Elaine de Kooning was just out of a New York high school when she met her future (and present) husband, Willem de Kooning, and was thrust into the heady world of the Abstract Expressionists -- Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb et al.
Though her own accomplishments through the years have been both obscured and advanced by the towering proximity of her husband, de Kooning has built a formidable career of her own, both as painter and critic. Since the '50s, she has exhibited regularly in New York, and her works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshhorn. She has held professorships at Yale, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Georgia, and has published widely. Well-known as a vigorous portraitist, her life portraits of John F. Kennedy were exhibited at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1964, but she has never shown in a commercial gallery here. Why? "No one ever asked me," she says.
For all of these reasons and more, Elaine de Kooning's current show of watercolors at Phoenix II is a welcome event in this city. Collectively titled "Italian Summers," these exuberant little landscapes give a sense of the quality and breadth of her art.
The range is extraordinary -- from highly detailed, classical pen drawings of Italian hill towns to joyfully colored abstractions inspired by the stained glass windows and gardens of Florence. Recognizable views of the cliffs of Positano are juxtaposed with abstractions based on the same view, but now dissolved into pure daubs of color.
"I've never felt any dichotomy between realism and abstraction," says the artist, recalling that when she first met Bill de Kooning and Gorky, they were doing both. "They reaffirmed a direction I'd already found. Besides, I see abstract elements in everything, and all good art has them."
Whatever the degree of realism or abstraction, de Kooning is always after what she calls "that sweet moment when the scene becomes the brushstroke." And she often finds it, whether on the site in the sunny olive groves of "Garden Casale Sonnino VI," or back in the studio, where she produced the vibrant, but wholly abstract, "Hadrian's Villa," from color studies made on the spot. "Many artists, when they work, get into a Zen state of mind -- you work and struggle till you hit that sweet state of mind. And it especially has to be that way with watercolor. You can't be a drudge in this irrevocable medium.
"For me, the work also has to have a sense of velocity," says the artist, who has found a way to add speed -- along with whole new passages -- by adding bits of white paper collage cut into zooming, pointed shapes with sharp, scissored edges or simply torn, glued in and painted over. If this system functions chiefly as an opportunity to edit, the pointed inserts do occasionally work as expressive forms. In the end, however, it is de Kooning's ability to distill and transmit her own sense of pleasure and visual excitement in a variety of ways that gives these works satisfaction far beyond their size.
The show continues at Phoenix II in International Square, 1875 I St. NW. (enter on 19th Street between K and I) through Feb. 20. Gallery hours are 11 to 4, Mondays and Saturdays; 11 to 6, Tuesdays through Fridays. Stephen Jasienski
When Swiss photographer Stefan Jasienski, now 82, began his career, Alfred Steiglitz in New York and other "pictorialists" in Europe were going full-tilt, seeking to transform photography into an expressive medium rivaling painting. Their methods, in fact, often imitated the impressionists' paintings of the time, both through the use of romantic soft-focus techniques, and the manipulation of prints to achieve a painterly affect. From his earliest photograph of a blurred locomotive steaming though the Alps, to his moody, cloud-strewn skyscapes made a half century later, Jasienski has obviously shared the pictorialists' goal of making "beautiful" pictures that would, in his words, "feel agreeable without any further expanation."
Though he was the first Swiss photographer to be given a one-man show at the prestigious Camera Club of New York in 1931, Jasienski has since been largely absent from the American scene until the current 60-year retrospective at Kathleen Ewing Gallery. The show, which just opened, includes several early reddish "bromoil" prints of frothy still lifes and garden paths and idyllic scenes of Alpine milkmaids, shepherds and farmers who look like prototypes for Heidi's grandfather. Most memorable, however, are the images of horses with steaming nostrils pulling postal carriages in the snow, a rainy night near the Berne railroad station and biplanes hovering precariously in imperfect formation. These images -- and others -- are so like the work of Steiglitz that one can not help remark upon the reach and depth of his influence abroad.
Yet this is a distinctive oeuvre filled with images that "feel agreeable without any further explanation," and richly deserve to be brought to the attention of anyone interested in the history of photography.
The show continues at 3243 P St. NW through Feb. 24, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6. Walter Kravitz
Walter Kravitz is showing several small abstractions on paper at Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, all filled with swirling flame-like forms that seem to act as metaphors for the highly energized act of painting. While they are not of uniformly high quality, the best of them show Kravitz in top form.
Less can be said for the artist's new installation, "Wally's Angry Cloud," which looks like all of his other installations -- playful, cut-out bits of clear acetate touched with paint and suspended in a flurry from the ceiling. Though they represent a playful sort of three-dimensional calligraphy, these installations look, in the end, like accumulated ornaments for the kindergarten Christmas tree. The show continues through January, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5.