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Museum Minute: Elaine de Kooning

Reckonings and Reconstruction Audio Tour

Elaine de Kooning still isn’t as well known as her husband, the artist Willem de Kooning, but she was an important artist in her own right. She was born Elaine Fried in Flatbush, New York, and her mother took her to museums all the time and encouraged her to draw. She even drew and sold portraits of her classmates in grade school. She was only 20 when she met the Dutch artist who would become her husband. They both participated in the abstract expressionist movement, making art that celebrated the act of painting rather than showing something recognizable.

Elaine and her husband had a tumultuous relationship and were separated for about 20 years. They reunited in 1976. That year, Elaine also became the very first visiting professor at the University of Georgia’s art department, now known as the Lamar Dodd School of Art. She also visited the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, where she was inspired by a statue of Silenus. In her studio in Athens, she started a series of large paintings based on sketches she had made of the statue. Silenus, in Greek mythology, was a friend and teacher of the wine god Dionysius. The statue shows him reclining drunkenly and cheerfully on a donkey, supported by his followers.

One of De Kooning’s paintings in the series, “Bacchus #81,” is on view in the museum’s galleries. Although it appears abstract at first, full of thrashing lines in yellow, blue and green, you can pick out aspects of the sculpture if you spend some time with it.