Elaine de Kooning, Portraiture, and
the Politics of Sexuality
by CELIA S. STAHR
| Note: Click on each
image to see an enlargement of it.
 In the 1950s, Elaine de Kooning used the Abstract Expressionist
style of "action painting" to create sexually- charged
images of men. For example, in Fairfield Porter #1, 1954,
de Kooning pushes the seated faceless figure to the foreground,
the viewer with his open-legged stance; an invitation to visually
consume his sexualized body (Figure 1). What is the viewer to think
of de Kooning, a woman artist, who was a central figure within the
male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement, creating a sexually
suggestive portrait of her friend and fellow painter Fairfield Porter?
Perhaps de Kooning's remark in 1987 makes it perfectly clear what
we, the viewers, are to think: "...women painted women: Vigée-Lebrun,
Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I thought, men always painted the
opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects" (Gibson,
 De Kooning's bold action to paint men as sexual objects in
the conformist fifties is not a revelation to those who knew her,
because she was an independent woman who defied gender stereotypes
in many ways. But, her innovative portraits of men are a revelation
to many because de Kooning's creative contributions have been largely
overlooked in the general texts on Abstract Expressionism. However,
an analysis of de Kooning's portraits of men expands the revisionist
literature on Abstract Expressionism because her depiction of male
sexuality calls into question issues of gender, power, and sexuality
that inform both psychoanalytic and modernist discourses.
 De Kooning's portraits of men are
fascinating because she reverses the standard male artist/female model dynamic
and in many of her portraits she captures the sexual power of her subjects,
challenging the male privilege of looking and female role of object to be
looked at. She was not, however, attempting to reverse the power dynamic
by placing men in the western tradition of the passive reclining female pose,
nor was she dismantling the anonymous male body by employing an Abstract Expressionist
style. Rather she records her clothed male friends and lovers in an upright
position with their legs spread apart, acknowledging and relishing her active
role in depicting this socially accepted pose that asserts male sexual power,
a pose that would not have been deemed appropriate for a "feminine"
woman in the 1950s to highlight.
 In order to understand some of the
complexities of de Kooning's sexualized images of men, this article will first
examine the artist's position within the social and artistic environment of
the 1950s. Second, the gender politics of portraiture and the gaze will be
addressed, along with an investigation of the social and psychoanalytic constructions
of male and female sexuality in the late 1940s through the 1950s. Third,
I will analyze how de Kooning's portraits emphasize male sexuality and the
intimate relationship between artist and sitter. And finally, by first investigating
the power dynamics of the male artist's studio within the context of a phallocentric
view of modernism; and then contrasting Picasso's and Matisse's attitudes
toward portraiture with de Kooning's approach, I will reveal how her portraits
both transgress and uphold gender stereotypes.
Elaine de Kooning's Acceptance into the "Boys' Club"
 Abstract Expressionism is most often exemplified by
Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and Willem de Kooning's Woman
series. These two artists have come to represent this mid-century
art movement both in terms of their work and personalities. The
8, 1949 Life magazine article "Jackson Pollock: Is he
the greatest living painter in the United States?" featured
the artist leaning against one of his infamous drip paintings (Figure
2). This photograph by Arnold Newman has become the quintessential
image of an Abstract Expressionist--a tough, self-assured male artist
whose body language and dangling cigarette reveal his defiance (See
Gibson, 1-17). This photograph and many others influenced mainstream
America's perceptions of Pollock and his fellow "wild ones,"
as Time magazine dubbed them in 1956. In fact, this
image continues to inform our perceptions of these male artists
evidenced by Pollock's friend Bud Hopkins's remark in 1989 that,
"He [Pollock] was the great American painter. If you conceive
of such a person, first of all, he has to be a real American, not
a transplanted European. And he should have the big macho American
virtues--he should be rough-and-tumble American--taciturn, ideally--and
if he is a cowboy, so much the better" (Naifeh and Smith, 595).
Hopkins's statement and Newman's photograph propagate the myth that
only macho men created large "heroic" Abstract Expressionist
paintings at mid-century. In fact, there were many female painters
who were associated with this artistic milieu. Elaine de Kooning
is a prime example as she painted in a fluid, Abstract Expressionist
style and was a central figure within the "Downtown" group
of artists living on or near East Tenth Street in Manhattan (See
 However, if one compares Newman's photograph of Pollock from
1949 to a 1946 family photograph taken of de Kooning, it is clear
that de Kooning does not exude Pollock's masculine bravado (Figure
3). Instead of confronting the viewer with a smug look while leaning
back against a painting, de Kooning stands in a three-quarters pose,
glancing off to the side, with a coy expression. While Pollock's
crossed arms connote defiance, de Kooning's connote a protectiveness
and thus, vulnerability. De Kooning's 40's style hairdo, wide averted
eyes, and dark, lipstick-lined lips are reminiscent of a glamorous
forties film star. A comparison of these two photographs reveals
the different gendered personas these two artists projected for
the camera. However, the wrinkled artist's smock that de Kooning
wears slightly disrupts her "feminine" movie star persona
and, thus, announces her affiliation with her fellow artists. Many
of the male "Downtown" Abstract Expressionists donned
jeans and denim shirts because they identified with the proletariat.
These artists wanted to create revolutionary American art and, as
Griselda Pollock has noted, the Americanized proletariat was synonymous
with Revolution (Pollock and Orton, 194). As a female artist, de
Kooning dons a crumpled, denim-looking artist's smock to reveal
her alliance with this particular group of artists. Additionally,
the prominently placed hand with the eerie white glow that emanates
from it, announces that her profession is dependent upon the work
she creates with her hands. This photograph suggests that de Kooning
is both aligned with the "proletariat" artist and the
glamorous Hollywood starlet. She simultaneously embodies "feminine"
and "masculine" attributes, something that was pathologized
in the 1940s and 1950s by many distinguished psychoanalysts. However,
it was precisely de Kooning's ability to move in and out of these
"feminine" and "masculine" personas that ensured
her central position within this male-dominated group of artists.
 In fact, when the Club was founded
in 1949 by the New York artists, to create a space where they could discuss
ideas and socialize, according to April Kingsley, de Kooning and Mercedes
Matter were the only two women included as charter members (72-73). The painter
Pat Passlof said that the Club's charter excluded Communists, homosexuals,
and women because as the Club organizer Philip Pavia informed her: "You
know those are the three groups that take over" (Interview with the author).
