Susan Slotnick: Communing with De Kooning

De-kooning practice painting on New York Times newsprint.

He was a known drunk, but I loved him. It was during the “anything goes, freewheeling Age of Aquarius” when drugs and drinking, especially with famous men who painted huge abstract canvases, were “the cat’s pajamas.”  He painted in a style referred to as Abstract Expressionism and was part of a group of artists known as the New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko.

I was a nervy 28 year old, unabashedly okay with knocking on the front door of the famous painter’s house at 11 a.m. and inviting myself inside.  These men, I then believed, loved good-looking outrageous hippy chicks.  Before the second wave of the women’s liberation movement I didn’t know any better than to dress myself in that persona to talk my way into the home of my idol.

I did not look my best that day since I had a large bulbous infected sty which nearly shut my right eye, giving me a comic pop-eye like expression.  Undeterred, I rang his doorbell. After a few excruciating heart-racing moments, a short grey-haired weary looking fellow answered the door.


“You’re my favorite painter in the whole world. I was passing by (a lie) and it would mean the world to me to come into your studio and look around.”

I effused my way into the front door.

He put his arm around me in a fatherly fashion and said, “Dear.  Dear. No reason to cry. (This perception the result of my sty.) I don’t feel very well. I was lying down and need to again, but I will let you in and you can stay as long as you like.”


Inside the studio of Willem De Kooning 

It was enormous, with ceiling-to-floor windows. Hundreds of huge canvases slung around, some fallen down, others about to, littering the periphery of the space as if they were worth nothing.

Specially made paint brushes by the hundreds with long three-feet aquiline tips were placed in large canisters on the floor.  On each of the half-dozen tables sat a super-size can of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. (I attempted to mix my oil paints with mayonnaise after that, but each canvas dosed with mayo took at least six months to dry.)

On one table unused, New York Times pages– flat, gotten directly from the factory — were piled eye-high.

If I had larceny in my ticker, I could be a very wealthy woman today.  On the vast floor were hundreds of discarded practice paintings,  the newsprint each testing a color scheme, brush stroke or subject. I tried to avoid stepping on them, but it was impossible.

I could have stolen many, even a painting since Willem poked his head in and said, “I am going to bed. Just let yourself out.”

The current record price for an abstract expressionist painting is approximately $300,000,000 paid for Willem de Kooning’s Interchange in November 2015. I figure even if the practice paintings swept off the floor were only worth one percent of that, each would bring in a cool three million. I could have kept some.  There were so many. He would not have missed a single one. Do I regret it? Yes.

Sometimes I imagine I took five.  Let me see, that’s $15,000,000. Then I fantasize summarily giving the money away to various causes. How many children in Haiti could I send to school from one discarded page of newspaper?  Tuition is $200 a year, $3,000,000 divided by $200…. that’s 15,000 children off the streets into school, catapulted toward a new life just from one man’s garbage!

I scooped-up not a single one. In fact, at the time, it never even occurred to me.

I have been painting large abstract and figurative paintings off and on throughout my life. Now there are dozens of mediums to mix with paint, nevertheless, recently I played around with mayonnaise again. This time to disastrous results —  coagulation and cracks!

I still have moments when I pretend to be one of the guys, swishing around a drink, imagining a cigar hanging from my mouth, throwing paint on the canvas like Pollack and De Kooning.

A few months ago I went to the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo, NY.

My daughter, looking at a large abstract expressionist painting said, “Mom, that looks like something you would do!” I took out my reading glasses, peered at the small white label, and there was the name Willem De Kooning written in a delicate white font! If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Willem, I love and admire you still!

After being known as an “artsy” town, we finally, for the first time, have an art gallery located in the center of town at 69 Main Street……ROOST STUDIOS. It’s a collective of local artists with one person and group shows that change each month.

My one-woman show, Visual Rhythms can be viewed from July 6 through July 30.

The opening reception is Saturday, July 8 from 6 to 8 p.m.  I will be giving a Gallery Talk, which will be most unusual on Thursday, July 13 at 6 p.m. There will be food and drink at the reception and an array of De-Kooingish like offerings.

Come meet the artist! That’s me!