In the winter of 1981, I was teaching movement and dance at an East Hampton massage and yoga studio where Elaine de Kooning took classes. She liked my spirit and suggested it might help to lighten her husband's depression if I gave him massages every day or so. Bill de Kooning was 76 years and had recently quit drinking. I started right away, and worked with him for two months.
I kept a journal of our time together.
Feb. 3. My first day with Bill. Tom, his assistant, met me at the door, quiet and cordial. Bill was summoned. He came down the wide expanse of stairs smoking a cigarette, in his green robe and paint spattered slippers. He told me he felt like two cents.
I gave him a massage, surrounded by light, plants, art, space...all elements that put me in the best state of mind for my work. Afterwards, he said he felt terrific, like he was floating. Tom told him to take a steam. He complied willingly and disappeared.
Feb. 4. The same sweet man comes down the stairs again, obliging and childlike. Could this be the senile alcoholic--the recluse--I'd heard so much about?
Feb. 5. Today he said he felt much better; thought the massage was helping. Elaine asked me if I could also do some stretches with him and take him for walks. I lead him in some simple stretches and he said he liked them though he doubted his ability to execute them correctly. During our daily massage I noticed how stiff and flat he held his hands, board-like. I heated, softened and molded them to loosen and relax the muscles and connective tissue.
Feb. 6. After his massage, Bill got dressed and put on his heavy suede fur-lined jacket. (I had told him we might go for a walk after visiting the psychiatrist. Elaine had asked me to take him to Dr. Oxenhorn in Southampton.) When we got in the car, he was smoking a cigarette and asked for an ashtray. I looked on the floor of the back seat and picked up one, which had become unhinged from the door. He thought it very funny that I produced this tiny little ashtray from the floor. He said he loved to ride in cars...to look at the countryside. "I was put in Southampton Hospital for drinking. I escaped. I used to be a boozer, but I gave it up. I don't miss it; never want one. I loved the AA meetings. I mean it was the same old stories each time but it was good to laugh about our situation... everyone was in the same boat together. We saw the humor in our predicament."
We went to Rocking Wells Restaurant for lunch. He had shown me his book on Norman Rockwell the day before and told me that Rockwell was one of his favorite artists; that he has such compassion for people. Rocking Wells has many Rockwell prints, so I thought Bill might enjoy seeing them.
Bill and I went to the camera store so I could buy a camera. He was perfectly content to sit in the shop and watch the people go by and was particularly delighted by a little girl who came in. When we left he mused, "People worship the painting of an artist and don't know anything about the man. I never get conceited about my work because the paintings are not me. And no matter how hard an artist tries, it can never be good enough."
Back at the studio Bill took down Rockwell's book and expressed how sympathetically Rockwell depicted his subjects. When the two of them exchanged books, Bill said he signed his in big letters; Rockwell in small script. Bill said he felt like two cents when he saw how Rockwell has signed his. "Norman didn't think about it that way, I bet." "Probably not." I said. "He probably had the same compassion for me like he does for the people in his pictures." Bill said.
Feb. 6. We're sitting in Bill's studio in his big rocking chairs, drinking decaffeinated coffee. Bill, Tom and I are looking at his pictures. He seems detached from the work, not involved or reflective, as if he were looking at someone else's work. I dance, Tom sketches, the white cat joins in, weaving around me as I move. Bill exclaims, "Well what do you know about that? That's terrific." Bill likes Tom's sketches but is not drawn into our conspiracy (to inspire Bill to draw).
Feb. 10. Bill is in his bed-den, sheets pulled up, grizzly beard, cold coffee and cigarette butts on the table. Eyes clenched shut. "I feel terrible. Such a pain in my belly. I want to stay in bed." I tell him he'll feel better if he gets out of bed. He snarls. He says he feels better in bed. I said, "I thought you felt terrible. Look. I know what it's like not to want to get out of bed. I also know you'll feel better if you get out of bed." He pushed back the covers and said if he didn't feel better he was going to get back in bed.
He gets up and begins riding his bike, eyes closed. I ask him if he minds if I put on some music. No. I begin stretching and moving while he rides. I sing. On his face appears to be a smile. Eyes closed. When he gets off his spirits have lifted.
Bill points to a photo of two bums on 42nd Street. "There used to be a garden-type place in the Bowery--flowers, plants and benches --where the bums would go snooze and wine-dream. I envied their art of measured imbibing. I used to give them money to buy their sweet wine. Why not help them feel good? Now, me, I used to be a boozer. I had to stop. I couldn't drink, sip by sip, through the day, just enough, like they could. I would just get stoned and sick. How did they do it? I envied them that."
Feb. 11. Bill is up, dressed, walking around. First time he's been up and about. He greets me and begins questioning me about how long he has to continue this program of massage and exercise...if I would be coming every day for the rest of his life! "Why do I have to do exercise all the time? I'm a painter, not a dancer. Dancers always try to get everybody to do what they do. Painters don't care if other people paint or not." (It is true. Dancers are social creatures!) I tell him that I'm going for a walk and would he like to accompany me. Yes, he would like that. End of tirade.
