A Measure of Success: My Day with Willem de Kooning

When the Dutch colonized parts of America in the 1600’s, they paved the way for centuries of Dutch influence. There have been many hashtags indicating what/when were America’s Dutch red letter dates. One needs not to travel beyond New York to realize their influences.

A simple “Grand Jete” from Rotterdam to New York in the late 1920’s stands today as a reminder of one particular great Dutch influence. de Kooning arrives.

Early in my photography career, an art dealer, Robert Elkon asked if I would  be interested in photographing Willem de Kooning. In 1982 I was very much interested in art. My career was flailing in many directions trying to define a career focus. I had made some portraits of artists and dozens of other people. I was a photographer for hire...if you paid, I shot. 

de Kooning  lived in “the Springs”. It is part of East Hampton. I had visited East Hampton by car before. I tried the Long Island Rail Road for a new experience.

I love riding trains. It allows for a circuitry of thoughts. Every imaginable dreamscape comes to mind. I hopped aboard and began my 2-3 hour journey. It was a bit like being in Woody Allen’s movie, “Love and Death”. You know, Woody’s character, Boris is in the glum rail car. The lights are flickering, windows are stained and the car is filled with sad faces. The worst imaginable thoughts come to mind. I wasn’t sure if this was to be an adventure or a nightmare. I could hardly make out the splendor of the Long Island countryside. I was clearly a prisoner in what I felt was a closet of squalor.

I was wondering about what the journey might mean to my career. I was dreaming about what I might produce. I imagined when I began my journey as a photographer that I would become one of those Dagueere generation of photographers who traveled the earth to return home with images of the exotic planet that was either flat or round but clearly new to our eyes.

The generation of artists that produced Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s art was not new to the canon of art history. Expressionism/Abstract Expressionism was a Kandinsky world and more. These two artists rode this wave of art into the second half of  the American century. Pollock and de Kooning had carved out an incredible legacy. I was the lucky one on my way to make a bit of history with one of those giants. Pollock was now dead and most people presumed de Kooning was dead. The pedestrian story was that he had Alzheimer’s. I could feel a short circuit in my brain. This day was either going to be a waste of time, or a memorable Richard Schulman red letter date.

The train arrived. After three hours of my mind feeling like Alice going down the rabbit hole, I stepped away from the train to make my way to meet one of America’s great painters.

I had not rented a car, and taxis in those days did not hang out midweek at the station.

I pretended I was 12 years old again, I did the only imaginable thing – I stuck out my thumb. I walked for maybe a mile before a jeep pulled up with two blond girls in the front. They asked where I was going. “I’m here to photograph the artist Willem de Kooning”. I gave them the address.

I hopped in. We sped along. The passenger turned around as we were driving along past East Hampton’s famous windmill and fabled homes to the area known as “The Springs.” She said, ”I think you have made a mistake. He will not pose for you”. I was clearly surprised. “Why are you so sure?”. “I’m Bill de Kooning’s daughter Lisa”, she said. Wow!! What are the odds? I told her the session was already arranged. She posed a proposition. She said that if her dad says ok, that she will personally drive me back to the train station afterwards. She smiles and  hands me a “smoke”. I take a “hit” or two. 

We arrive at the house. She jumps out of the car and runs to the house. “Dad” she screams. “Are you expecting a photographer?” He says, “Yes, Schulman”. Her face drops in surprise. She walks me in, and there I shake Willem de Kooning’s hand. He was dressed in a blue bathrobe and white pajamas.


In those days, I recorded my sessions on audio tape. I made very few. It got in the way of making photographs, but I’m grateful this tape still exists. We strolled around the living area and sipped coffee as he shared with me stories  about arriving in America in the 1920’s. He recalled the girls and drinking at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. But maybe the best share was about the remarkable day when Jackson Pollack came racing to his house, raving about his new style of painting using a drip technique. The afternoon was filled with Bill’s lucid account of personal history, the art world and artist friends. The de Kooning moment was not merely a career moment, but a life experience.


I finished my day with a handshake. I turned off the recorder, packed my bags and turned to Bill to tell him how grateful I was for this time.

 I walked to the end of the property. I turned to see him standing in the doorway waving at me. My ride had disappeared. I headed down the road back to town.The fall leaves were raining from the sky like a million Monarch Butterflies flitting from the heavens. I declared out loud, “this! is it. I know what am going to do the rest of my life.” Maybe a hundred thousand photographs later, I realize how the de Kooning moment paved the way for a career taking pictures.

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning