Abstract expressionism is the art of gesture: process over product, surface over subject. Portraiture is the art of the literal, of documentation. The painter Elaine de Kooning tried to fuse these two apparent opposites, and the show “Elaine de Kooning: Portraits,” which opens Friday at the National Portrait Gallery, is a narrative of someone wrestling with seemingly irreconcilable differences, with varying degrees of success.
The canvases are certainly arresting. They employ the free gestures of abstract expressionism, but with a face, a likeness intruding on the pure relationship of paint to surface. Figuring out how to deal with that face is the central preoccupation of the work shown here, from the earliest self-portraits in the 1940s, visibly influenced by her teacher and husband, Willem de Kooning, through a colorful gallery of family and friends, artists and lovers: Merce Cunningham and Fairfield Porter, Donald Barthelme and Alex Katz, and, of course, John F. Kennedy, whose portrait she was commissioned to paint in 1962, leading to a whole string of drawings and paintings, focusing on the distinctive face.
In de Kooning’s drawings, faces emerge luminously from minuscule pencil marks; sketches of Kennedy and Ornette Coleman indicate that she started a drawing with the main features — eyes, nose — and worked outward. Many of her portraits are top-heavy: the action concentrated around the face and upper torso, the lower limbs evanescing into transparency, as with the portrait of the art critic Harold Rosenberg (a sometime lover), body solid, ankles thrust into the foreground, slender as a deer. (Even Merce Cunningham’s strong, assertive legs end unmoored, in sketchy feet.)
Sometimes — in, for instance, her portrait of the poet Frank O’Hara — she wipes the face away altogether. The show’s curator, Brandon Brame Fortune, points out that de Kooning was exploring the body as a gesture itself, looking for what distinguishes a person beyond facial features. A more obvious reason to eliminate the face, though, is that doing so removes the whole problem of the contrast between realism and abstraction. How do you keep the face from dominating the whole canvas? You erase it. And presto, the whole uneasy balance is resolved: The 1950 “Seated Man (Conrad),” a portrait of her brother, with its exuberant squiggles of greeny-ochre paint, is one of the most satisfying pieces in the show.
If only it were that easy. De Kooning was too interested in the individuals she was painting to be content with anonymity. She was also fully aware of the contradictions of what she was trying to do. In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Ann Eden Gibson gives the tonic reminder that the painter could do “pure” painting when she wanted to; in her portraits, with their obvious hybrid of abstraction and realism, she was trying to do more. Still, one can’t shake the impression in many of these images that she never quite found an answer that was to her satisfaction.
Two painted portraits of Fairfield Porter from 1954 seem to demonstrate the struggle. One is brushy but literal, with moments of sheer painterly lyricism in, for instance, the depiction of the edge of an arm against a warm ground. In the other, far more abstracted, such lyricism and literalness has been excised, physically obliterated, along with part of the figure, with strong vertical abstract strokes.
De Kooning’s strokes are an issue unto themselves. One of the oddities of her work, in this show, is that her images are so strong while her gestures, in themselves, are weirdly inarticulate. Her pencil marks in the sketches are self-effacing; a luminous 1942 self-portrait seems to spring from the paper without intermediary. Her lines are fuzzy; her brush strokes waver uncertainly, or break out in blunt tantrums, aggressively smearing broad strokes of cadmium greens and ochres that look as if she were applying them straight from the tube (in, for example, the background of the Kennedy portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection).
There’s a challenge, in this particular show, to avoiding gender pitfalls. De Kooning fought to stay out of her husband’s shadow and was a strong painter in her own right, so one hesitates to make the obvious comparisons between two talented artists pursuing similar but distinct agendas: She painted men while he painted women, and she gave her subjects both individuality and a kind of asceticism, while he exulted in their anonymous sexuality. The show certainly avoids any whiff of such implications, to the extent that it skirts mentioning even romantic interest among de Kooning’s portrait subjects, such as Thomas Hess, the editor of Art News, for which de Kooning wrote for years, shown here in two wildly uneven portraits: a strong one from 1956 in which a muted head emerges above an intense tangle of body like a butterfly’s wing pinned to the canvas’s surface in gluey strokes of grays and yellows; and a rather awful one from 1963 with a fairly conventional, fully realized portrait head that’s made arty — air quotes, please — through the expressionistic brushiness of the half-realized suit, and some slashes of raw color around his head.
To judge from this show, though, de Kooning’s real struggle was to rise above her own facility as an image-maker. Later in her life — certainly after a year-long hiatus after Kennedy’s assassination — she appears to have simply stopped fighting and gone with the flow. There are a couple of notable images from the late 1960s and early 1970s — including a painting of writer Barthelme in which the challenge of the face/facelessness issue is answered through his glasses, while the little shape of his baby daughter under his arm depicts a person who is herself in the process of becoming, not yet emerged. But by the 1980s, de Kooning’s attractive portraits of family members, friends and the soccer player Pelé have lost their bite. The face has won; the art, arguably, has lost.
will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW, Washington, through Jan. 10.202-633-1000. nationalportraitgallery.org.