Years ago, my spouse and co-curator, Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt (the “Doc”), and I made the decision to limit our collection to paintings depicting women painted by women artists. This proved to be prescient for now, years after we undertook this limitation, the curators and museum directors with control over acquisitions have started to get the message, too. Actually, I think it’s more correct to say that the audiences and activists (e.g., the Guerilla Girls) finally so shamed the boards and staff at the museums that they had no choice but to begin widening their collections to include work by, and not just of, women. As a result, we are today witnessing a steady increase of interest in, and the prices of, work by deceased women painters. For living women artists, the story is not so bright, but that is a subject for another day…
With our self-imposed restriction that work in our collection be of a woman by a woman, the universe of available and collectible work has been commensurately more limited. And, in the case of women artists who primarily depicted men, the pool of available work has been largely non-existent. Take the case of Elaine de Kooning. She is well-known and celebrated as an action portraitist who painted alla prima in a quick and expressive style and she certainly lived in the very midst of the Abstract Expressionism which she and her counterparts (“The Ninth Street Girls”) as well as her husband, Willem and his contemporaries (Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc.) perfected.
As a portraitist, “E de K,” as she came to sign her work in an effort to differentiate it from that of her husband, is best remembered for her portraits of men—John F. Kennedy, Harold Rosenberg, Joop Sanders, Fairfield Porter and, of course, her husband, Willem, among many others. Frequently, these works sing at a high pitch as a sort of ballad that tells of the artist’s strong connection with her sitters and her endless fascination with men. E de K herself said that she sought the role of a woman portraitist of men in the same way that men had always owned the role of portraitists of women. She did not seek to carry on the tradition in which women portraitists painted portraits of women and children. Indeed, she went so far as to say that she wanted to depict men as “sex objects.” Female gaze indeed!
But what of her portraits of women? These portraits are fewer than those she did of men and are harder to find. The work is, of course, beautiful and expressive in its own charming way, but it occupies a slightly different plane than that of the men. Her male portraits tend to be raw, direct and seem to drip with testosterone and a kind of seething erotic undertone. Consider E de K’s 1963 Portrait of John F. Kennedy (Fig. 1) or her 1961 portrait of Eddie Johnson and Robert Corless called The Loft Dwellers (Fig.2). Yet, her men are also comfortable in their own skin. For example, the 1956 Portrait of Harold Rosenberg (Fig.3) shows a man sitting on top of the world. And, he knows he’s sitting there. Ditto for the 1956 Portrait of Tom Hess (Fig.4).
By contrast, Elaine’s women are frequently austere, introspective and seemingly more posed. The 1967 Portrait of Patia Rosenberg (Fig. 5) or the 1960 ink and gouache drawing of Meg Randall (Fig. 6) or the 1983 Portrait of Megan Boyd (Fig. 7) confirm this. Yet, E de K is an important art historical figure and her work, including her portraits of women, is both remarkable and worthy of inclusion in any collection seeking to show what the women artists of the 20th, or any other century, are capable of.
So, Doctor Schmidt and I were beyond delighted when we came across an E de K painting described as Portrait of Denise (Fig. 8). In the hands of the dealer, the work was said to date to the 1970’s and the unclothed sitter was described as the daughter of the Abstract Expressionist sculptor, Ibram Lassaw, who was among Willem de Kooning’s closest friends in the 1940’s. We were delighted to welcome the work into our collection and like any new acquisition, we simply could not take our eyes off it! It is a portrait unlike any other done by E de K and is thought to be the only female nude she ever painted.
Like any collectors who love the work they collect, the Doc and I were not satisfied with simply owning the painting and not knowing the story behind it. So, we undertook a bit of art historical sleuthing. We knew the sitter in the painting was Ibram Lassaw’s daughter, Denise, or at least so we had been told, and we began pulling on that thread. After several dead ends, we found our way to Denise, discovering her alive and well and living in retirement in North America. And, the story she told of her portrait and her relationship with E de K made an already extraordinary work vibrate with additional life.
