Vacant, Limpid, Angelic: On Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning may or may not have been a bad painter, according to his persistent and vocal detractors, but he was surely a bad influence, giving rise to a “Tenth Street touch” that was a stereotype of spontaneity, anxiety reduced to a mannerism. This opinion has become a truism, one of the few that the likes of Hilton Kramer and Yve-Alain Bois can agree on. For Clement Greenberg, a chief detractor who had once been a supporter, more promising than de Kooning’s followers were color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, whose stained canvases retained something of the abstract expressionist’s spontaneity without the physical trace of the touch. Others preferred the clean lines of hard-edge painting, of Pop art or Minimalist objects—anything that would eliminate the particularity of the artist’s hand.
But a hand like de Kooning’s could never have been removed from sight so easily. Robert Rauschenberg proved it with his famous Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The 27-year-old Rauschenberg spent months laboring to efface the traces of the elder artist’s ink and crayon. “I wore out a lot of erasers,” he later recalled. Yet traces of de Kooning remain, inexpugnable. It’s hard to tell from those faint inflections of the paper’s whiteness what the work it once was might have looked like (no photograph of it ever existed), but that something was once there remains evident. Given how much time and effort it took Rauschenberg to achieve this distinctly unvirginal, non-Mallarméan whiteness, whatever had been there must have been formidable.
Rauschenberg’s effort was like that of a devilish yet secretly devoted student, his erasure an act of copying in reverse that must have taught him all about de Kooning’s draftsmanship from the inside out. It’s no accident that Rauschenberg’s best work emerged in the decade that followed, as he realized that he could move forward only by absorbing and, as it were, metabolizing the work of the man he recognized as “the most important artist of the day.” Almost covertly, generations of artists have continued to find in de Kooning’s work something they need to help them make their own, however different. Maybe that’s because his aversion to finish—his openness to showing how the route by which he arrived at something satisfactory could be tortuous—makes his work an ongoing lesson in how to do it, and in how doing means always doing it differently. “I paint this way,” he once said, “because I can keep putting more and more things in it: drama, anger, pain, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.” I can’t think of a single work by de Kooning with a horse in it, but that’s why the seemingly arbitrary mention of the animal is important: he had never painted horseflesh, but he never doubted that at some point it might make sense to do so.
In any case, his true subject was never really a figure, or the drama between figures, any more than it was an abstract theme like an idea of space—or never only those things. His art concerns nothing less than how to be and act in the world when it is in flux, how to negotiate the fact that every move you make has unforeseeable consequences that will inevitably change the situation in which your next act takes place. Doing the same thing can mean doing something different from one time to the next. Listen to what one of the best painters of the present has to say about her way of working:
The painting process is a curious coincidence of thinking and acting. Let’s say you start out with one paradigm and while doing the first steps in the painting exactly that paradigm gets extinguished by the newly materialized situation. That triggers off another set of paradigms that will be dropped as a consequence of the work process, and so on and on. It is the continuous flux of visual intelligence constituting reality in every moment. Aggression is the energy that enables you to bear the loss of what has to go. It feeds and sustains that process.
In a suitably gnarly manner, the process Katharina Grosse is articulating is not too different from de Kooning’s endlessly self-revising working method. It’s a continuous revolution, as the Maoists used to say. De Kooning “could sustain this thing all the time,” he once explained, “because it changed all the time.”
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In the 1930s and early ’40s, before the fire that was kindling in some of them burst into flame, de Kooning and his cronies used to hang out at Greenwich Village spots like Romany Marie’s and the Waldorf Cafeteria, capping long days in the studio with long nights of cheap coffee and free talk. A recurring question was, Who was the greatest living artist—Matisse or Picasso? “Bill would always say that Michelangelo was the greatest living artist,” the sculptor Philip Pavia later recalled. In something of the same spirit, I can tell you that right now the Museum of Modern Art is showing today’s greatest living artist, and that if you have the slightest interest in contemporary art, you should get yourself to West Fifty-third Street to see “de Kooning: A Retrospective,” curated by John Elderfield, before it closes on January 9, because the show will not travel. Boasting nearly 200 pieces, comprising paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints, the show is one of few on this majestic scale that I didn’t wish had been more stringently edited. It has an impetuous forward movement that keeps your attention from flagging, and the art is alive because it’s still changing. Is that really all?, I found myself thinking as I walked out. Can’t there be a little more?
Yes, there could have been more. For my taste, there could have been much more art from the most prolific and controversial part of de Kooning’s career: its last phase, from about 1982 to 1989. This was when, depending on your perspective, either de Kooning’s growing dementia made him unable to edit his work with a critical eye or the prospect of mortality overrode the inhibitions that were once so strong in him, unleashing a compulsion to finish as much as possible before it got too late. It’s widely known that Meyer Schapiro made de Kooning salvage what is now his most famous (or notorious) painting, Woman I (1950–52), from a pile of rubbish in the hallway outside his studio when he’d despaired of ever getting anywhere with it after a year and a half of struggle. Yet one paradox of de Kooning’s career is that for all his periodic inability to finish a picture, he could also be profligate with his gifts, working constantly and profusely. This was a man whose idea of relaxing at night was to sit in front of the TV drawing. He felt that being distracted from what he was doing enabled him to invent things his focused attention might have censored. Still, I doubt whether we’ll ever see a bigger or better de Kooning show than MoMA’s. With its plethora of masterpieces, this exhibition should put an end to the carping once and for all.
Not only does it make sense to me, after seeing the show, to call de Kooning the greatest living artist; I am also tempted to call him the most promising young artist, and not only because his oeuvre is full of hints and possibilities that are still ripe for further development in the future. It’s also because of his career’s Benjamin Button–like shape: his art became ever more youthful as he aged, and its spirit ever more fleet and fluid.
De Kooning’s premature artistic old age is apparent in his scrubbily painted, portraitlike studies of male figures of the late 1930s and early ’40s. Pallid, isolated men in environments fading away before our eyes, they seem at loose ends, capable of neither leisure nor labor; the eponymous figure in Seated Man (circa 1939) is apparently drumming his fingers with impatience at his never-ending time in Limbo. Moreover, the figures look pieced together out of spare parts; indeed, as Jennifer Field points out in the exhibition’s monumental catalog, the artist “recycled anatomical details” among these paintings. Other parts of the body might just fade away into nothingness. The subject of Seated Figure (Classic Male), circa 1941–43, barely seems to be in any one particular place at all; instead, he is a sum of approximations. There is something terribly poignant about these bald, muscular, petulant Frankensteins, lost in their nondescript rooms. They are people who have been used up by life. The paintings also show the strain of de Kooning’s effort to find a modern style while holding on to a recognizable human content—it is the pathos of van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters—that was fading away, evading his grasp.
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