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Inside de Kooning's Studio With His Former Assistant, Tom Ferrara

06/05/2013 10:41 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013


Footage from Willem de Kooning: Artist, courtesy of Masters & Masterworks

Painter Tom Ferrara was Willem de Kooning's studio assistant for nearly a decade, beginning in 1979, when Ferrara was just 25. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. "Bill," as Ferrara called him, was a world-famous artists by then -- and perhaps its most important. A founding father of the Abstract Expressionist movement, he, along with painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Klein, had permanently changed the history of Modern Art and relocated its center from Paris to New York.

Pollock's death in a drunk driving accident in 1956 had left de Kooning as Abstract Expressionism's public face. But the pressures and exigencies of that role -- and of the city, itself -- stifled de Kooning, and he moved permanently to East Hampton, on Long Island, in 1963. The change in de Kooning's work was unmistakable: His jagged lines, simple colors and furious, obsessive revisions in thick paint gave way to a greater fluidity. The colors were more nuanced, the line more decisive, reflecting the natural splendor of his new coastal surroundings.

Ferrara was with de Kooning for much of the East Hampton era, back when it was a modest artist colony. Still a working painter, Ferrara remembers this advice from his friend Bill: "Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you're getting better." For the third in a series of Q&As about de Kooning, Christie's caught up with Ferrara ahead of an online auction of 33 de Kooning works from his East Hampton period, live from June 5-19.

AC: What do you think changed for de Kooning after he moved? How did it change his painting?

TM: He loved being close to the water more than anything. Being from Holland, he [was from] a port town. So, he liked the water and the salt air. I think the image just changed naturally. When you're living in New York City, it's hard not to make New York paintings. But when you move to the country and you're in a place that's almost like paradise, you know, it's hard to paint these kind of urban-feeling paintings.

I think it was just sort of the natural influence of the landscape and different kind of lifestyle. It's much quieter in the country; you don't have the sound of traffic. You don't worry about someone breaking into your apartment. It's just a whole different feeling.

And it's not just the reprieve, it's also the aesthetic, right? The water and trees follow a different sort of line than a city block does.

Right. It was definitely the imagery as well as the feeling of being in the country. He was certainly influenced by the color. And the light -- he talked about that a lot, just the light out in the Hamptons. There's more of an atmospheric effect, so you're getting the light sort of diffused through the atmosphere. I think that was all a very big influence on him. The paintings still had this kind of underlying agitation, but they were more pastoral, more open and a little more serene.

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Painter Tom Ferrara, de Kooning's former assistant, in de Kooning's studio, circa 1982. Image courtesy of Tom Ferrara.

What was your personal relationship like in the studio?

One thing I remember him saying was, "Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you're getting better." And he realized that the skill part of it is not the most important part -- there's something else. But he was very generous. He gave me space to work and he told me if I ever needed materials to just charge them to his account.

He did like to bounce ideas around. Like occasionally he would ask, "Well, if it was your painting, what would you do?" Or he'd ask something more specific like, "Do you think that red line in the upper left has too much of a curve?" And he would definitely give me advice, although I think he was careful about being too much of an influence. He knew that anything that he said would really resonate.

He would talk a lot about controlling the surface. He didn't like to let the paint get too built up early on. He liked to keep it thin early in the painting. He saw me starting to build up this impasto right from the start and he thought that was a mistake. So that was helpful. People see his work and a lot of it does have that thick texture. But that was only at the final stages. Early on, if he wasn't happy with it, he would scrape it off.

De Kooning wasn't the first New York artist to relocate out East. What was the scene like out there?

Early on there was a lot of socializing. Toward the end of the 80s, the place got to be more of a zoo. There was a big boom in real estate in the 80s and that was when, really, a lot of the lawyers and stock brokers started moving out there. There were still a lot of artists around but it was harder for ordinary artists to survive out there. And a lot of the crowd, his generation, they were starting to get sick and some of them were dying off.

A lot of artists would come to visit. I remember people like Ibram Lassaw and Conrad Marca-Relli and Philip Pavia and Tino Nivola, Isamu Noguchi. You know, for an old person I think those connections are important.

Working beside him while he was sliding into Alzheimer's, was there something that transformed in him when he entered the studio as the art history community suggests?

Absolutely.

How did he change? Can you characterize it?

In his studio, it was a place where he was really grounded. And when he saw the artwork, I guess it reminded him of what he was doing. When he would go outside, a lot of times he would become a bit more disoriented. He always was anxious to go back to his studio. That was the place he felt most comfortable.

[Alzheimer's] really is a tragic thing to watch, but it's amazing what a person can do. For de Kooning, he relied a lot on his intuition, so I think in some ways that connection might have gotten even stronger once his memory started to fade.

People commonly talk about Abstract Expressionism as being highly instinct-driven. Was that true with de Kooning?

It's intuition. It's what he relied on. And that was very strong well into his disease. And intuition is in the whole body. Artists talk about working from their gut, and it feels like it's coming from the center, but really it's from the whole body. It's from every cell. And that was really his main resource.

He never painted from memory. That was of little importance in his work aside from learning art history. But those things he had thoroughly assimilated already.

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Willem de Kooning, Untitled (circa 1960s), oil on paper

Do you find as a fully cognizant abstract painter that there's a mode you slip into -- an expressionist mode we might call it -- where you abandon some of your free will?
Absolutely. I think it's important to get into that zone because I really do feel that intuition is the greatest resource that we have. I find that a lot of times with my own work, when I fail, I feel it's from too much thinking.

It's like the story about the centipede: Ask him which leg he moves first and he can't walk.

That was actually a story that Bill told. One time I asked him about if he ever thought about how history would look at his work. And he said that's like the story of the spider and the centipede: The spider asks the centipede "how do you know which leg to put in front of the other?" And the centipede says, "I don't know, let me think." And all of a sudden he got so tripped-up that the spider ate him.

Did de Kooning influence your work as a painter?

I was already painting abstractly, although I was also doing some figurative work and some landscape. [Abstraction] wasn't something I was committed to, and even since meeting him I continued with figurative work for a while.

He was always back and forth between abstraction and figure -- they were sort of intertwined constantly. So it was not so much the imagery that was influential [for me], but his approach to painting, his way of working, the way he developed his ideas. I really saw the importance of drawing in his work, the way he was constantly reintegrating the drawings in with the paintings. He wouldn't hesitate to totally sacrifice the image in the interest of moving it forward and pushing it in a different direction. So it was that sense of working and then re-working an image: Through that, you acquire a kind of depth that's hard to get any other way.

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