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Tina Singer

Tina Singer
signed with the artist's initials 'E de K' (lower right)
oil on canvas
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted circa 1963.
Private collection, Bal Harbour, gift of the artist, circa 1963
By descent from the above to the present owner, 2011
Post Lot Text
Christie’s thanks Edvard Lieber for his expertise and research with this artwork.

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Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Specialist

Lot Essay

“…When I go through museums – the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Prado – I’m always drawn to portraits” (E. de Kooning, quoted in “Elaine de Kooning Paints a Portrait,” dir. Betty Jean Thiebaud, 1976).

On the subject of portraiture, Elaine de Kooning told Betty Jean Thiebaud in 1976, “A portrait has to grab onto some kind of magic” (E. de Kooning, quoted in “Elaine de Kooning Paints a Portrait,” dir. Betty Jean Thiebaud, 1976.) In the present lot, we witness de Kooning grabbing onto not only the ‘magic’ of her skill as an immensely gifted figurative painter, but also to the special magic of a dear friendship shared between the artist and sitter. In this portrait, titled Tina Singer, de Kooning captures her “fellow Piscean” (as she addresses the sitter in a letter dated 1988) sitting at-ease with a casual yet elegant air. The subject’s dress – the iridescent taffeta rendered effortlessly in swaths of crimson-turned-coral with flashes of marigold and juniper – drapes over her crossed legs as she leans into an armchair visible through body language alone. In this sort of seated contrapposto, the sitter’s open chest and sidelong gaze evoke a sense of deep comfort and trust, resulting in the kind of rare, intimate portrait only achieved through a pure and uncomplicated friendship between artist and subject.

Elaine de Kooning held onto her affinity for portraiture even as she enjoyed significant commercial success in the abstract movement – and even as most of her peers turned away from figuration. The present lot is demonstrative of de Kooning’s unique skill in combining these worlds; the portrait contains all of the grace and sumptuousness of a John Singer Sargent portrait, for example, yet is composed in the exciting and avant-garde vernacular of the Abstract Expressionists. In terms of portraiture at large, Rembrandt van Rijn and Francisco de Goya were among the artist’s favorite masters; in her own words, “The portraits that excite me personally are the portraits that penetrate, that expose” (E. de Kooning, quoted in “Elaine de Kooning Paints a Portrait,” dir. Betty Jean Thiebaud, 1976.) This “penetrating” sensibility is likewise evident in de Kooning’s own portraiture, and this, combined with her undeniable skill as a draughtsman, landed her the unexpected commission to paint an official portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The majority of de Kooning’s portraits, however, were reserved for her closest friends and family, as in the case of the present lot.

The subject of the present lot was, indeed, a close friend of Elaine’s, and one with whom she maintained frequent correspondence. Letters from de Kooning to the sitter are filled with personal details of her daily life with “Bill” (Willem de Kooning), updates on her career and reports of professional successes, and endearing well-wishes. Even in the busiest of times, de Kooning made time to stay in touch with her friend:

Dear Fellow Piscean,
Have given up trying to reach you by phone to thank you for the ravishing amethyst necklace. Am juggling so many projects all at once (lunches + dinners w dealers eager to get their hands on Bill’s work) that I forgot whether or not I sent you this announcement of my show with Wolf Kahn in N.J. He and I went out for it and each sold a big painting! This promises to be a good year for Pisceans.
Love and kisses, E

De Kooning relished the occasion to paint those she knew well, as these situations fostered both creative opportunities and challenges. In speaking of her approach to portraiture, de Kooning said “the center of interest” could be many things, but that she was chiefly interested in capturing the true likeness of the individual: “[I’m interested in] the idea of the likeness of someone that you see off in the distance…we all recognize people we know. If you saw your father two blocks off, you wouldn’t have to see anything [closer], you’d just recognize him. And I’m interested in that element, whatever it is, that you see in a glimpse” (E. de Kooning, quoted in “Elaine de Kooning Paints a Portrait,” dir. Betty Jean Thiebaud, 1976.) This sentiment is demonstrated masterfully in the present lot. With the paint applied and layered onto the canvas quickly and energetically in de Kooning’s signature brushwork, the image of the sitter appears to occur all at once, allowing only the most necessary and true elements of her aura to emerge, without clouding the portrait with superfluous or distracting details. Painted as a gift from the artist to the sitter and kept in the family ever since, this piece therefore manifests not only as a beautiful and adoring portrait of a woman, but also, ultimately, as a deeply felt portrait of the significant relationship they shared.

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