Vacant, Limpid, Angelic: On Willem de Kooning

Vacant, Limpid, Angelic: On Willem de Kooning

Vacant, Limpid, Angelic: On Willem de Kooning

MoMA’s de Kooning retrospective.


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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

It was during this period that de Kooning met Elaine Fried, an art student from Brooklyn whom he would eventually marry. She’d already heard from a previous boyfriend that de Kooning was one of the two best artists in America (the other being his pal Arshile Gorky). Although his work had hardly been seen in public, the intensity of his artistic vocation had become legendary among the downtown artists of the day. Stoking the legend in hindsight, Elaine de Kooning recalled, “I thought he had seaman’s eyes that seemed as if they were staring at very wide spaces all day. He had an inhuman look—vacant, limpid, angelic.” De Kooning’s first painting of a female subject, Seated Woman (circa 1940), is evidently of Elaine, and with her detachable arms and asymptotic contours, the figure is recognizably a sister to his men—but how his palette has brightened, and how much she radiates life. The sun found a window into the room where she sits. Unmet longing and quiet desperation may be the lot of his men, but nothing stands in the way of de Kooning’s women.

A strange thing happened as de Kooning kept painting. His men remained melancholy and ineffectual, and his manner of painting them emphasized his own sense of doubt and artistic isolation. His women possess a different sense of power, of life, and his style takes on new force to match theirs. Looking at the change, I can’t help thinking of Grosse’s remark, “Aggression is the energy that enables you to bear the loss of what has to go.” It’s as if in painting his men de Kooning had continued regretting all the choices, all the exclusions he’d had to make in order to arrive at a painting; painting women, he suddenly finds a gusto that allows him to override his compunctions and live with his choices. He throws himself into the paintings with a kind of violence, and a love of grotesquerie, that would have seemed unimaginable a few years before. He would continue to paint women, and the series of male figures would peter out. (Although he later drew and sculpted male figures, he never painted them again.)

One of the choices de Kooning did not make was between representation and abstraction. Beginning in the 1930s, and for many decades more, he switched fluently between modes. Just as his figure paintings were informed by abstract methods of construction, his abstract paintings always retained figurative elements. A radicalized version of the same sort of anatomical recycling he’d used in the late ’30s to make his men paintings remained part of his way of making abstraction throughout his life. Elements from one painting could be traced, transferred, flipped and repositioned in another to give them fresh meaning. As long as the paintings could be kept in flux and past ideas could re-emerge and be transmuted, the artist could be “oblivious to time and to any usual understanding of accomplishment and progress,” as Richard Shiff explains in his new book, Between Sense and de Kooning (Reaktion; $49), which is essential reading for anyone interested in the artist.

As an abstract painter, de Kooning really came into his own near the end of the 1940s, with a series of mostly black-and-white paintings. The aggression that became an ever more significant factor in his paintings of women—the great uproar might have been over Woman I, but similar pictorial onslaughts would have been evident in paintings earlier and later—was just as much a part of his abstraction as of his painting of women. Today, the furiously intricate Excavation (1950) hardly disguises its origins as a multi-figure composition whose elements seem to have been systematically slashed, diced and compacted, but not so finely that you don’t bump into an eye, an elbow, a mouth, a shoulder, every which way you look. In the catalog, Lauren Mahony adduces Picasso’s then fairly recent painting The Charnel House (1944–45) as a possible model for Excavation; but to my eye, de Kooning’s painting is far more confrontational, like an update of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Elderfield’s description of “the finely carpentered perfection of Excavation” is misleading; yes, the painting is as elaborate and carefully detailed as a fugue, but it’s a fugue for slashers.