From interviews I conducted with various artists, it is clear that de Kooning
was accepted into this "boys' club" because she was not perceived
as a threat as she adopted a tough persona and at the same time did not deny
her "femininity." On the face of it, this sounds like a contradiction;
however, in a period when moving beyond the socially accepted definitions
of "masculinity" or "femininity" was viewed as a psychological
aberration, it was important for a woman who wanted to participate in "male"
activities to stress her "femininity." If she did not, she might
be told she had a "masculinity complex." John Gruen, a writer who
is married to the painter Jane Wilson, reveals this sexist attitude in the
The Marjorie Morningstar of the art world--Helen
Frankenthaler--was one of the few women painters of the fifties who did not
act as if her gender were a biological mishap. She always seemed to like
being a woman, in total contrast to painters such as Joan Mitchell and Grace
Hartigan, who seemed affronted and enraged by their femininity. Women like
these often made a point of sleep-and-tell, when ostensibly their aim was
to be buddies at the bar. No crude words ever crossed the lips of Helen Frankenthaler
While Gruen hypothesizes that Mitchell
and Hartigan seemed "affronted and enraged by their femininity,"
many psychoanalysts like Helene Deutsch would probably theorize that these
women were, in fact, suffering from a masculinity complex. Deutsch writes:
"In our view, the masculinity complex is characterized by the predominance
of active and aggressive tendencies that lead to conflicts with the woman's
environment and above all with the remaining feminine world" (289).
Deutsch goes on to clarify that a woman's masculinity is the result of an
abundance of "aggressive forces" that were not properly inhibited
in her psychological development. Furthermore, Deutsch maintains that the
masculinity complex does not signal a protest against a woman's femininity,
but rather it reveals a desire to conceal a fear of the "feminine functions"
(289 and 292).
 From this psychological perspective,
de Kooning and all female artists faced a challenge when attempting to gain
entry into this male enclave, because to fit in meant having to drink heavily,
smoke, swear a lot, act tough, make wise cracks, employ sexual innuendo, and
speak in the language of the working class. Passlof remembers it this way:
"It was a very macho world. They put on airs you know. Every other
word was 'fuck' and 'shit' and I came from that generation, so I picked it
up. It was part of a masculine expression..." (Interview with the author).
The artist Dorothy Dehner commented upon the airs that the male artists put
on: "There had never been a great American art before. In fact art had
always been regarded as somewhat sissified in this country. By God, these
men were not going to be sissies" (Rubenstein, 268-269). The painter
Grace Hartigan confirms Dehner's perspective and adds:
Oh, these poor guys didn't know what a
man artist was, there was no image for an American artist..., that was a sissy
thing to do. So, their only image, the poor pitiful things, was the West,
you know being cowboys and workmen, so they all dressed in dungarees and tried
to look very masculine and not look sensitive and sissyish. ...those men
had the shakiest identity of maleness you'd ever seen. Bill [de Kooning]
didn't have that because in Europe it's respected to be an artist, so he had
pride (Interview with the author).
 Even if it is true that most of the
male painters felt they had no American male artistic image to emulate, the
macho persona that they created affirmed a 1950s definition of "masculinity."
Furthermore this notion that male artists had to invent themselves or "start
anew," as Rothko maintained (Breslin, 320), is rooted in the myth of
the rugged American pioneer (See Rosenberg). So, if the men had a limited
idea of what it meant to be an artist, then the women had even more difficulties
because there were fewer role models for them. As a result, many female artists
also adopted the macho, workman-style as part of their identities. Although
de Kooning did not comment upon the gender politics involved in becoming a
part of this particular group of artists, she did make a statement about her
childhood and teen years that provides some insight into her personality.
"I reacted, of course, against my mother's ambivalent but fierce anti-feminism
by being competitive with boys, and my way of competing was to join them"
(Munro, 251). Years later this seems to have been her strategy as well.
De Kooning's acceptance by her male peers reveals the significant position
she held within this exclusive group.
Gender Politics, The Gaze, and Portraiture
 De Kooning challenged many art historical
conventions and gender stereotypes that were particularly prevalent in the
1950s. First, she refused to adhere to the influential critic Clement Greenberg's
dogmatic position that representational art was inferior to nonrepresentational
art. De Kooning rejected this notion by continuing to paint representational
work throughout her career. Second, she pursued portraiture even though she
knew quite well that it was not going to bring her financial success or notoriety
on an institutional level in the 1950s. In fact, she once justified her choice
to pursue this genre precisely because it was deemed unfashionable (Taylor,
17). Third, she painted primarily male figures and chose a style of painting
that the critics associated with male bravado. Fourth, from approximately
1947-1956 the artist painted a series of faceless seated portraits of men,
forcing the viewer to acknowledge the importance of gesture and body language
as a marker of identity and conveyor of sexuality. In doing so, de Kooning
challenged the traditional concept that portraiture captures a likeness of
the sitter's facial features.
 Historically, European and American
critics deemed portraiture an appropriate genre for women artists because
they could look to the private realm to find their subjects--their families
and friends. Also, female portraitists were not thought to require the rigorous
academic training that included the study of anatomy and antique models.
While many women artists throughout history such as Sofonisba Anguissola,
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Alice Neel
excelled at portraiture, they primarily chose to depict themselves, their
families or other women. De Kooning, on the other hand, looked to her husband,
male friends, and lovers as the main subject for her portraits and thus, her
vision of "masculinity" in the 1950s asserts a female gaze.
 It is clear from photographs, portraits, and self-portraits
that de Kooning's "gaze" is always highlighted. For example,
in Self-Portrait #1, c. 1942, her large eyes, accented by
beautifully curved eyebrows,
jump out at the viewer as they seem to glisten from what appear
to be white flashes of light pulsating from the pupils (Figure 4).
Furthermore, her eyes take center stage as the artist strips the
background of any distracting objects and pushes herself to the
foreground. This early self-portrait affirms that de Kooning prized
her refined ocular sensibility which allowed her to quickly discern
the physical stance or facial expression that best captured her
sitter's personality or mood. By the early 1950s, she utilized
this intense artistic gaze to create a new style of portraiture
that often emphasized male sexuality.
