Gallery. The name change became official in 1953.

Excavation won a $4,000 first prize in the 60th Annual American Exhibition: Paint and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in the autumn of 1951. De Kooning was one of 20 artists chosen for the American Vanguard Art for Paris Exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery December 26, 1951 - January 5, 1952.

After much effort in January and February of 1952, de Kooning ceased work on Woman I, giving up on it until art historian and friend, Meyer Schapiro, encouraged him to revisit it in June. He renewed his efforts and pronounced it finished in mid-June 1952, only to begin more revisions in December. During this time, he also created several new “Woman” pictures.

Although Willem and Elaine were technically separated, he living in his studio and she in an apartment on Carmine Street, Elaine accompanied him to the Hamptons in the summer of 1952. They stayed with Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend at their home on Jericho Road. Regular visitors were art critic Harold Rosenberg, who lived nearby, and Jackson Pollock.


Woman, 1952. Oil on canvas, Christie’s New York.

De Kooning moved to 88 East 10th Street in the autumn of 1952, spending much of his time with Harold Rosenberg. He met Joan Ward, a student at the Arts Students League, who was living in the Artists’ Building on 10th Street. Ward had a fondness for de Kooning and spent increasing amounts of time at his studio, sharing his whiskey and eventually becoming pregnant with his child. The pregnancy was aborted.

In 1953, de Kooning officially changed the name of his studio to the Janis Gallery. His first show at the Sidney Janis Gallery opened in March 1953. A small retrospective of his work was held at the Workshop Center for the Arts in Washington and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In 1953, art student, Robert Rauschenberg, undertook an artistic experiment in which he, over a period of three weeks, erased one of de Kooning’s drawings with his permission. Under the impression that it was a private experiment, de Kooning was enraged to learn it was exhibited as Erased de Kooning.

By now, his alcoholism had progressed to daily drinking, and he was increasingly stressed by his constant dissatisfaction with his work and the perpetual painting, erasing and reworking. His affair, the following year, with Marisol Escobar ended because of her embarrassment at his constant state of drunkenness and the fact that he continued to see other women.

Still, he was able to participate in Venice Biennale with Excavation in 1954, which propelled him into fame as a leading Abstract Expressionism artist. That summer he rented a Victorian house in Bridgehampton with Elaine, which they shared with Nancy Ward, Ludwig Sander, and Franz Kline. Although the troop was reportedly quite poor, they managed as steady supply of alcohol and attracted many visitors. De Kooning was able to make some sales to Martha Jackson and used the money for fare for his mother to visit. Her criticism was constant, and their verbal attacks led to her staying at the home of Martha Bourdrez, a Dutch artist and friend of de Kooning. During this time, de Kooning began to paint abstract urban landscapes, working in bright colors that he referred to as “circus colors”.

In 1955, Joan Ward became pregnant with de Kooning’s baby, and on January 29, 1956, she gave birth to Johanna Lisbeth de Kooning. On April 3, his second one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery was held, and this one was a complete sell-out.

De Kooning was staying with Ward and their daughter at Martha’s Vineyard when Pollock and Edith Metzger died in a car crash on August 11, 1956. Elaine returned from Europe two days later and joined them for the funeral.

In the autumn of 1957, de Kooning began an affair with Jackson Pollock's former lover, Ruth Kligman, who had survived the crash that killed Pollock and Metzger. Later that year, de Kooning also indulged in a two-week liaison with actress Shirley Stoler, allegedly offering her a painting, which she declined. He was painting very little during this time.

In February of 1958, de Kooning took Ruth Kligman to Cuba to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house. Joan Ward, the mother of de Kooning's daughter, was furious that he left without notice. Kligman and de Kooning drifted apart that spring, but reconciled in the summer and were together in Martha’s Vineyard. Here, de Kooning became acquainted with lawyer, Lee Eastman.

Kligman later traveled to Paris and Venice by herself, writing to de Kooning and asking him to join her. He later did join her but soon discovered that she was seeing someone else. There he spent time with Gregory Corso, before returning to the States. Upon Kligman’s return they continued to see one another, a source of frustration for Ward, who would make arrangements for him to spend time with his child only to have them cancelled due to de Kooning and Kligman’s binges.

