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In Defense of the Artists : ELAINE AND BILL: Portrait of a Marriage / The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning, <i> By Lee Hall (HarperCollins: $25; 316 pp.)</i>

<i> Among Munro's books are "Originals: American Women Artists" and "Memoir of a Modernist's Daughter."</i>

The gift of creativity was once so revered that myths and legends accumulated around its possessors; the artist was considered to have divine insight into laws of nature like proportion and harmony. In the perverse idol-bashing of our time, however, the artist is often the object of salacious deconstruction by writers driven by envy or appetite for their own recognition as “creators.”

A worthy predecessor to the book under review here was Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s vastly popular “Picasso, Creator and Destroyer,” which People magazine called “the kind of story for which gossips and script writers would kill.” Probably no criticism one could make of Lee Hall’s potboiler about Elaine and Willem de Kooning will affect its commercial success, for it has all the ingredients for a fast run and a quick film script: sex for sale, falling-down drunkenness, big money, an “explosive marriage” come apart, then recouped, world-class artists swinging fists and flinging paint. It ends with a vague imputation of criminal forgery of Willem’s works, perhaps even by Elaine and cohorts.

As a literary production, however, it is a repetitious conglomerate of slapdash art history, a word processor-assembled draft seemingly rushed into print to catch the edge of a trend. A likely reason for the rush is that two films on the same topic of artists’ “explosive” marriages are reportedly in the works these days (one starring Barbra Streisand). Both deal with Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and are also based on biographies, which however, in spite of their flaws, made a serious attempt to come to grips with their colorful subjects. If this text were written with style, much might be forgiven, but Hall, unfortunately, is capable of generating sentences like the following: “Art . . . was suspected of harboring spiritual time capsules that might invade the nervous system of an otherwise red-blooded American and, when least expected, kick in to gentle his two-fistedness and diminish his aggressive ambition.”

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Willem de Kooning as human being and artist is clearly too elusive for Hall to cope with in depth, so her text devolves to a focused taking-apart of the woman--now deceased--whom she abundantly quotes and calls “possessed a rare talent for friendship” and “a stalwart friend and a valuable colleague.” Indeed, the author reports, “we visited one another in our homes and studios and we talked regularly on the telephone,” adding that “Elaine’s stories, ideas and comments often warranted notes and journal entries.” Of that one can be sure, and then that Hall set aside her notes until events would safeguard her from a libel suit.

The time soon came, and “after Elaine’s death, I turned to the notes and tapes I had from our long friendship.” Fate safeguarded her as well from libel from the other side, for Willem de Kooning is now incapacitated with Alzheimer’s disease. Elaine’s intimately close sister Marjorie Luyckx declined to speak or allow the author access to Elaine’s own papers, which might have provided context for some of the more egregious imputations in the book. Willem de Kooning’s daughter Lisa also refused to talk with Hall, as did the artists’ closest friends.

On the other hand, a Dickensian gaggle of character-assassins, who talked out of one side of their mouths, then “strictly requested anonymity,” appear here as “an artist’s wife,” “a frequent visitor,” “a retired dealer,” “a collector” and so forth. Thus speaking through veils, Hall apparently felt at liberty to indulge her consuming interest in the artists’ free-wheeling heterosexual life styles: “Bill had his pick of the art tarts. ‘But,’ insists a long-standing member of the De Kooning circle, ‘Elaine screwed more than anyone.’ ""(S)he took into her bed men who delivered booze or groceries, who did her income tax, who patrolled her street, or who were her students.” And the coup de grace when delivered by one female about another: “ ‘I wouldn’t say that Elaine ever turned tricks,’ speculates a poet, but ‘she did appreciate gifts from men.’ ”

The true theme here, however, and Hall’s real obsession is with power wielded by a woman over men, ordinarily a cliche of anti-feminist tracts. Elaine is presented as the dominatrix of a domino-series of powerful critics loco enough to fall for her wiles: "(S)he delighted in the power she wielded over (Thomas) Hess and (Harold) Rosenberg, men she considered to be major critics but under the sway of her feminine charms.” “ ‘Yeah,’ says an artist’s wife. ‘Tom Hess adopted the Absract Expressionists, but only after Elaine de Kooning adopted Tom Hess.’ ”

In fact, the De Koonings were two of the most complex--not to speak of engaging--figures in the Abstract Expressionist circle. Not only art-critical but psychological studies beg to be made of both their cases. Well-known issues tossed out and dropped in this book suggest how much remains for others to explore: for example, Willem de Kooning’s fascinating erasure-based style of work and its possible source in the fluctuating water-landscape of his Dutch homeland; or the specific channels of influence of his anxiety-ridden painting of “Women” on Pop Art; and that always compellingly interesting issue, which Hall does little service to, of mutual borrowing and lending between cohabiting artists. Nor do other artists get better treatment in her book: Jackson Pollock “splashed and slashed out at the canvasses . . . even threw sand. . . . He was not an artist, clucked laymen and art world denizens alike.”

That a painter of sorts herself and former head of the Rhode Island School of Design could put a work like this together and the venerable house of HarperCollins publish it is a sad comment on these times. But the author says it herself: In thanking the few sources who permitted her to use their names, she allows she did so “with both greed and gratitude.”


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