 Most images in the history of Western
art have been filtered through the critical male lens. Feminist scholars
such as Carol Duncan, Griselda Pollock, and Whitney Chadwick have pointed
out that modern art is filled with images of female sexuality that raise issues
concerning male power and domination. Questions surrounding the male gaze
arose in the early 1980s as feminist scholars investigated how the male privilege
of looking is bound up with ideological, social, and political power. As
Luce Irigaray argues: "Investment in the look is not as privileged in
women as in men..." (Hans and Lapouge, 50). What happens when the female
gaze is privileged? Does de Kooning's penetrating creative vision objectify
her male sitter, merely record impressions of him, or provide a new vision
of the male figure? Clearly, the power dynamics are different due to the
lack of political and social status that women held in the 1950s and therefore,
within this patriarchal system, de Kooning could not merely reverse roles
and objectify her male sitters. Moreover, the social constructions of male
and female sexuality in the late 1940s and 1950s were diametrically opposed.
The Social and Psychoanalytic Constructions of
Male and Female Sexuality in the Late 1940s-1950s
 In the late 1940s and throughout the
1950s, the dominant Freudian-based psychoanalytic theories and popular media
images promulgated narrowly defined and often contradictory ideas about women's
sexuality. The conflicting attitudes stemmed, in part, from the change over
into a postwar society whereby women were supposed to leave their wartime
jobs (e.g. their sexual and economic independence) and go back into the home
in order to be devoted wives and mothers (e.g. dependent asexual women).
Many psychoanalysts and sociologists speculated that the new-found autonomy
for women during the war might make them resistant to domesticity. Likewise,
as Brett Harvey states: "There was also a great deal of concern about
the potential for uncontrolled sexuality.... A strong family unit based on
clearly defined sex roles seemed to be the solution" (72). This concern
intensified when Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the
Human Female in July of 1953, because the report revealed that "nearly
50% of females in our sample had had coitus before they were married,"
and the clitoris, not the vagina, is the site of female sexual pleasure (Kinsey,
286 and 574). By the mid-fifties, it was clear that the autonomy some middle-class
women felt during the war had had an impact upon their perceived roles within
marriage. For example, a 1956 Life special issue that focused
on "The American Woman: Her Achievements and Troubles" featured
an article entitled "Changing Roles in Modern Marriage: Psychiatrists
Find in Them a Clue to Alarming Divorce Rise." This article quoted five
male psychiatrists who denounced "The emerging American woman [who] tends
to be assertive and exploitative" (Coughlan, 109). Despite such revelations
of women's "changing roles in modern marriage" and sexual independence,
the popular media continued to promote limited images of female sexuality.
 In film, literature, and art, Jack
Kerouac, Marlon Brando, and Jackson Pollock epitomized the macho, bad boy
active rebel. On the other hand, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day, two
of the major movie stars in the 1950s, illustrate the passive, albeit,
contradictory constructions of female sexuality. While Marilyn Monroe was
oozing on the screen with "innocent" sensuality, Doris Day was proudly
promoting her virginity. In both cases, female virtue was prized and, therefore,
these two very different female "types" underscored the importance
of sexual naiveté and innocence.
 The active/passive model that film
stars enacted on the big screen was not merely a creation of Hollywood. Many
prominent psychoanalysts argued, based on a biological deterministic model,
that woman is naturally passive because she possesses a vagina, a "completely
passive, receptive organ," whereas man is naturally active because he
possesses a penis, an "active agent" (Deutsch, 230). In fact Deutsch
argues: "The mechanism of the turn from the active to the passive, moreover,
pervades woman's entire instinctual life. As an illustration of this, one
might cite the fact that voyeurism in women has much more the character of
passive-exhibitionist being gazed at, while active gazing is more characteristic
of men" (240). The psychoanalysts Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg
support Deutsch's passive/active dichotomy in their book, Modern Woman:
The Lost Sex, because they theorize that when a woman pursues a career
(e.g. acts in the world), she not only disrupts her family, but she reveals
her inability to enjoy sex. Farnham and Lundberg write: "...The less
a woman's desire to have children and the greater her desire to emulate the
male in seeking a sense of personal value by objective exploit, the less will
be her enjoyment of the sex act and the greater her general neuroticism"
 De Kooning challenges Farnham's and
Lundberg's theory with her unconventional lifestyle and portraits of men.
De Kooning's artistic pursuits and her "lack" of children indicate,
according to Farnham and Lundberg, that she was neurotic and unable to enjoy
sex. However, the de Koonings had an open marriage and Elaine seemed to revel
in her sexual freedom. Furthermore, no one has ever described Elaine as neurotic.
In fact, de Kooning's seemingly comfortable attitude toward her active sexual
life should not be viewed as unhealthy, but as an important component of her
creative contributions to the genre of portraiture because many of her portraits
of men express her ease with the men's and her own sexuality.
De Kooning's Active Gaze Creates a New Style of
 At a time when the macho male gaze dominated, de Kooning refused
to be merely the object of that gaze. Instead she used her
piercing and perceptive eyes to observe and record the male figure.
Michel Sonnebend #1, 1951 is a case in point (Figure
5). Here de Kooning effectively uses an Abstract Expressionist
style to create a new type of portrait because the rhythm and energy
of the paint's swirls and dashes comprise the visual language she
employs to capture the stance, gesture, and expression of the sitter.
Instead of revealing the psyche of her sitter, as she did with some
of her earlier non-Abstract Expressionist portraits, de Kooning
uses color and the gestural handling of paint to emphasize Sonnebend's
crotch and the male privilege of sitting in an open-legged position.
As de Kooning stated: "Some men sit all closed up--legs crossed,
arms folded across the chest. Others are wide open. I was interested
in the gesture of the body..." (Munro, 254). In an interview
with Karl Fortress, de Kooning emphasizes how important it is for
her sitters to feel relaxed so she can capture their body language.
