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Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)
Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)
Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)
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Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)
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Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)

Red Bison/Blue Horse

Details
Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989)
Red Bison/Blue Horse
signed with the artist's initials 'EdeK' (lower right)
oil and charcoal on canvas
77 ¾ x 108 ¼ in. (197.5 x 275 cm.)
Painted in 1985-1986.
Provenance
Gruenebaum Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York, 1986
By descent from the above to the present owner
Exhibited
New York, Gruenebaum Gallery, Elaine de Kooning: The Time of the Bison, May 1986, no. 8 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

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.
—Elaine de Kooning

A riotous eruption of dense, earthy color and frenetic form, Red Bison/Blue Horse exemplifies Elaine de Kooning’s lifelong commitment to figuration through the gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism. Thick layers of paint excite each inch of the canvas, with swathes of terracotta comingling with bold dashes of light teal, juniper green, mauve and burnt umber. A turbulent blend of limestone and torchlit yellows form the saturated backdrop where contoured lines make up the outlines of sky blue stallions and a crimson hump-backed bison in motion. Elaine’s urgent line and confident handling of paint exude the sheer force and alacrity of the raging animals. Painted between 1985 and 1986 and spanning over nine feet wide, Red Bison/Blue Horse represents the artist’s ambition, mastery of technique and thematic dedication in the last decade of her life.

Throughout the earlier decades of Elaine de Kooning’s career, when her work was shown alongside other major Abstract Expressionists, first at the Stable Gallery, and then later at Tibor de Nagy, she was transfixed with portraiture. In this practice, she predominantly portrayed men: family members, close friends and prominent art world figures, and eventually went on to paint President John F. Kennedy. Elaine’s inclination to study male subjects represents her interest in the dynamics of power and sexuality. She admitted, “I want the image to be simultaneously still and in motion like a flag in the wind. I don’t want it to feel at home – to settle quietly and politely on a wall; I want it to be uneasy, yet exuberant” (E. de Kooning, quoted in C. Stahr, “Elaine de Kooning, Portraiture, and the Politics of Sexuality,” Genders 38, 2003, http://www.genders.org). Her fascination with masculinity, which can be detected in both the visual and literary vocabularies she honed as a painter and as an art critic, reveals itself in the fury and power within her bullfighting scenes, as much as the strength and industry conveyed in the protagonists of her cave paintings.
Following an invitation at the University of New Mexico as a visiting professor, de Kooning spent the years 1957 and 1958 near the Mexican border, frequenting bullfights in Ciudad Juárez. These experiences, along with the profound effect of the western surroundings, were catalysts for a new direction in her paintings and the use of an entirely fresh color palette. The artist recalled, “It was a revelation. The ruddy earth, the naked musculature of the Rockies, the brilliant colors of the sky behind them in twilight, the massive horizontality of the environment – it was all overpowering, and my painting responded. I went to Juárez to see the bullfights, which immediately struck me as a heightened image of Southwestern landscape – the panorama of the arena, the heraldic colors” (E. de Kooning, quoted in E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 1979, p. 255). Upon returning to New York, this renewed and enlivened energy manifested itself on more expansive canvases that were imbued with bold, earthy tones evocative of the western landscape, a beloved theme she focused on for a decade.

In 1983, de Kooning, always filled with wanderlust, visited the Paleolithic caves in Lascaux, France, which inspired a series of work based on the paintings housed within the caves. Representative of the series are swift outlines of powerful mammals such as deer, bison, ibex, horses, and bulls, rendered on a monumental scale. Just like the western landscape of the Southwest heralded a new direction in her work in the late 1950s, the prehistoric cave paintings seen on her trip to the South of France invigorated a new body of work in the last decade of her life. Her ability to adapt and her eagerness to experiment with new influences are perhaps indicative of her curiosity and constantly evolving way of life. Recalling her visit, she remarks, “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” (E. de Kooning, quoted in, Z. Dubin, “Elaine de Kooning Finds Light in Paintings of ‘Cave Walls’, Los Angeles Times, March 1987). While de Kooning did not travel to the caves specifically to find a major theme for her work, the immense, cavernous spaces and the bellowing animal forms struck her as a homecoming, a return to the bullfighting days in Mexico.

Seeming to always achieve “the meeting point between sheer dynamics and knowledgeable control”, Elaine de Kooning, in Red Bison/Blue Horse, maintains the unmistakable traces of her Abstract Expressionist heritage mixed with her dedication to figuration as a means of expressing movement, personality and nature (M. Sawin, “In the Galleries: Elaine de Kooning,” Arts Magazine 32, no. 3, December 1957, pp. 55-56). Inundating the canvas with surges of jubilant brushstrokes lends a sense of ethereality and timeless abstraction typically found in Elaine’s work. Cascades of earthy tones and undulations of organic forms assert her expertise as a colorist and establish an artist working at the peak of her mature output. Her remarkable touch and unerring line , the pictorial immediacy, the generosity of materials and the abundance of color can attest to the artist’s leadership within the Abstract Expressionist movement at mid-century, as well as her constant drive towards producing a picture that bursts with life, passion and gestural momentum.

Lot essay

Elaine de Kooning (1919-1989), Red Bison/Blue Horse

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