Elaine and Bill de Kooning, 1953. Courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

When the summer of 1948 rolled around, Elaine and Willem de Kooning were relieved to take a break from the New York art scene which seemed to be taking from them much more than it was giving. On an invitation from Josef Albers, Willem came to Black Mountain College to teach painting. Elaine joined him, studying under Josef Albers, R. Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham. While the respite from their “penniless existence” in New York was welcomed by both, the two had very different impressions of the college.

In a recollection of her time at Black Mountain College (included in the now out of print anthology of personal accounts Sprouted Seeds), Elaine was struck by the camp-like atmosphere and how the campus managed to function with scarce resources. When they first arrived, Willem and Elaine had settled in just before the bell rung for communal meals in the dining hall. Not yet realizing the urgency, the couple took their time looking out over Lake Eden and taking in their home for the summer. By the time that they arrived to the Dining Hall, they realized that all of the food was gone. They wouldn’t make that mistake again (though the menu that week later included a meal of bananas and frankfurters).

Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948. Oil and enamel on cardboard. 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection. Acquired in 1952. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Alumnus Gerald van de Wiele, who attended BMC in its last years, when the summer of 1948 had reached mythical status, reported that he had heard that Willem covered his windows with newsprint in an effort to reduce the “distractions” of the mountains outside. Students of Willem claimed that he saw little value in their staying at BMC and encouraged them to come to New York in the fall, establish a studio and invest in their painting, rather than their education. Naturally, when that fall did come, Willem was headed back to New York. He brought with him one of his first, great all-over paintings, “Asheville,” which has come to define a turning point in his career.⁠

Elaine’s experience was very different. She took advantage of that summer to dive into her studio work and to work alongside artists and intellectuals who would influence her greatly. She played a critical role in the attempted construction of R. Buckminster Fuller’s first large scale geodesic dome. Now referred to as the Supine Dome, this attempt utilized Venetian blinds in an experiment of structural integrity. De Kooning remembers that the dome was intended to have two layers of Venetian blinds for added support, but that they could only afford half of the materials. Elaine also played a key role in the production of the Ruse of the Medusa, along with Fuller, Merce Cunningham (with whom she studied dance that summer), director Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg (who design the sets alongside Willem de Kooning), and MC Richards who translated the production from its original French. These two campus events defined the summer of 1948 as one of the greatest moments in modern art and design and Elaine was determined to be at the center of it all.

Elaine de Kooning (center), R. Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Albert Lanier, and others with the Supine Dome, 1948.

While Willem found inspiration and opportunity in New York, Elaine flourished in the independence and isolation that Black Mountain College provided. While she was ambivalent about the work she created there, her studio process in that time was hugely influential in her career as an abstract expressionist painter. Elaine has been famously quoted that she painted in Willem’s “light,” rather than his “shadow,” but it’s easy to see how the space she created for herself at Black Mountain College allowed for her to invest more deeply into her own practice.⁠

Both artists are now recognized as two of the greatest Abstract Expressionist painters, with both of their prolific careers taking crucial turns during that legendary summer at BMC.⁠