"Now if I had said to you [Karl Fortress] I've come to paint
your portrait, you probably would not sit that way. So what I generally
do when I'm starting a portrait is just talk to people about other
 Traditionally, one expects an artist
to accurately render the sitter's face in order to convey this person's identity
and personality. However, in the portrait of Sonnebend the head is only hinted
at through the use of black lines toward the top of the composition, and the
facial features are merely strokes of yellow and orange paint, because the
focus is on the open-legged stance of Sonnebend, who appears to be sitting
with his arms hanging over the sides of a chair. The active white and gray
brushstrokes of the crotch area give it a dynamism that the upper half of
the body lacks. Furthermore, the diagonal black line, accented by the violet
and orange in the upper right hand corner, forces the eye down toward the
green area of his stomach, ending near the cross point of his groin area.
In this portrait, de Kooning is concerned with using the sensuous and dynamic
handling of paint and color to highlight the sitter's body language and thus,
sexuality. As de Kooning acknowledged: "You experience drawing in the
mind--you are always outside of it--but color engulfs. You feel color with
your muscles or your skin" (Campbell, "Elaine de Kooning Paints
a Picture," 43).
 Throughout the 1950s, de Kooning continued to make open-stanced
abstracted portraits of faceless men or what she called her "gyroscope
men" because the figures are still while the paint spins
around and through their bodies. In 1954, her portrait of Al
Lazar #2 reveals another faceless man sitting in a chair with
his legs resting in an open position (Figure 6). Unlike Sonnebend,
Lazar is not pushed up against the picture plane; instead, de Kooning
provides a sense of place by including a phone and table in the
right middleground and a footstool-like round red object with a
black top in the left foreground. While the space is more clearly
defined in Al Lazar #2, the viewer must look more closely
to discern the outlines of the figure which reveal a man in a suit
sitting slightly askew in a chair with his arms resting on its sides.
His right leg is open, with his out-turned inner thigh and knee
facing the viewer. The black line that projects out from the bend
in the knee toward the center of the composition reveals the outline
of his calf, which is held in place by the black triangular shape/foot
in the lower center of the composition. The placement of his left
leg is more difficult to decipher, but it looks as if the knee and
shin are facing the viewer as it hangs over the chair. Even though
it may be difficult to clearly see Lazar's left leg, it must be
in an open position because de Kooning emphasizes his crotch by
highlighting it with the sexually charged color of red outlined
by two thick black lines forming a "V" in the center of
the composition. Without the facial expression as a focal point,
the viewer is confronted by Lazar's sexuality due to the open body
language and the gesture of the paint handling.
 In H. Crehan's 1954 review of de Kooning's
one-person exhibition at the Stable Gallery he noted that "There is no
doubt of her technical capabilities. In some of her full-length oil portraits,
her handling of paint is most sophisticated and accomplished, although in
the seated figures, where the faces are left blank, she does not achieve full
characterizations since the face in the draped figure is usually the most
revealing feature" (23). Crehan's criticism is based upon a traditional
conception of portraiture which de Kooning successfully rejects. De Kooning,
like other modern artists who painted portraits, moved away from the commissioned
portrait that requires the artist to depict a naturalistic or idealized rendering
of the unknown sitter with particular emphasis upon the face.
 By the nineteenth century, modern
artists worked almost exclusively with noncommissioned portraits of friends
and family. According to Joanna Woodall, "This enhanced the authority
of the artist by making worthiness to be portrayed dependent upon one's relationship
to him or her. It implied a lived intimacy between painter and sitter, imaginatively
reproduced in the viewer's relationship to the painting" (Woodall, 7).
Likewise, de Kooning's portrait of Al Lazar, who was her friend and lover,
conveys the intimate relationship between them; it is not intended to merely
capture a likeness. It is a complex rendering of the artist's perceptions
of her lover's body language, personality, sexuality, and the emotional and
sexual connection between them. De Kooning stated: "The portraits that
excite me personally are portraits that penetrate, that expose" (Campbell,
"The Portraits," 34). What de Kooning "exposes"
through the gesture of Lazar's open body language and clothes is a man who
feels relaxed and comfortable posing for the artist. Even though Lazar is
wearing a suit, which signifies male power, the open jacket, unaligned tie,
and the paint handling that makes the suit look rumpled, diminishes its formality,
making him seem more casual and sensual. Furthermore, as Anne Hollander states:
In this century, as old fashion plates
show, the abstract shapes and plain textures of modern suits were linked to
the visual vocabulary of modern abstract art; but even more tellingly and
more consistently, they shared in the formal authority of modern practical
design. One important thing it and they both continue to have is erotic appeal,
in the confidently forceful mode. Suits are still sexy, just like cars and
De Kooning effectively creates a visual
link between suits and modern painting, revealing the "confidently forceful"
"erotic appeal" of both within the authoritative framework of (male)
 The movement of the red, orange, green,
brown, black, and cream colored paint dashes convey the emotional and sexual
energy between artist and sitter. In 1959 de Kooning stated: "...Working
on the figure, I wanted paint to sweep through as feelings sweep through"
(Berkson, 41). De Kooning's feelings for her good friend and lover definitely
"sweep through" this portrait. Lazar's widow Janet Groth emphasized
that de Kooning and Lazar did not merely have an affair, but a deep friendship
that lasted until de Kooning's death in 1989 (Interview with the author).
While Lazar was an art patron, he was not only interested in financially supporting
artists; he wanted to understand what it meant to be an artist. Groth said
her husband had the "soul of an artist" (Interview with author).
It is understandable that Lazar and de Kooning felt a deep connection because
they both loved that seemingly unusual combination of sports and the arts.
Groth stated of Lazar: "He was very masculine; he loved sports, but he
also loved opera, Shakespeare, etc. (Interview with author).
 This biographical information shows
how the relationship between de Kooning and her sitter is an integral part
of her modern approach to portraiture, because as Marcia Pointon's essay on
Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler reveals: "The
portrait involves a perpetual oscillation between artist and sitter, observer
and observed. This ultimately fuses into a composite representation of identity,
which refers to the biographies, rather than the bodies, of Picasso and Kahnweiler"
(Woodall, 21). Likewise, the portrait of Lazar oscillates between the artist's
creative input, the intimate sexual relationship between de Kooning and Lazar,
and the observer's interpretation of de Kooning's depiction of Lazar's body
 De Kooning's seated faceless male portraits vary in their
level of abstraction, which is clear when one compares the portraits
and Sonnebend to Fairfield Porter #1, 1954 (Figure 7). Here
the figure is much more clearly defined and the brushwork less frenzied.
