The Eyes

The Eyes

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue by Elaine de Kooning

For a major show of her portraits at Graham Gallery in April 1963, Elaine de Kooning created this enormous group portrait, seven feet high and fourteen feet long, painted with thin washes and bold strokes of bright color. It depicts nine young men, sitting and standing in a variety of poses, each with a distinct expression—quizzical, contemplative, resigned. 

The painting references both Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Burghers of Calais (1884–89) (seen below) and seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits, such as Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642) (also seen below). The title is a witty reference to the Netherlands and to Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. 

Elaine found the subjects through her friend Sherman Drexler, who was teaching art at an experimental treatment center connected with Riverside Hospital for youths with drug addiction and psychological problems. Two of the men who appear in the portrait, suffering from addiction, had worked for Elaine as assistants in her studio. She told a friend that she had terrible fights with one of them because he stole jewelry from her. Ultimately, he died a horrible junkie's death in a flophouse a few years later.

When Elaine finished her painting, she started packing it up to take home, but the school principal, concerned about the privacy of the underage subjects, refused to let her take it. In a cunning move, she covered the students’ faces in the painting with acrylic to appease the principal, and when she got home, she simply wiped it off.

Rodin's The Burghers of Calais (1884–89)
Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642)

Sources: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC and "A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning" by Cathy Curtis

Monday, April 2, 2018

Keith Haring and The White House Easter Egg Roll

In 1988, the Reagan's invited artist Keith Haring to paint a mural at the Easter Egg Roll held annually on Easter Monday on the White House South Lawn. The final piece, measuring 8' x 16', was then donated to Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC. A photographer capturing the event whispered to Haring, "what are you doing here?" He whispered back, "same thing you are"a reference to getting paid for being there. Sadly, the Reagan Administration never fully responded to the AIDS crisis, and Haring died two years later from AIDS-related complications.