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Elaine de Kooning Casts a Critical Eye Inside the Art World

`THE big thing about Franz Kline's art is its inclusiveness.'' Elaine de Kooning's words, in 1962, come near the end of her essay about the artist, written for the posthumous retrospective of his work. Three decades later, her sensitive, carefully accurate tribute - to an artist who did not (as she reminds us) write or theorize much about his own work - remains informative. But better still, it captures the atmosphere of the artist and does so without sentimental hero-worship.

She continues: ``Franz, laughing in front of one of his big black and white paintings, obviously making a wisecrack, in the wonderful photograph printed in Life after his death, has the open gesture of his own painting. It is not surprising that this photograph is tacked on the walls, coast to coast, of the studios of artists who never knew him.''

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Elaine de Kooning (who lived from 1918 to 1989, and was a painter herself as well as the wife of painter Willem de Kooning) chronicled and analyzed - usually in Art News magazine - the character and work of many of the artists of the Abstract Expressionist period.

Her writings are now published in book form. They make fascinating and rather heart-warming reading for anyone interested in ``American-type painting'' as Clement Greenberg had earlier dubbed it.

She is at her most illuminating when she is at her most sympathetic. Most of the artists she wrote about she knew well, including, of course, her husband. She brought them her insight, respect, and verbal felicity - but apparently never felt that an astute critical eye should be compromised. Neither did she hide the foibles of an artist's character. Such details seem to add something to her comprehension of their work.

The value of her words is enhanced by the fact that she, too, was an artist - a figure in the group she wrote about.

As primarily a painter rather than a critic, she was very interested in technique: in how a particular artist - Kline or Jackson Pollock or Josef Albers or Arshile Gorky - made his paintings. She talks technique at length, in fact, because that is what these artists did themselves.

It does not seem at all insignificant, for example, when she tells us (in a videotape, this time, of 1983-1984) that when her husband ``worked on his paintings and got stuck, he'd pull out his drawings. He made hundreds and hundreds of drawings.... He used an eraser the way he used a paint brush. As a matter of fact the eraser was very, very important in Bill's approach to drawing....''

This kind of factuality is worth infinitely more than reams of critical theory. Her writings are also spiced with humor.


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