Despite the difference in style, the brushed out face, open stance,
and frontal position of the male sitter is the same. However, Porter,
who occupies the central space of the composition, is more sexually
charged because, in this less abstract style, his clearly rendered
open-legged stance creates a more confrontational figure. For example,
it is clear that de Kooning frames Porter's crotch by resting his
hands on his inner thighs. To further emphasize this area as the
focal point, the artist leads the viewer's eye down Porter's body
with the brightly colored and patterned red and black tie. Moreover,
the placement of the clearly demarcated genital area at eye level
creates a tension as the onlooker is confronted by the male privilege
of sitting with legs spread wide open. Rather than stare straight
ahead, the viewer could look up, hoping to make eye contact. However,
since the gaze is denied with a long sweeping brushstroke, that
also obscures Porter's nose, mouth, and bone structure, this is
 Comparing this painting of Porter to de Kooning's drawing
of him, the different effect of having access
to his vision and facial expression becomes clear (Figure 8). Porter's
blurred features change the mood of the painting because it heightens
the power of the sexually-charged encounter between viewer and sitter.
De Kooning has altered a few other elements that are significant
to the overall sexual mood of the painting as well. First, she
changes the position of the tie, perfectly aligning it in the painting.
Likewise, in the painting his legs are in a slightly more open stance,
because de Kooning has brought his left foot back closer to the
foot of the chair, turned the right foot out, and brought his pelvis
forward. In contrast, in the drawing he appears as if he is leaning
back more in the chair due to his direct placement in front of a
wall. In the painting, Porter's chair and crotch have been pushed
to the foreground, making him a more imposing figure.
 Of course, the paint handling and
colors add an important dimension to this portrait. Even though most of the
fast brushwork is visible in the background, it still serves to enliven the
sitter. The paint has a life of its own as it zips around Porter's body.
For instance, his right pant leg looks as if the force of the paint rushed
by and moved it. Instead of submerging the figure in a dense field of rapid
brushwork, here Porter is rooted and grounded in the space as the paint rushes
around him, revealing the energy his presence is capable of generating.
 The alterations that de Kooning makes
from the drawing to the finished painting reveal that the artist was not merely
trying to make an exact replica of what she observed. Instead, de Kooning's
creative decisions inform the mood or nuance she desired. She knew most of
her male sitters quite well and it was the relationship that she was able
to establish with them both before and during the process of painting their
portraits (most of which were noncommissioned) that heightened the intimacy
she was able to capture in the finished portrait. De Kooning once commented
that invented people do not excite her because,
...painting a portrait is like falling
in love because you become terribly fascinated with this one particular human
being's unique aspect; that is the element of likeness, that you are you and
nobody else and so your beauty becomes just your uniqueness and this is what
is so exciting (Interview with Fortress).
 It is clear that de Kooning was fascinated
by Porter, her good friend and fellow portrait painter and art critic, because
she created an image that radiates various layers of meaning. On the one
hand, Porter is an imposing figure who exerts male sexual power as he occupies
a large amount of space with his socially condoned open-legged position, but,
on the other hand, his bisexuality prevents him from possessing the same social
and sexual privileges accorded a heterosexual male. Furthermore, one could
argue that his open stance that is pushed up against the picture plane also
makes him more vulnerable to the viewer's gaze. In fact, Porter may have
felt vulnerable because around the time de Kooning created this portrait,
Porter, who was married, was reconciling himself with his bisexuality (Spring,
181). According to the painter Alfred Leslie, friends, such as Elaine de
Kooning, would have known Porter was bisexual, but it was not common knowledge
because Porter was "extremely, extremely reserved" (Interview with
the author). Therefore, de Kooning's portrait celebrates Porter's sexuality,
but it does so on multiple levels. First, the portrait reveals a dominant
heterosexuality due to Porter's socially-condoned body language; second, it
intimates a blossoming bisexuality to those who knew him; and third, it suggests
a veiled bisexuality to most viewers who would be unaware of Porter's personal
 However one chooses to interpret this
portrait, it is clear that de Kooning made artistic choices that draw the
viewer's attention to Porter's sexuality. For example, by aligning the front
and back portion of Porter's tie, the artist creates an arrow that moves the
eye down to Porter's penis. And yet, his penis is not "active"
but rather it is covered and "inactive." On a symbolic level then,
de Kooning challenges Deutsch's theory that men are naturally active because
they possess a penis. Likewise, the artist defies Deutsch's theory that women
are naturally passive because it is de Kooning who visually controls Porter's
sexuality. If nothing else, this portrait prompts the question: who is in
control? This is a question that has been explored in feminist discourses
from the 1970s to the present.
Masculinity, Power and the Studio: How do de Kooning's
Portraits of Men Compare to Picasso's and Matisse's Portraits of
 A large body of literature has been
devoted to the way in which a number of modern male artists, such as Picasso,
Henri Matisse, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Willem de Kooning, have taken control
of female sexuality by reconfiguring the anonymous female body in a fragmentary
and often violent abstract visual language. In contrast, Elaine de Kooning's
images of men differ in substantial ways. First, de Kooning is working within
the genre of portraiture and, therefore, she is attempting to capture the
personalities and body language of actual men. She is not fracturing the
anonymous male body. However, by employing an Abstract Expressionist formal
language to capture her male sitters, de Kooning is referencing this modernist
tradition of fragmenting the female body and in doing so, unites (male) portraiture
and "action painting" in an innovative manner. On a more personal
level, de Kooning's novel approach to the male figure provides an alternative
vision to her husband's Woman series.
 Second, the question of who is in
control is much more difficult to answer when comparing de Kooning's portraits
to portraits created by modern male artists. While this article cannot provide
a thorough comparison of de Kooning's portraits of men to modern male artists'
portraits of women, a preliminary analysis of Picasso's and Matisse's attitudes
toward portraiture helps to elucidate the critical issues of sexuality and
control. De Kooning, like Picasso and Matisse, created portraits of spouses,
lovers, and close friends. Does this mean that de Kooning's sexualized portraits
of men are the equivalent female version of Picasso's and Matisse's sexualized
portraits of women?