De Kooning moved his studio to 831 Broadway in early 1959, a large space with windows and a skylight. Thomas B. Hess wrote a monograph on Willem de Kooning, which was published by Braziller in New York. Sidney Janis Gallery held a May 4 exhibition of the large abstractions de Kooning was currently producing, a sell-out which included 22 oils bringing from $2,200 for a small piece to $14,000 for five large paintings.

The New American Painting as Shown in Eight European Countries 1958-1959 exhibition, held May 28-September 8 at the Museum of Modern Art, showed de Kooning’s Woman series, as well as some of his urban landscapes. On June 23, he bought 4.2 acres of land located on Woodbine Road, just off the main highway to East Hampton in the Springs of Long Island. The price was $500 an acre.

De Kooning traveled to Rome again and stayed with Kligman from July 28, 1959 until January of 1960. He rented a place at the Pensione Pierina, 47 Via Due Macelli; Kligman stayed at the Excelsior Hotel. He was popular with Roman society and was entertained by Dado Ruspoli, the son of the prince of Ruspoli. He began working on a number of paintings using black enamel mixed with ground pumice and also created a number of collages. And although Sidney Janis came to preserve his work for the gallery, he gave it out recklessly upon her departure.

In September, 1959, Ward took de Kooning’s child and moved to San Francisco. Despite his journey there to persuade her to return to New York, she remained on the west coast. From December 16, 1959 to February 17, 1960, the Museum of Modern Art showed some of de Kooning’s work in the exhibition Sixteen Americans.


Untitled, 1959. Oil and pencil, 58.6x73.8cm, Hirshhorn Museum.

In early 1960, Michael Sonnabend and Robert Snyder filmed a documentary entitled Sketchbook No. 1: Three Americans, which featured de Kooning. De Kooning, by Harriet Janis and Rudy Blesh, was published by the Grove Press. De Kooning became weary of the parties and the phone calls and upon his return from Italy hired a young artist named Dane Dixon to act as his assistant and his guardian during his bouts of drunkenness. Dixon also handled phone calls and assisted with carpentry projects.

That summer was spent in South Hampton; and in late 1960, he went to San Francisco for a month to visit Ward and his child. While there, he did lithographs in Berkeley and visited local galleries with a New York acquaintance, Nathan Oliveira. Characteristically, de Kooning’s drinking escalated. While intoxicated, he demanded that Ward return to New York with him, bringing their child, or he would sever all contact. Ward reluctantly agreed, and they stayed in his Broadway studio while he located and renovated an apartment for them.

His alcoholism accelerated throughout the ‘60s, and de Kooning wandered the streets in a state of disrepair, often mistaken for homeless. But in 1961, he purchased more land in the Springs. Near the end of that year, he had yet another affair with Marina Ospina, who was recently separated from her abusive husband.


De Kooning in the Springs, 1961. Photograph by Hans Numuth, 1991, Hans Numuth Estate.

1962 was another important year for de Kooning. Along with his usual escapades of affairs and exhibitions, this was the year he became a United States citizen. His March 1962 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery was unsuccessful, but that same month, he began seeing yet another woman, Mera McAlister. McAlister was of mixed-race heritage, a gospel singer and reportedly promiscuous. Their relationship lasted into the winter, and it was McAlister’s young son who coined the term “ice cream colors” in reference to de Kooning’s paintings, a term which de Kooning himself used later in an interview for Harper’s magazine.

Sidney Janis allowed Allan Stone to sell some of de Kooning’s smaller pieces in the autumn of 1962, and on October 23, Newman-De Kooning, an exhibition of “two founding fathers” opened at the Allan Stone Gallery, which was located at 48 East 86th Street. The pairing worked well, as Barnett Newman’s drawings were frequently similar to the drawings of de Kooning, and the association with de Kooning in a mutual exhibition brought Newman favorable press.

