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Artists in Love

Posted on 11 January 2013

Helen A.Harrison

According to the Symbolist poet Remy de Gourmont, “art is the accomplice of love.” In his essay, “Decadence,” he wrote: “Take love away and there is no longer art.” If only that were true! For proof that it isn’t, leaf through Veronica Kavass’ gorgeous new coffee-table book, Artists in Love, where you’ll find scant evidence of the creative flame dying when passion cools or the loved one departs. Among the 29 couples she profiles, in only one case does it appear that the loss of love triggered artistic stasis, and then only temporarily. After Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s accidental death, her grief-stricken husband paused then resumed a career that lasted another twenty years.

The book ranges widely through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting with Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, who went their separate ways after a tumultuous affair, and ending with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, a married couple who collaborate on installations. It includes a few with local associations — like the Kabakovs, who live on the North Fork, and Susan Rothenberg, who had a house in Sag Harbor before moving to New Mexico when she married Bruce Nauman, as well as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne, and of course Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, whose photograph came from the Pollock-Krasner House collection. When Kavass contacted me to ask for it I was glad to comply, since I could hardly imagine a book on the subject that didn’t include them.

In addition to the other obvious candidates, like Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, Rivera and Kahlo, Picasso and Gilot, etc., there are some less famous but no less deserving inclusions: Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight (the only artists of color), Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, for example. Naturally there are omissions. In her introduction, Kavass explains that she was forced to leave out Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta when permission to reproduce their work was refused — not surprising, given the still-controversial nature of Mendieta’s death. (Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder.) Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz are also absent, as are the Starn Twins, Komar and Melamid, and Newton and Helen (not this one) Harrison. The most unfortunate exclusion is Gilbert and George, the British duo who have created art jointly for more than 40 years. To her credit, Kavass does include two other gay couples, but if ever there were an argument for art, love and life merging, that pair makes it. Their work is unthinkable without their relationship.

Like Gilbert and George, some of the featured couples are known for collaborative ventures, notably Bernd and Hilla Becher, McDermott & McGough, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugen. In the latter two instances, Kavass points out that the female member of the team is (or was, as Jeanne-Claude died in 2009) more of a facilitator than an artist in her own right, and she’s positively catty in describing the Oldenburg-van Bruggen pairing: “Artist falls head over heels and wants to charm curator. He recreates his sculptures to her liking, under the same title, adding her name to it. Curator falls for him, marries artist, and takes over his career. What did he lose in this equation? Perhaps some pride. But otherwise, he had a ball.”

Kavass’ breezy text is peppered with occasional brickbats like that one. Her informal tone sometimes veers into snark, as when she dismisses the wealthy Surrealist painter Kay Sage as a “sugar mama” who was “completely gooey-eyed” over her husband Yves Tanguy, and describes Krasner as “Pollock’s ball-and-chain, someone [Peggy Guggenheim] had to talk through to get to Pollock.” Yes, these couples had troubled relationships, but they were also mutually supportive, often through tough times — Sage literally rescued Tanguy from the Nazis. But Kavass also comes up with some telling observations, as when Dorothea Tanning’s autobiography prompts her to imagine the artist as “a woman wrapped in velvet, resting supine on the grass, taking drags from a long ivory cigarette holder, letting the smoke shape the words.”

Interestingly, although not surprisingly, in only two cases is the female partner better known than the male, although you could argue that Kahlo has now pulled ahead of Rivera, at least in terms of critical opinion. The two in question are Eva Hesse, whose short, stormy marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle propelled her from painting to sculpture, and Marina Abramovic, the performance artist who credited her partnership with the mononymic Ulay for saving her from self-destruction. But even when the partnership was creative as well as romantic, the man is almost always the dominant figure. People who admire the designs of Charles and Ray Eames often assume that both were men, possibly brothers, rather than husband and wife.

In Artists in Love, however, the work of both sexes gets equally beautiful reproductions, many of them full page and in color, and expansively captioned. Each essay begins with a photograph of the couple, ranging from the stiff formality of the Kandinsky-Münter portrait, taken years after their affair ended, to Josef and Anni Albers’ affectionate embrace and Rothenberg and Nauman’s sweet smooching. Where they are concerned, you might agree with Gourmont that love and art are accomplices.

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