When I finally got Denise on the phone, I had a million questions, but first I had to establish who I was and why I was calling. I told her I had acquired a portrait of her by Elaine de Kooning. She assumed it was one of the four head and shoulders portraits that Elaine had done of her.
“No,” I explained, “this one is a nude.”
“Ohhh,” she exclaimed, “you’ve got that? I love that one! I always wondered where it went.”
“The painting is said to have been done in the ‘70s.”
“No, it wasn’t! It was done when Elaine was living on Broadway and I used to be her secretary. Elaine was my godmother and I used to come from high school and go to her house. I’d check the mail, clean the brushes, make sandwiches and then I would pose. The Loft Dwellers was done the same year as the nude portrait.”
“The Loft Dwellers was painted in 1961.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I was originally in the Loft Dwellers, too, but Eddie Johnson was tall and skinny and I was short and round and it just didn’t work as a painting. Then, this other guy named Corless [Robert Corless] showed up and Elaine, my wicked godmother, painted over me.”
“Well, if your nude portrait was painted in 1961 and you graduated from high school in the early ‘60’s….”
“Yeah, I was born in 1945. I graduated from high school in 1963. So, I was about 16. I was probably a sophomore in high school when the painting was made.”
“Wow. Painting a 16-year-old girl without her clothes would be considered inappropriate today.”
“Who gives a s—t! They have such funny opinions today. By the way, do you know the real title of the painting?”
“No. Tell me.”
“Nude with Jelly Beans.”
“Yeah, it was Easter and Elaine had bought a whole bunch of jelly beans for her nieces and nephews because she liked the colors. So, when I did the pose, I put a bunch of jelly beans on my crotch and nipples. And, even though you can’t see them in the painting, that is what Elaine and I always called it—Nude with Jelly Beans.”
“Well, how did you come to pose nude for your boss? You are there, the secretary cleaning the brushes….”
“Yeah, Elaine needed a model and there I was. Elaine and Bill knew me from the day I was born. In those days they didn’t allow fathers in the delivery room and Bill and my father were hanging out at a bar and my father kept calling the hospital to see if I was born yet. So, Bill was there when I was born, waiting with my father at the bar.”
“When you did this portrait, what did Elaine do? Did she have a couch at the studio?
“Yes, she just happened to have a couch. It was just that kind of couch that looked like the 18th century and that’s why I posed as I did. It’s just the way you pose on that kind of couch. Underneath me is a Mexican shawl that Elaine brought back from teaching there in the ‘50’s. I kept and used that shawl for many years.”
“What was the reaction to the portrait of you reclining with jelly beans when it was finished?”
“I don’t remember, but it is the only female nude Elaine ever did.”
“Did she do any grisaille or sketching first?”
“No, she just started with the main gesture. It was all very spontaneous. It was action portraiture. I probably only posed for one day, maybe two. A few hours each time. Elaine was very fast. Once it was there, she didn’t need me around all the time.”
“Did your parents see it?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did they think?”
“That it was a nice portrait.”
“Well, you know that Elaine is coming into her own now?”“Well, she deserves it, and wherever she is, she knows about it, I’m sure. And, I’m really glad to know where Nude with Jelly Beans is, since it was a mystery to me for a long time.”
My conversation with Denise Lassaw lasted almost two hours and included discussions of the AbEx world of the 40’s and 50’s (her parents bought their first car from Max Ernst), the personalities (Jackson Pollock’s dog bit her on the leg) and the trajectory of Denise’s life after Nude with Jelly Beans (she had a long and varied career—as a welder on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, author of a book of poetry, founder of a Tibetan Dharma in New Mexico, and much more). It was a remarkable conversation that has made Nude with Jelly Beans live with an even greater intensity for the Doc and I as collectors. Let’s hear it for an interesting and expressive sitter and a little curiosity!