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: