De Kooning’s Deception

Photographing the painter at work was a tricky proposition.

Dan Budnik shot a good number of great portraits in his career—of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, Sophia Loren, and many of his New York School artist friends. But one of his most challenging assignments was capturing Willem de Kooning. Not because the artist, whom Budnik often saw socially, wouldn’t sit for a photograph. De Kooning was happy enough to pose—just not while he was painting.

Dan Budnik photographed de Kooning in his new studio in the Springs, Long Island, in 1964.
©Dan Budnik/Woodfin Camp

“He’d say, ‘I’m not an actor. I don’t want to be fake,’” Budnik recently told ARTnews from his home in Tucson.

The photographer and the painter had already known each other for several years when Budnik spent two weeks with de Kooning in the spring of 1962. The occasion for the visit was a project for a book to benefit the nascent Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Budnik was prepared to acknowledge the artist’s ground rules. But then de Kooning announced that he was going to work. So Budnik did too. “I got these wonderful first-time images of de Kooning painting,” Budnik says.

About two years later, Budnik tried to track down the image de Kooning was creating in the photographs. He asked de Kooning about it, and, as Budnik recalls, “He said, ‘I painted over that. I was just doing that for you. You’re such a nice guy, I didn’t want to disappoint you.’

“I said to Bill, ‘You said you weren’t an actor. You’re a damn good actor.’”

By then de Kooning had gotten over his misgivings about being photographed while painting. In early 1964 he had just moved into his new East Hampton studio in the Springs, and Budnik was again on hand, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, to document his progress. At the time de Kooning was mainly painting individual female figures, picking up where he left off with his “Women” of the 1950s.

It would be another three years before he would show the work—and in November 1967, when ARTnews previewed his exhibition that month at Knoedler Gallery, it ran one of the pictures from Budnik’s 1964 shoot. In an article titled “The Light of de Kooning,” Louis Finkelstein, head of the art department at Queens College, describes the new paintings as a psychological manifestation of “inward states” rather than “outward relations.” These pictures, he suggests, do not “cause an observer to say as… in the case of the first ‘Women,’ ‘I wonder what Bill’s got against the girls.’”

Finkelstein sees in de Kooning’s color “what I can only call moral quality, a suggestion of the seductiveness of the flesh together with the corruption of the flesh. One finds the same expression in Bosch and in Ensor—sweetness, delicacy and delight, tinged with bitterness and cruelty.”

And in this show, he writes, “color has taken over as the dominant vehicle of expression.” Indeed, he adds, “the paintings are as seductive and juicy as the past year’s psychedelically amplified fashions or a head shop full of posters.”

Well, it was 1967.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of


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