Whether in biography or fiction, the core of an artist's life is lost to history
How exciting it is to heft 630 pages about a much-admired artist, with another 100 pages of footnotes and index to boot. Knopf has just published a full-blown biography of Willem de Kooning, Abstract Expressionist and quintessential 20th-century European immigrant, by New York-magazine art critic Mark Stevens and former Newsweek senior arts editor Annalyn Swan. The excitement is largely justified. The copious footnotes at the back represent extensive research and hint at the generous amount of first-hand information gathered from de Kooning's surviving family members and peers.
The quotes from friends and acquaintances provide some of the most entertaining and insightful moments in this story - for instance, Milton Resnick reconstructing a conversation at Stewart's, a popular artist hang-out in New York in the '30s: "But you can't really understand what paint is doing. Paint is doing something that you ask it to do in order to get the nose on somebody's face. The paint also does something that isn't the nose on the face."
The authors' attempts at psychoanalysis using de Kooning's work are not as successful. They do a convincing job of recreating the Rotterdam of de Kooning's impoverished youth and of bringing to life his volatile, overbearing mother on the one hand, and of describing the mid-century New York art world and its effect on de Kooning's work on the other. I wish they might have left it at that and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions about the artist's alleged misogyny.
Stevens and Swan's attempt to parse an artist's genius is nonetheless far more tolerable than the liberties Diego Rivera's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marín, takes in Diego Rivera the Red, new from Arté Publico Press. The book, which promises "a colorful recreation of the childhood and early adulthood of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera," is translated from the Spanish, so Rivera Marín may not be to blame for the stilted, unnatural-sounding dialogue. I can imagine the painter cursing as he does here, but it takes a tin ear to insert phrases such as this in an
Arté Publico is coy about this book's place in the literary universe: Although it is packaged as a work of fiction, Rivera Marín's lineage, and impressive resume, gives it a veneer of authenticity. "For Diego Rivera, life was a fantasy, just as his own life was fabled story," reads the inscription on the frontispiece, which I suppose is a disclaimer of sorts. But Diego Rivera the Red inverts the law of perspective: As it tries to bring the great man closer, it makes him appear smaller. •
By Elaine Wolff