 Duncan argues that the male artist
in the studio pursuing his bourgeois libidinous desires is a predominant image
in early twentieth-century modernism. Duncan demonstrates how many modern
male artists make visible their own claims "as a sexually dominating
presence," even if the artist "does not appear in the picture"
(Duncan, 293). Since the 1973 publication of Duncan's article "Virility
and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting," many feminist
scholars have examined the patrilineage of modernism. Mary Bergstein notes:
"The more that masculinity came to be identified as a generative force
in artistic creation, the more necessary it seemed for women to assume the
foil of alterity--to be cast as natural, passive beings whose role was opposite
and complementary to the artistic pursuit" (45). Bergstein argues that
the photographs and accompanying texts in Alexander Liberman's The Artist
in his Studio (1960) and Brassai's The Artists of My Life (1982)
"advanced specific ideas about the mystique of the artist's studio, about
women and art, and about masculinity as the primo mobile of artistic
transcendence" (45). Both of these books promote the notion that the
studio is a masculine domain, a place where male artists look, create, and
fulfill their sexual desires. Women, on the other hand, "are objectified
as belonging to the artist's orbit of personal creations and possessions"
 Brassai's photographs of Matisse studying
his nude model are prime examples. Matisse, clad in a white lab-coat over
a vest, tie, and dress pants, identifies himself with the male professions
of doctor, bourgeois businessman, and artist. Ostensibly, the artist is objectively
studying his nude model as if he were a doctor. However, his clothed bourgeois
body, active gaze, and creative hands contrast to the model's "lower-class"
naked body, and inactive gaze. Matisse, who sits in close proximity to the
nude model, visually consumes her front and back sides in sitting, standing,
and reclining positions. Even though Matisse claimed through this photographic
series, and published statements, that his reaction to a nude model was a
formal one, his comment to fellow artist Charles Camoin makes such claims
questionable. Matisse wrote to Camoin on May 2, 1918 about a model: "She
is a big sixteen-year-old girl, a colossal woman, she has tits like two liter
Chianti bottles!" (Herrera, 148).
 Another interesting and more complex
example of male creative and sexual privilege can be glimpsed in two Brassai
photographs placed side by side of Picasso and Dora Maar. The photograph
on the left shows Picasso in 1939 looking at his multiple abstracted portraits
of Maar that are stacked on top of one another in his studio. On the opposite
page, Maar, (from 1944) in profile view, appears to be gazing at Picasso's
inspection of his creations of her. Maar, dressed in a shirt and corduroy
jacket, leans against a couch with her left arm, while she holds a cigarette
holder in her right hand, with the last vestiges of a burning cigarette in
it. Her strong profile, notoriously elegant fingers, and "men's"
clothing are visual clues that indicate Maar is not merely a passive model.
However, there is an interesting tension that is created between Maar, the
sophisticated, intelligent onlooker, and Maar, Picasso's mistress, attempting
to ascertain the genius' vision of her. As the critic and art historian John
Richardson observed of his friend: "Dora had been willing to sacrifice
herself on the altar of his art" (Caws, 207).
 Perhaps Maar's intense gaze and pursed
lips relate to her dwindling romantic relationship with Picasso, further emphasizing
the psychological tension that Brassai creates by placing these two photographs
side by side. It is disturbing to imagine that Maar sees herself through
the eyes of Picasso. While this may seem like an extreme statement to make
about this talented photographer, who was associated with the Surrealists,
certainly most, until the 1990s, knew Maar as "The Weeping Woman"
(See Caws). Maar's public "identity," therefore, was created through
Picasso's portraits. In fact, the male artist's power to create a woman's
identity through the painted medium is further emphasized by the metaphor
of the canvas as female. As Lynda Nead states: "Within this metaphorical
structure, the canvas is the empty but receptive surface; empty of meaning-naked-until
it is inscribed and given meaning by the artist" (56).
 Certainly, many of Picasso's portraits
of women play out these gendered dynamics. Looking through his portraits,
one sees the various muses who inspired, enraged, and enamored Picasso. As
the painter glibly remarked: "It must be painful for a girl to see in
painting that she is on her way out" (Rosenblum, 371). Picasso implies
here that the lovers in his life can "see" how he feels about them
and ascertain their status by looking at his portraits of them. Thus, the
artist/lover has the power to control through the painted medium his romantic
relationships. For at least two years, Picasso was romantically involved
with both Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar and, as Robert Rosenblum notes,
Picasso often depicted them as rivals (380). Picasso seemed to revel in their
rivalry over him. According to Françoise Gilot, who replaced Maar, Picasso
relayed a story to her about Maar and Walter fighting over him while he was
painting Guernica. Picasso ended this story by saying that it is "One
of my choicest memories" (Caws, 113). But these two women were just
two of many so-called rivals that Picasso depicted in his portraits and juggled
in his life. Ultimately, "Both inside and outside the studio, Picasso
could contemplate his pantheon of goddesses and demons, venerating them, comparing
them, magically fusing them, and finally, letting them return to earth"
(Rosenblum, 381). This quote upholds the image of the male artist/lover controlling
his numerous women both inside and outside the studio, for it is he who finally
lets them return to earth.
 Picasso's presence and control over his lovers can often be
gleaned in the portraits themselves. For example, in The Dream
1932, Picasso depicts his seated lover with her head resting on
her right shoulder and eyes closed (Figure 9). Picasso's portrait
is filled with sensuous curves, including Walter's exposed left
breast. A sexual tension is created through the placement of the
hands that rest in her lap. Does Picasso use the gesture of clasped
hands to reveal Walter's modesty or are the elongated pale pink
and green fingers outlined in black meant to convey her sensuality?
If it were not for Walter's right middle finger, which penetrates
beneath the surface as if she is stimulating her clitoris, then
one might think Picasso was emphasizing the former. Instead, Walter
seems to "unconsciously" fondle herself in the presence
of her lover/artist. That is, if Walter is asleep and dreaming.