Feb. 14. Bill's in bed, asleep. When I wake him he says he is feeling anxious about his work and feels very tired. "Freud said about da Vinci that he 'thought himself tired'...much better in German."
We went for a walk and Bill told me he enjoyed the anticipation of painting and he couldn't go back to what he knew even if he wanted to. But he knew he was good and that something else would come. But he had to wait. I told him I sometimes went into the studio and began dancing, improvisationally. He said he doesn't work that way. Usually he studies old pictures and sees new forms emerge and that can be the genesis for a new painting. He often works very fast, makes a few preliminary sketches and then "gives it the business." He showed me a new painting. A fast one. An hour. He likes it but can't paint too many like that. "Dufy painted the same way over and over again. He's good but how can he stand it? If I painted the same thing over and over again I would just become a 'picture maker'. Once I painted over a painting that wasn't 'feeling good' for a TV crew. I didn't care if I ruined the painting as I was just doing a demonstration. The painting turned out great, which was quite a surprise since I was just painting in a contrived situation. I'm tired of painting the way I have been. I know it too well. I need something new. After so many years, I have the technique perfected. When I paint again, something else needs to happen...to come through."
He gave me a big hug and kiss and with his characteristic, "Bless your heart."
Feb. 22. When I arrive Bill says he needs a few days to just mope; needs to get the moping out of his system. He doesn't want to work...is ready to go to something else but doesn't know what yet. "I want less structure, like Matisse, my favorite artist. He has no 'ism.' Many of his paintings are simple with no contrast or shading; just the use of black and white, line and space. I hate the Cubism of Picasso; I want to paint so that the ordinary person can understand my paintings. A simplicity. But how? What? I feel so tired," he says.
Feb. 26. Bill is asleep when I arrive. I urge him to get up for his massage. He snarls, "Would you pester a dog who's sleeping? You'd leave him alone. Why can't I be left alone?" I tell him he can, that I'll leave right away. Then I cajole him into getting out of bed and getting on the massage table. He complies. Afterwards he feels better and not so tired, he says. (An aside: Elaine had called earlier and said she was pleased with Bill's progress; that he was much more alert and people had noticed.)
Feb. 27. When I arrive Bill has a sketch beside his bed...an idea that came to him that he wanted to get on paper before it left him. He says he's starting to have lots of ideas but doesn't quite know how to paint them yet.
March 2. Bill told me the story about Joseph Hirshhorn, who was crabbing with his friend Joe. They kept pulling them in for hours. Finally Joe said, "Hirshhorn, don't you think we have enough? Look at all these crabs!" "Joe, there are more in there. I know it!" Bill admires Hirshhorn...his spunk and indefatigable spirit.
March 4. Out of the blue, Bill says, "Nobody loves me. That's the problem." "Really?" I say. "Well, I mean people love me...my daughter Lisa loves me and I guess Elaine loves me but we don't have a relationship. You know what I mean?" "You want to be loved in a special way," I say. "Yes, I do," he sighs.
March 5. We sit and talk in the studio. I give him his pills. "The end of me," he says. I tell him how his blue painting inspired one of my dance pieces...the dance about wide motions, space, air. He's pleased.
March 6, 1981. "Why did Rothko kill himself? He was a famous renowned painter. What was lacking? Franz Kline only painted in black and white; he was too lazy to use color. He was good, though. You can use your limitation as an asset. What I need is a slug of whiskey."
March 7. "These are very good," he says of my charcoal sketches.
"See the forms in this one? You should take the less simple ones and paint them. Just keep drawing until you have several that you like and then go deeper into them. Find the shapes and bring them out, consciously. Here I am, all this talking about art and I'm an old man in bed." We laugh. He is adorable this very minute and sees the crazy humor in his situation. A bed-loving philosopher trying to be a painter... again. He is so considerate of me; doesn't want to displease me. I don't know if this is OK but don't worry about it. I am touched by our rapport.
March 8. I give him a long focused massage. At the end as I cradle his head in my hands, I impulsively put the top of my head against the top of his. He reaches up behind him and takes my face in his hands. I take his hands; he holds mine tenderly. It is a very sweet moment.
The alarm people come to check the alarm system in his storehouse. There are so many paintings out there, but when I expressed concern about leaving the men alone while we walk, he says, "If they stole one, I'd never miss it."
Epilogue: Bill went on to begin painting a new series of paintings, The Late Paintings, spanning from 1981-1990. I moved to NYC, married, and by a series of amazing circumstances my husband and I moved to Bolinas, California, where we bought Elaine de Kooning's house "on the edge of a cliff." Moving to Athens, Georgia in 1999, we envisioned and built Canopy Studio, an Aerial Arts and Performance Center. We now live on a tidal creek in the Low Country of Georgia. I perform and teach aerial dance around the country.