Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recommended biography of Willem de Kooning

I saw the Willem de Kooning retrospective at MOMA a few days ago, and I'm finding it enhancing to that experience to read "De Kooning: An American Master" by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

What a wonderful book! It is thoroughly researched, with well-considered discussion of the artist's major works and career progression. The authors reveal de Kooning the man, but they manage to paint a clear picture of him without turning into armchair analysts. They also present a fair view of the volatile relationships in his life -- his rocky marriage to Elaine de Kooning, for example, and his brotherly friendship with Arshile Gorky, which snapped when Gorky married and found sudden success -- without taking sides or making one person wrong or bad. Best of all, and not to be taken for granted, their sentences are intricately but smoothly constructed.

This is in direct contrast to another biography of de Kooning I read before this one, titled "Elaine and Bill" by Lee Hall. This book is the "People magazine" version of de Kooning's life, filled with gossip and speculation about de Kooning's relationships. It's packed with purple prose (I literally cringed at least once per chapter), and it's poorly organized. The same points come up in chapter after chapter, as if the author forgot that she'd already said the same thing.

Which brings me to a point: I am surprised at the number of poorly written artist biographies I've read (or tried to read) lately. These include the new bios of Joan Mitchell (important events overlooked while minor experiences are detailed to death, filled with unsubstantiated psychological theories) and Lee Krasner (so haphazardly presented that it reads more like a draft than a finished book). These books make me appreciate the achievement of de Kooning biographers Stevens and Swan.

As bad as the Lee Krasner biography was, however, at least it treats Krasner with respect. I am still shocked at "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith (1998), in which the authors present fictional accounts as facts. Specifically, they attribute words and actions to Krasner that were based on a character in a novel that was rumored to have been based on Krasner. And they use these stories to paint a picture of Krasner as a pathetic nymphomaniac, certainly not at all the serious artist that she actually was. In the Krasner bio, author Gail Levin says she interviewed the novelist whom Naifeh/Smith referred to, and he said his character was NOT based on Krasner.

It's scary what authors can get away with in print these days! But having seen the thorough presentation of de Kooning's art and life at the MOMA show, I believe the Stevens/Swan biography rings true. And besides, it's just plain good writing, a pleasure to read.


Nancy Natale said...

Good post, Catherine! I read the deKooning bio a while back. I'd like to read it again and then see the show. It always means so much to see a retrospective when you know something about the work beforehand.

I'm wondering if the poor writing/editing in these bios is the result of publishers cutting back funds. Are they just not paying good editors these days and/or taking as much time as necessary to produce good books? It's kind of pitiful, really, because lousy books only decrease sales even more. Not what us bookworms like to see happening. Things are bad enough already!

Catherine Carter said...

Thank you for reading, Nancy. Financial cutbacks might explain the lack of editing. But whatever the cause, it makes it so FRUSTRATING to read some of these books! You start to wonder if you're going crazy ... "didn't I JUST read that?" The Lee Hall book especially made my brain hurt.