De Kooning (1918-89) was a painter herself, and, in the essays here, she describes art the way artists experience it--the messy, hands-on, tactile experience of painting. De Kooning wrote for Art News in the 1950's, and amid today's jargon, theory, and various deconstructions, her essays--swift, taut, personal and to the point--are a delight to read as she, say, watches Arshile Gorky painstakingly build up a layered surface or David Smith puzzle out a devilishly complex bit of metalwork. De Kooning knew the great figures of the New York school--her husband Willem, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline--at firsthand from the early 40's, when they were not yet celebrities, and to her they're friends and acquaintances in low-rent studios, simply doing the work they do. With skepticism but also with love, she sifts through their self-created legends with a refreshing honesty after the hyperbole of gossip bios and the posthumous lawsuits, etc., that have surrounded the ``giants'' of the period. De Kooning's irreverent contemporary portraits restore the human scale, leaving out the machismo and the booze. The writer isn't doctrinaire, either, about the purity or primacy of abstract painting, but is perfectly willing, for example, to deflate the extremist pretensions of an Ad Reinhart in ``Pure Paints a Picture'' (1957). In the clairvoyant ``Subject, What, How or Who'' (1955), she explains how abstract and representational turn into one another; in ``Parody is King,'' she heralds a development on the art scene that was to choke out much else later on. She champions forgotten painter Edwin Dickinson; even Andrew Wyeth gets his due. Essays that are alive in new ways as they help us look back. Perhaps only an artist could write about other artists with such genuine curiosity and open-mindedness.