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Elaine De Kooning Finds Light In Paintings Of 'Cave Walls'

March 10, 1987|ZAN DUBIN

Artist Elaine de Kooning, married 44 years to seminal Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, never has felt she worked in her husband's shadow.

"I was working in his light, " says De Kooning, 67, whose paintings have been shown internationally in museums and galleries for about 30 years. "And a great many others were working in the same light. I've always been willful and autocratic anyway, and found him an illuminator, hardly a caster of shadows."

"Cave Walls" is De Kooning's latest series of paintings, and is on exhibit at the Wenger Gallery to April 26. The brightly colored, large-scale works, filled with hump-backed bison, fat-bellied horses, bulls and reindeer, recall the legendary prehistoric cave paintings she explored during a trip to Southwest France in 1983.

"I didn't expect to find a major theme for my work," she said, during a visit here from East Hampton, N.Y., where she and her husband live. "But when I walked into the first cave, it was Niaux, the space itself impressed me tremendously. It was this huge, cavernous space, and the walls, even those without paintings, seemed to bellow with animal forms.

"Then, when I saw the first painting, it was a profile of a bull; I felt I was coming home."

Thirty years ago, De Kooning witnessed her first bullfight in Juarez, Mexico. For the next 10 years, she painted abstract bulls and bullfights.

"Also, as a small child, I'd always drawn animals. We had a farm in New York, and I still love to visit zoos and draw animals."

While De Kooning avoids defining a fixed style for herself ("I'm an escape artist"), she does say her work is closely related to Abstract Expressionism. The cave paintings, unrestricted by formal painterly rules, seemed to embrace other sensibilities she also related to.

"The cave painters took tremendous liberties with proportions. That's what fascinated me--to make a horse in as many ways as possible. And I loved the jumps in scale. Some animals were tiny, others huge. I liked the profusion of animals, too, one superimposed upon another, and the contrast of both crude and primitive forms versus sophisticated ones.

"There's also a tremendous immediacy about the cave work that has much more to do with today's art, than, let's say, with Renaissance art. There's this directness, when you can see exactly how it's done. . . . Especially in the dazzling caves at Lascaux, no matter how ungainly or disproportionate, you know immediately this is a horse, a bison. All of these visual stimulations fit exactly into everything I've been doing as an artist."

Like contours of bulls in her earlier series that "seemed to move," De Kooning's cave animals seem also to move. Paint is vigorously washed, streaked and splattered across their static, outlined forms. "I have a standing animal, but the paint is moving past it," she says.

"I also was very excited by the interplay between the contours of the animals and the action of the walls--the bulges and cracks and fissures that the cave artists either incorporated or ignored."

In the 1940s, after art school in New York and her marriage, De Kooning made abstract paintings of "faceless men." She then painted sports figures, mostly basketball players. There too, she says, "I wanted a sense of surfaces being in motion."

She moved next to paintings of a statue of Bacchus, a project that continued through the early '80s, right up to the time she went to France. Throughout her career, she has made portraits; the most famous depicts John F. Kennedy. She has also sometimes sculpted, and has taught and lectured around the country as well as writing for art magazines, often about art world luminaries and modern pioneers she says she met through her husband. The Modern Museum of Art in New York and Washington's Hirshhorn Museum have exhibited her work.

Confessing that she becomes "obsessed" with every theme she undertakes, De Kooning says, "I would have continued with Bacchus if I hadn't been grabbed by the cave theme."

What might grab her next?

Perhaps Africa. De Kooning, who admits to wanderlust, traveled there two years ago. "We would stop (in Kenya) at a hotel, or whatever it was, and look out onto a watering hole where whole families of elephants and other animals would come lumbering in at night. They moved so majestically."

Sketches she did there fed naturally into her cave paintings, De Kooning says, as did a recent jaunt to see prehistoric cave paintings in northern Spain. However, the African trip may trigger a theme of its own.

"It was really a terrific experience," De Kooning says. "So it could be Africa and more animals next."

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