Ruth Kligman‘s harrowing, intimate memoir, LOVE AFFAIR (1974) , detailed her doomed romance with Jackson Pollock (screen siren Jennifer Connelly portrayed her in Ed Harris’s 2000 biopic). Mentored by Willem de Kooning, Kligman has, over the course of five decades, created an eclectic body of artwork—now on view at the ZoneChelsea gallery.
1 What was your training? I studied at the Art Students League. In ’56 I met Jackson, and then he passed, and then in 1957 I met de Kooning. And we hung out for four years and he nicknamed me his “Sponge,” because I asked lots of questions and I absorbed everything he said.
2 What was the heyday of abstract expressionism like? I remember having a conversation with Franz Kline. I had just finished The Bullring [a large, vibrant, abstract painting]. I had kept turning it and turning it—you have to keep the texture alive—and it just felt like this bullring to me. It was about midnight, I was kind of shaky and I went to the Cedar, and there was Franz at the bar, and he says, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “Oh, I’ve just finished what I think is the best painting I’ve ever done,” and he said to the bartender, “Give her a scotch with a beer chaser.” Then he said something fabulous: “They don’t know how hard it is. They think it’s easy. They don’t know it’s like jumping off a 12-story building every day.”
3 Then your work took a different turn? In the ’60s I had a vision. I saw that there was no difference between the body and nature’s landscapes—if you look at Santa Fe’s landscape it looks like a woman’s body. At sunset it becomes a violet-pink. It has to do with light—my newest paintings I call landscapes of the sky.
4 What about your ’90s “Demon” drawings? I started them when I was in Santa Fe. . . . I felt oppressed by New York. Like “Leave me alone—I want out!” But I do love them now. It’s funny how they became beautiful [to me].
5 What do you think of your work, looking back? I feel lucky in my art, just to take a pencil and onionskin paper and make an emotion that people react very strongly to. I get notes in the gallery book that people have found it uplifting, so I feel very honored. That’s a lot in life.
Kligman’s work is at ZoneChelsea, 601 West 26th Street, through March 25.