More than his imagery, it’s his paint that de Kooning often treats harshly, especially throughout the ’50s, whether in ostensibly figurative works like Woman VI (1952–53), the “abstract urban landscapes” like Easter Monday (1955–56) or the “abstract parkway landscapes” like Merritt Parkway (1959). In any case, the boundaries between categories are moot for a painter who remarked, “The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.” Abstraction in this case is not a separate genre or subject but a name for what this mixing, this impurifying involves—the breakdown of representational motifs into parts that can be recombined by torquing the space they engender. The gritty, grungy, earthen facture of the paintings keeps things upfront: the painting is always in part an altercation between the space evoked by color and line, a space that necessarily escapes the empirical location of the canvas, and a materiality that holds itself recalcitrantly to the surface. What emerges over the course of this decade is de Kooning’s increasing desire to simplify and consolidate, to give the paintings a clearer architecture and a more imposing scale. Figurative forms disappear, yet the sense of human presence remains.

* * *

The culmination of this architectural trend in de Kooning’s painting is undoubtedly Door to the River (1960), where it becomes something else altogether. As with the sun spilling through an unseen window in Seated Woman, which startles because de Kooning had been painting all those cooped-up men, a kind of Turneresque blaze has eliminated almost all shadow from the painting. Even the central dark passage that must be the titular door seems to glow. In a way, the painting’s all-encompassing radiance overflows the rectilinear structure that underlies it; the painting’s architecture seems on the verge of dissolution. And dissolution is all in de Kooning’s next major painting, Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963), with the three-year gap between it and Door to the River reflecting troubled times in the artist’s life; he was not very productive in the early ’60s, but when he could pull himself together, my goodness, he was sublime. Rosy Fingered Dawn could almost be a reprise of Door to the River, but substituting at its center an illumination that reveals itself nakedly rather in the somewhat veiled manner of the 1960 painting. Moreover, the architecture of the image has begun to melt—to go all wet and goopy toward formlessness—while remaining implicit. The poet J.H. Prynne has written of a meeting in this painting between the “oceanic pathos of the sheer presence of paint and its pearly encouragements” and “a force of character that holds its station.”

De Kooning would luxuriate in this near formlessness in the paintings of women, and women in landscapes, that would occupy him for most of the rest of the 1960s, as well as in the landscapelike paintings in which, perhaps, the figure has dissolved, that he concentrated on in the ’70s. Here, it’s as if everything is seen through a fluid medium constantly being stirred up, and all shapes are broken up into rippling, resounding echoes of themselves. The artist acknowledges this fluidity in a painting whose title is a tribute to John Keats: …Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975). Years before, in Rome, he had visited the poet’s grave with Gregory Corso. In the paintings of the ’60s and ’70s, the violence de Kooning discovered in himself with his first woman paintings did not disappear, but changed form. I am tempted to say it underwent a sea change, because it became a sort of objectless turbulence like the heaving of water in motion, an energy that might be destructive but without hostility. Unlike de Kooning’s work of the late 1940s and ’50s, the brilliance of these paintings has still not been sufficiently recognized.

By the end of the 1970s, de Kooning was stranded in another fallow period. He told a friend he “had a dream that the water was turned off.” When he started work again in the early ’80s, he’d found a new element—not the earthiness of the ’50s, or the liquefaction of the ’60s and ’70s, but a new sense of air. For the first time, his paintings became ethereal, as if he could finally see things as Elaine Fried had first dreamed he did, “vacant, limpid, angelic.” Reversing William Blake, who like most of us knew innocence as coming before experience, de Kooning seems to have achieved his innocence at the end of his days. These paintings are governed by a white that is never pure but always flushed with hints of color; through this translucent atmosphere float ribbons of mostly blue and red, sometimes drifting but more often snapping this way and that, as though blown by contrary breezes. That de Kooning was increasingly becoming overtaken by dementia through the decade explains next to nothing about these paintings, which are as complex and imposing as any he’d ever done. If Shiff is right that in painting de Kooning became oblivious to time and progress, then the upshot of the artist’s loss of short-term memory was that he could act in the perpetual present of art like never before. As with many artists, de Kooning often felt that he had remained something of a child in the world, and for him this was a source of pride and shame. “I am certain that a real man wouldn’t paint any pictures!” he’d once confessed to his sister. Eventually he no longer had to worry about being a real man.

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