Court Rules Artist De Kooning ‘Incapable’

Affirming a petition filed in February that Willem de Kooning, the legendary 85-year-old abstract expressionist painter, is “incapable of managing his own affairs,” New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Meade today appointed de Kooning’s 33-year-old daughter Lisa de Kooning and the artist’s longtime attorney, John L. Eastman, as co-conservators of the artist’s assets.

The two-hour hearing went over much of the groundwork laid by a report filed by de Kooning’s court-appointed guardian, Pierre G. Lundberg, a Long Island lawyer, including an attempted interview with the renowned painter, who is reportedly incapable of coherent speech and suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the courtroom today Lundberg asked Lisa de Kooning if there was any truth to recent allegations from her father’s friends that the artist was being tranquilized at night by medical aides at his home, disrupting his longtime habit of getting up at odd hours to work in his studio. “He takes sleeping pills occasionally,” she answered.

“Well, do the sleeping pills interfere with this practice?” continued Lundberg in a low-key cross-examination. “No,” answered de Kooning in a soft voice. She also denied that her father was isolated from friends and further denied that he would be placed in a nursing home once the conservators were named. “He’s not been well … it’s a hard time now,” she said. “We’ll try to keep him at home.”

The elder de Kooning was not in the courtroom. According to Frederick Mortati, the examining neurologist hired by the petitioners back in February, the artist’s appearance would be detrimental to his physical and mental well-being and “in any event, would be purposeless.” De Kooning is recuperating at his East Hampton home from recent hernia and prostate surgery.

Lisa de Kooning, who described herself today as “a sculptress mainly,” agreed to Lundberg’s recommendation that her maintenance from her father be cut from $25,000 a month (or $300,000 a year) plus $75,000 to pay the taxes to $13,000 each month with her being responsible for the taxes. Lundberg tabulated that Lisa has received $1.93 million, including $213,000 so far this year, in the past 9 1/2 years from her father.

She further agreed to serve at all times with a co-conservator, and, in the event of ever being a sole conservator, would not be authorized to sell any works of art until the court appoints a co-conservator.

It was also agreed that co-conservator Eastman would initiate an independent audit of these outlays to determine whether they be considered gifts or loans. After Lundberg asked Lisa de Kooning if she saved any of this money and she answered “No,” he said, “When you become conservator, do you understand you can’t spend his money the way you’ve been spending your money?” “Yes, I promise.” Pushing the younger de Kooning for more information on her spending habits, Lundberg asked “Do you spend money on your friends?” “To some degree, yes,” answered de Kooning. “I have to practice being less generous.”

Lundberg’s report — first issued in May and updated last week — estimated Willem de Kooning’s personal property at $7.6 million, and his art collection, comprising hundreds of paintings both recent as well as vintage works, at between $50 million and $150 million. A number of art experts have speculated the value to be much higher, some suggesting as high as $1 million to $1.5 million per canvas. A specialist has been hired to inventory de Kooning’s work, the first step before a gallery is chosen to market it.

“There hasn’t been a body of work amassed like this for any living painter,” testified Eastman, who along with his father, Lee, has represented de Kooning since the mid-1960s. Eastman also represents such clients as Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Eastman likened the range of yet-to-be-marketed works as second only to that of the Picasso estate.

Although no gallery has officially been named to represent de Kooning, all signs point to it being Pace Gallery. The powerful 57th Street art dealer Arnold Glimcher, who heads the gallery, was interviewed by Lundberg for the guardian’s report and Glimcher outlined an ambitious worldwide marketing scenario for dispatching de Kooning’s paintings. Pace already represents the estates of Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso and Isamu Noguchi. Recent de Kooning paintings have not been sold — except on the resale market — since the artist’s longtime dealer, Xavier Fourcade, died in 1987. With virtually no new work marketed since Fourcade’s death, the art world’s hunger for new de Koonings is high.

But questioned outside the courtroom after the hearing, conservator Eastman would not confirm Glimcher’s status, despite Lundberg’s report indicating he was the dealer-designate. “There are no after-runners or forerunners, period,” said Eastman. Until a dealer is designated, de Kooning’s assets will continue to dwindle at a rapid rate with this year’s outlay already approaching $530,000.

The last stumbling block to today’s agreement between Lundberg and the conservators involved a codicil signed by Willem de Kooning in July 1988 that named John Silberman an executor of his estate in the event that Elaine de Kooning died before her husband. According to Silberman, a partner in Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, Elaine de Kooning initiated the codicil with the idea of reducing the number of executors and the resulting commissions from three to two.

Elaine de Kooning, a painter and art critic who managed her husband’s affairs, died six months later of lung cancer at age 70. Her death prompted the conservancy petition, filed just 10 days later by Lisa de Kooning and Eastman. According to Lundberg, Willem de Kooning had been unable to handle his affairs for the previous three years and his wife had covered up that fact. Silberman and Lisa de Kooning agreed that they would not take the codicil to probate, in effect guaranteeing that Eastman would assume co-executorship after the conservancy period. If the codicil had reached probate, Eastman would have been cut out of any executor position, leaving just Lisa de Kooning and her lawyer. Although de Kooning signed the codicil, it is now assumed that he did not comprehend its contents and that it would not likely pass the scrutiny of probate.

The conservators agreed in court that they would pursue all avenues of medical and psychological care for the elder de Kooning.

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