de Kooning Lost and Found

Missing realistic drawings from childhood

Known for his work as an Abstract Expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning’s only realistic drawings, with the exception of Portrait of Elaine (1941) were created during his younger years, beginning around age 12. Very few of these perfectly executed drawings and oil paintings – usually renditions of cups, pots, or bowls – have survived. There are, however, approximately 40 pieces, mostly cartoon drawings, which were preserved by his family and which have surfaced within the past decades.

Although he had yet to achieve fame on a national or international level, by 1932 de Kooning was well known within New York City art circles. Whether or not this contributed to his being robbed on West 45th Street is unknown. It is also uncertain if any pieces of his work were taken.

There is reason to believe there may be a number of pieces at large, in a variety of materials and disciplines. De Kooning was without regular employment during the early 1940s, and he would take freelance commercial jobs, such as window designs for A.S. Beck, a New York chain of shoe stores. Since he was a trained and skilled carpenter, he also made furniture for his friends, some of which may have survived.

According to friend and fellow artist Joop Sanders, de Kooning would employ various techniques and supplies, incorporating tracing paper, making cutouts, and creating collages. In his quest to make a living in the arts, he would sell paintings to anyone for almost any price offered, with small pieces fetching an average of $10.

Among the early collectors of de Kooning’s work were Alain (Daniel) Brustlein and his wife, Janice Biala (sister of Jack Tworkov), Ellen and Walter Auerbach, Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby, Max Margulis, and Milton Robinson. And although the Brustlein’s were not collectors, but friends with a desire to help de Kooning, it was they who purchased Woman, a 1943-1944 painting.

Margulis and Robinson purchased at least one piece each. The Aurbachs reportedly bought four small paintings for $40, and Denby bought a few pieces between 1940 and 1945.

But it was Rudy Burckhardt who was arguably de Kooning’s first fan and collector; and it was he who, by virtue of a family trust fund, was able to most often help de Kooning and to acquire pieces of his work, usually spending $20 for a small painting or drawing, but paying $200 for one large piece.

Burckhardt was also instrumental in helping de Kooning secure work, influencing his friend Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s magazine to commission four sketches of cameo busts featuring different hairstyles (Elaine de Kooning was the model). De Kooning received $75 per sketch, and the whereabouts of those drawings are unknown. Additionally, it is possible that many of these works which ended up in the hands of friends lay undiscovered today.

FORGERIES BY PIERRE LATISHE

In the 1940s, de Kooning was acquainted with a shady character by the name of Pierre Latishe. Latishe had contacts within the advertising world, but lacked artistic skills; therefore, he would present de Kooning’s work as his own, and the two would split the proceeds. In one instance, according to Conrad Fried, Latishe invited a judge to de Kooning’s studio, ostensibly for Latishe to paint his portrait. While Latishe sat behind the easel and pretended to paint, de Kooning posed as his assistant, memorizing the features of the judge’s face and later completing the portrait from memory. Latishe signed the painting, sold it to the judge, and split the earnings with de Kooning.

ACQUISITIONS BY HIRSHHORN AND DIAMOND

Art collector Joseph Hirshhorn met de Kooning at a dinner party at the Hirshhorn mansion in 1962, already a fan of the artist. He purchased two paintings from private art dealer, Harold Diamond. In the spring of 1964, the two proceeded to take $10,000, a jacket, and a good supply of booze to de Kooning’s studio. They commenced to render the artist quite drunk and persuaded him to sell them over $100,000 in art, including Queen of Hearts and several black-and-white paintings from the 1940s. Additionally, Hirshhorn secured first option on all new works, which he bought the following September when he and his wife acquired thirteen pieces, including Sag Harbour and Woman.


Sag Harbour, 1964. 203.1x91.2cm, Oil and charcoal on canvas. Hirshhorn Museum of Art.


Queen of Hearts, 1943. Oil and charcoal on canvas. Hirshhorn Museum.

De Kooning was in such an alcoholic haze, he was not only unaware how much Hirshhorn was shortchanging him, but also gave him a painting in 1967 as a token of gratitude for his patronage.

FURTHER LOSSES

A major factor in the resignation of personal assistant Michael Wright in 1968 was the fact that he had become unable to keep the round-the-clock visitors from literally stealing de Kooning’s work, or to keep de Kooning from randomly giving pieces away. This was the result of de Kooning’s continual drinking and non-stop parade of friends and acquaintances.