Meanwhile, Sidney Janis Gallery held The New Realists group show from October 31 - December 1, 1962. The after-opening gathering at the home of Burton and Emily Tremaine, included such names as Andy Warhol, Bob Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann. Picassos hung next to de Koonings in the Tremaine residence. De Kooning himself, however, was politely asked to leave when he arrived uninvited, which he did without protest. That winter, Elaine painted President Kennedy’s portrait for the Harry S. Truman Library.

De Kooning was losing his battle with alcoholism. In March of 1963, he moved back to the Springs to live with Joan Ward and his daughter. Elaine had ceased painting upon receiving the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. By summer, he had moved to East Hampton, Long Island, and it was there that he painted Clam Diggers. He was harboring bitterness toward the new “pop art” movement.


Clam Diggers, 1963. Oil on board, 51x36cm, Private collection.

By the end of the summer, de Kooning had begun an affair with his neighbor, Susan Brockman, moving in with her and her friend Clare Hooten. At the end of the rental of the vacation home, he and Brockman moved to a summer cottage on Barnes Landing, and then to a house owned by Joan Ward’s friend and fellow painter, Bernice D’Vorazon. After being evicted by D’Vorazon, the couple stayed briefly with Frederick Kiesler, who was renting John and Rae Ferren’s home on Springs Fireplace Road. The volatile nature of their relationship (i.e. broken items and busted walls) resulted in Ferren also asking the two to leave.

In the winter of 1963, de Kooning and Brockman moved the remaining possessions from 831 Broadway to Long Island. His alcoholism progressed, and he was hospitalized at one point. His sobriety, however, was short-lived, and that winter he produced only one painting, Two Standing Women. In about the spring of 1964, de Kooning and Brockman rented a house from Nicholas and Adele Carone, spending a year on Three Mile Harbour Road near his studio on Woodbine Drive.

Plans for a retrospective with Eduard de Wilde of the Stedelijk Museum in Holland were underway in 1964, with a target opening date in 1968. Meanwhile, Joan Ward and Lisa returned to New York City, residing in a 3rd Avenue apartment where they stayed for three years. They kept in close contact with de Kooning, who commuted from the Springs where he was renovating his studio. When the six doors he had ordered neither fit nor were returnable, de Kooning simply used them as canvases.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, a distinguished honor, was awarded de Kooning in September 14, 1964. While other guests arrived at the White House in limousines for the ceremony, de Kooning arrived on foot, much to the amusement of the White House guard. De Kooning established a friendship with Joseph Hirshhorn, a conniving art collector, mistaking him for a loyal patron and doing considerable business with him. The September issue of Vogue magazine featured Harold Rosenberg’s profile of Willem de Kooning.

The Decisive Years, 1943 to 1953 exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art from January 13 - February 19, 1965, including work by Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning. In February, de Kooning officially severed his association with Sidney Janis, resulting in multiple suits and counter suits. De Kooning continued exhibiting, accepting a retrospective at Smith College from April 8 - May 2, was a small retrospective of thirty-five paintings.

That spring, De Kooning and Brockman moved into a rented cottage, and on a bender separated in the summer of 1965, reuniting the following winter. That fall, he drew up a will leaving most of his money to daughter Lisa and giving paintings to Joan and Lisa. At this point, he was attempting to divorce Elaine, even giving her an entire collection of drawings, but the divorce was never finalized.


Untitled, 1965. Charcoal on paper, 53.5x3.7cm. Art Gallery of South Wales.

John McMahon had been working as de Kooning’s personal assistant for twelve years, and in 1965, his status became part time so Michael Wright was hired to help. De Kooning spent much of his time in drunken stupors, ranting of his hatred for both his mother and Elaine, and his alcoholism had begun to cause frequent and regular hospitalizations. About this time, he entered into an affair with Molly Barnes, whose family was in the movie industry. On October 13, his Police Gazette sold for $37,000.

De Kooning was admitted to Southampton Hospital in January of 1966, the result of a severe binge; however, he was released in time to attend Lisa’s birthday party in New York. Afterward he returned to Long Island alone. He aligned himself with anti-war protests, grew his hair, and began drawing a new series of American girls, including Women Singing I, Women Singing II, and Screaming Girls.


Next: Success and Fame Increase, 1967-1985