First, let me say that this story is Elaine de Kooning’s story and not mine. I had heard it while printmaking and acting as quality control for a series of lithographs by some of the leading members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. I was just a baby, newly minted from the Rhode Island School of Design, and, as I recall, we (my then-boyfriend William Olsen, another lithographer/painter—David Lantow, and I) were working on a Trestle Editions project that was projected to be the last for Willem de Kooning.
This was my first New York Art World gig, and it was a tremendous learning experience in a number of ways. Working full time at the neighboring press, just through the french doors on the 4th floor at 75 Varick Street, I pulled serigraphs for artists such as Barbara Kruger, James Rosenquist, and others. I was called in, as needed, for quality control on the de Kooning project, so stories about ‘Bill and Elaine’ were swirling in the sticky, SoHo August air. The New York Art World was abuzz, in the throws of leveraging the tragic, Art World-induced drug overdose of Jean Michele Basquiat into products of more iconization and commodification.
One day, at Fanelli’s, the art-bar that had managed to stay open even during prohibition, I brought up the idea of ‘client worthiness,’ and William began telling a story about Elaine De Kooning recently having been on the receiving end of this mentality. Sitting in the cafe in my black frock and paint-and-ink-splattered jeans, I perched my head on the palm of my hand and leaned forward, my elbow resting on the cool, black-and-white-checker-covered table top, listening closely to the latest sweet inside-Art World story.
Elaine had gone shopping for a leather bag and found herself at one of the big upscale stores where she shopped frequently enough to have an account. That day, she was looking over large hand bags that suited her. As an artist, disinterested in impressing anyone with a dress-as-wealth sort of conspicuous agenda, she caught the nervous eye of the sales person who thought she should be watched as a potential thief/otherwise unworthy member of the human rat-race/who’s to say, exactly.
The clerk became even a little more nervous as Elaine actually approached the register with a gorgeous bag and asked to charge the $5,000 item to her account. She gave the clerk her account number, name and address. The sales clerk looked up her information then looked Mrs. De Kooning up and down with a slightly curled lip of disdain and incredulity. He asked Elaine for her drivers license (for a possible police report, maybe?) She indicated that such requests had never been protocol before.
This man could simply not believe that Elaine de Kooning, based on her appearance (read: importance), could be anyone capable (read: worthy) of buying this limited edition bag.
While Elaine tried to explain, first calmly, then with humor, next with increasing annoyance, and finally with out-right indignation, the manager came out from the back room, horrified to discover the iconic artist arguing with the ignorant sales clerk.
The manager tripped over himself apologizing to Elaine, while intermittently glaring sideways at the clerk, as if to say, If you don’t know what you are doing, please get someone who does! “This is Elaine de Kooning,” he repeated, emphasizing the ‘E’ in Elaine and and ‘oo’ in de Kooning as he spoke.
William finished his story and looked up from his beer. The sounds of sculptors and painters milling about, discussing meaning-making and materials, ideas and individuality, bouncing of the hard walls and tile floors of the venerable art-bar came into focus. We all shook our heads and ordered one more round before heading to Brooklyn.