If, on the other hand, The Dream relates to Picasso's dream
come true, then Walter may be consciously fondling herself with
eyes closed for her lover's pleasure. However one chooses to interpret
the placement of the hands and Walter's closed eyes, it is clear
that the artist creates the perfect voyeuristic image because Picasso
can gaze upon his sleeping mistress unbeknownst to her. Interestingly,
in a 1935 poem Picasso exclaimed: "How much I love her now
that she's sleeping" (Rosenblum, 348). In this portrait, Walter
is the passive and eroticized female who is created by and for her
lover. Further clues of Picasso's dominant role can be found in
the use of the Spanish national colors of red and yellow and the
diamond-shaped pattern wallpaper which represents Harlequin, Picasso's
alter ego. As Rosenblum observes: "Here, in fact, as so often
before in his work, the diamond harlequin pattern, now of the wallpaper,
can become a coded symbol of the artist's own presence, a heraldic
field that proclaims his territory..." (359).
 Likewise, Matisse's Carmelina,
1903, proclaims the male artist's mastery over his female sitter. Carmelina's
nude body, with her strategically placed curved hand near her pubic area,
dominates the composition, but Matisse's profile and bright red shirt, reflected
in the mirror, reminds the viewer of the artist's central role. As in the
Brassai photographs, Matisse's clothed body is contrasted to the female's
nude body; however, in the painting, Matisse's presence is less obvious.
Nevertheless, in both the photographs and the painting, it is evident that
Matisse is in control. As Duncan observes: "The artist, if not the man,
masters the situation-and also Carmelina, whose dominant role as femme
fatale is reversed by the mirror image" (300). John Klein supports
Duncan's argument when he states: ...at a regressive remove in Carmelina,
Matisse's self-image is fragmentary but understood to represent his full command
over everything around him" (58). Klein maintains that Matisse's need
to control dominates his work for several years. Even the many portraits
of Matisse's wife Amélie serve more to advance the painter's creative experiments
than to capture her independent identity (70). While many of Picasso's and
Matisse's portraits of women affirm the male painter's privilege to control
the image of the female/lover, many of de Kooning's portraits of men play
with such accepted power dynamics.
 It is difficult to imagine a female
artist asserting her femininity in an aggressive manner, especially in the
1950s, because a "feminine" woman was not supposed to act aggressively.
De Kooning's affairs with various male figures, many of whom were quite prominent
within the New York art world, and her bold depictions of male sexuality,
would have marked her as sexually aggressive and, thus, aberrant. Of course,
de Kooning's sexual liaisons were more acceptable within the subculture of
the Downtown artists' social world, but, even within this bohemian milieu,
 Even if de Kooning's active sexual
life would have been pathologized in mainstream culture, the artist felt that
once she entered the studio her status as a modern artist allowed her the
freedom to create in a neutral, gender-free environment. In 1971, de Kooning
was asked to respond to Linda Nochlin's groundbreaking essay "Why Have
There Been No Great Women Artists?" De Kooning, who staunchly supported
women's rights, commented: "I agree when Ms. Nochlin says 'women's experience
and situation in society, and hence as artists, is different from men's' except
for the 'hence as artists'" (Hess and Baker, 63). De Kooning, like many
of her artistic peers from the 1950s, felt that all artists, regardless
of gender, had a difficult time finding acceptance and achieving financial
success. The Downtown artists viewed themselves as outsiders and, therefore,
they needed each other for support. There was no room for a critique of the
male-dominated group based on gender or ethnicity. The painter Milton Resnick
sums up this attitude when he states: "We're all Jews and Italians and
all that. You become an artist. You lose being Armenian or Jewish"
(Interview with the author).
 Of course, this attitude was not unique
to the Abstract Expressionists, because as Amelia Jones confirms in relation
to gender, "...the artist's authority is most effectively confirmed when
the function of the phallus is masked, hidden under art-historically sanctioned
symbols of artistic genius" (547). Through this veiling of the phallus
then, "art history pretends that artistic and interpretive authority
are gender neutral" (547). Ostensibly de Kooning experienced a neutral
studio space, but the male-dominated art world assumed that artist meant male
and, thus, the studio was deemed a male space. Furthermore, even if de Kooning
felt she was entering a neutral studio space, she inherited the male persona
so well-established both within the discourses of abstract expressionism and
modernism. De Kooning, therefore, faced her male sitters, some of whom were
lovers, just as the many male artists before her. However, when one views
de Kooning's portraits of men within this art historical, social, and psychoanalytic
paradigm, then it becomes evident that she both defies and upholds the norms.
 De Kooning defies the norms by taking
on the active role of artist/lover, even if the sitter is not an actual lover.
De Kooning says she likes portraits that "penetrate," and that she
falls in love with her sitters. De Kooning does not fear the "feminine
functions," as Deutsch would have us believe, but rather declares her
right to take on the role of artist/lover. In fact, de Kooning proclaims
this privilege precisely because she views artist as an inclusive term. Ironically,
the "masking of the phallus" allows de Kooning to step into this
"male" space and make it her own. In doing so, de Kooning does
not desire to be a "male" artist, rather she owns some male-defined
behavior such as painting one's lovers and friends in a bold, sexual manner
and relishing her role as the creator of male eroticism. The male sitter,
on the other hand, is the object to be gazed upon and painted through the
female lens. Thus, de Kooning rejects Deutsch's theory that only women display
exhibitionist desires. Instead, many of de Kooning's portraits confirm the
feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman's claim that the "male subject
is as dependent upon the gaze of the Other as is the female subject, and as
solicitous of it" (143).
 Furthermore, de Kooning's artistic
choices reveal her control over the final image, and thus, over the way in
which the male sitter's sexuality is expressed. Painting out the men's faces
is a powerful act, which serves to heighten the attention placed upon their
bodies. And, in the portrait of Porter, it is possible that de Kooning includes
the flowers in the upper right-hand corner, traditionally associated with
female beauty and sexuality, to proclaim the space that Porter sits in as
her own. Interestingly, in a 1957 portrait that Porter created of
de Kooning, the couch upholstery that she sits on has bright yellow flowers
in its design. Perhaps Porter associated yellow flowers with de Kooning because
of the portrait she had created of him three years earlier. Further visual
evidence to support this idea stems from other portraits Porter created where
the flowers on this same couch are painted in more muted colors, making them
recede into the background. Whereas Picasso used the diamond-patterned wallpaper
and Matisse his own profile to establish their control over the sitters in
their portraits, the flowers could be interpreted as de Kooning's symbolic
control of the space Porter occupies.
 While de Kooning's portraits of men
force us to rethink the traditional power dynamics played out within the genre
of modern portraiture, de Kooning's status as a "woman" painter
prevents her from acquiring the power accorded the "artistic geniuses"
Picasso and Matisse. In Picasso's and Matisse's portraits of women, many
of the sitters are known through the images created by the artists and their
relationships with the painters. In contrast, most of the men that de Kooning
depicts were known independently of their relationship to the artist. For
example, Porter is known as a representational painter and Sonnebend as a
European intellectual and poet--neither is known as Elaine de Kooning's friend.
Lazar is known as a businessman and art patron, not as Elaine de Kooning's
 Furthermore, this difference in power
can be gleaned in some of the different dynamics being played out in Picasso's
and de Kooning's portraits. Picasso's desire to control his romantic relationships
both in life and in the painted form is not evident in de Kooning's portraits
of men. Picasso's claim that a lover can see when she is on her way out,
does not seem to apply to de Kooning's portraits. Nor are de Kooning's men
presented as rivals.
 Power also plays a role in Picasso's
and Matisse's reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace the genre of portraiture.
Even though modern artists were changing the traditional conceptions of this
genre, portraiture still suffered from its perceived lack of artistic genius,
due, in part, to the genre's association with women artists. Interestingly,
with many of their portraits, both Picasso and Matisse provide general titles
such as The Dream or Woman with the Hat and either leave the
sitter's name out or place it in parentheses. These artists want to tie portraiture
to the creative mastery associated with abstracting from the figure. In doing
so, they blur the lines between portraiture and abstraction. This is one
reason why Matisse was often more interested in working through certain formal
and stylistic concerns with his portraits of his wife, than with capturing
Amélie's personality. In fact, when Matisse's brightly painted sketch-like
portrait of his wife, Woman with the Hat, was shown at the Salon d'Automne
in 1905 it created a scandal because, "the genre of portraiture itself
seemed to be under attack, and by implication the class of people who had
their portraits painted" (Klein, 76).
 De Kooning, on the other hand, takes
on this so-called female genre because as she stated: "...I had that
area free; I had to do it myself...once you are set to make a portrait, you're
free to make a painting" (Campbell, "The Portraits," 34).
De Kooning had this area free because she said that "Bill just always
thought that portraits were pictures that girls made" (Campbell,
"The Portraits," 34, emphasis not mine). In other words, de Kooning
was free to work in the margins because Willem, the artistic genius, was not
interested in this denigrated genre. Unlike Matisse and Picasso, Elaine de
Kooning sees this marginalized space as a site of resistance and, thus, attempts
to revitalize portraiture by combining the dynamic paint handling associated
with "action painting" with her unique vision of male sexuality.
 Of course, the way de Kooning depicts
male sexuality differs from the male artists' images of female sexuality.
While some of Picasso's portraits, such as The Dream (Marie-Thérèse),
1932, reveal his sitters in a passive pose, de Kooning's males, with open-legged
stances that dominate the composition, proclaim male privilege, making it
difficult to view them simply as passive sexual objects. As Nancy M. Henley
affirms: "femininity is gauged by how little space they [women] take
up, while men's masculinity is judged by their expansiveness" (38).
Also both Picasso and Matisse use nudity or partial nudity in some of their
portraits to emphasize the sitter's sexuality, whereas de Kooning's men are
clothed. The suits that many of them wear aid in expressing "a confident
adult masculinity, unflavored with either violence or passivity" (Hollanger,
113). Therefore, even if de Kooning was attempting to turn men into sex objects,
male heterosexuality is defined as active and powerful and, in this way, many
of her portraits of men uphold the norms of the period.
 The portrait of Porter, however, confirms that in de Kooning's portraits
of men, absolutes are absent. Instead, she creates complex images
that force the viewer to ask questions about the sexual dynamics
between onlooker and sitter and between artist and sitter. Perhaps
de Kooning provided some insight into her intentions when she stated:
"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"
 There are few, if any, women painters
prior to the 1950s who devoted themselves primarily to male subjects. This
fact, in addition to de Kooning's ability to capture the sexuality of her
male subjects, has not been adequately addressed in the literature. She has
received praise by critics, such as Lawrence Campbell and Bill Berkson, for
her ability to capture beautifully the likeness of her sitters, but her work
has not been thoroughly evaluated from an historical perspective. Ann Gibson
does mention that de Kooning's "parodic" faceless portraits of men
were overlooked in a time period when it was quite difficult, if not impossible,
to assign meaning to women depicting men in an "abstracted, regimented,
and fragmented" manner (51 and 134). However, Gibson later argues: "Historically,
one response to being in a comparatively powerless position has been to parody
those in power, yet simply turning the tables without changing the rules of
the game is seldom an effective way to resist domination" (134). Furthermore,
Jane K. Bledsoe acknowledges that there is a "flirtatious, open admiration
of masculinity" in de Kooning's portraits of men; however, she does not
elaborate much further, except to say that one must wait for de Kooning's
memoirs to be published in order to fully understand this phenomenon from
the artist's perspective (17). While it is true that de Kooning's memoirs
may help to answer some questions concerning the artist's relationship to
her sitters and her artistic intentions, one does not need to read her memoirs
to recognize that de Kooning transgresses 1950s gender stereotypes with her
portraits of men.
 De Kooning's assertive and defiant
artistic decisions reveal her rejection of the well-established notion that
women naturally only want to be the object of the male gaze. In taking
on some aspects of the Abstract Expressionist male persona, de Kooning proclaimed
the right to actively look at and probe her male figures just as Western male
artists have gazed at and examined the female figure throughout the centuries.
Therefore, even if de Kooning did not change the rules of the game, as Gibson
argues, her multifaceted sexualized portraits of men certainly question and
challenge the rules, an important step in resisting domination, especially
in the conformist fifties.
I am indebted to the many artists who spoke to me about de Kooning and her
work. I appreciate all the time Gary Lee spent reading drafts of this article,
as well as, Whitney Chadwick, Judith Bettelheim, Paula Birnbaum, and the scholars
at The Institute for Research on Women, Stanford University.
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CELIA S. STAHR teaches art history at San Francisco State
University. She has another essay on Elaine de Kooning in Notable
American Women coming out in 2004 published by Harvard University
Press. Currently she is working on a book about Elaine de Kooning.