Quantcast
Video of the Day

Masthead

Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.
Thursday
Oct132011

In Which Michael Ondaatje Relives Almost Everything

Knife Wound

by ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS

The Cat's Table
by Michael Ondaatje
288 pp

If I ever get Michael Ondaatje alone in a room, I'm going to inspect him for oddly shaped scars.

Should he have them, I am sure he wears them with pride: here is a man for whom a stabbing is a non-negotiable plot device. These quick, painful but nonlethal acts of violence appear again and again in his work, and always bound up with sex. In his novel Anil's Ghost, a woman takes an avocado knife to her ex's arm; in Divisadero, a girl stabs her father in the back with a shard of glass to prevent him from killing her lover. In Coming Through Slaughter, the stabbing is symbolic — the photographer E.J. Bollocq slashes his own photographs — but its purpose is the same, to get at some primal, anxious connection. "You think of Bellocq wanting to enter the photographs, to leave his trace on the bodies," Ondaatje writes.

And in The English Patient, violence in the relationship between Katharine and Almásy is apparently so pervasive that a stabbing warrants nothing more than an entry in a catalogue:

A list of wounds.
The various colours of the bruise — bright russet leading to brown. The plate she walked across the room with, flinging its contents aside, and broke across his head, the blood rising into the straw hair. The fork that entered the back of his shoulder, leaving its bite marks the doctor suspected were caused by a fox.

You can imagine the unspoken subtitle for Ondaatje's 1979 book of poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: "Stab you with it."

The enthusiastic reader of Ondaatje, then, might wonder how a crime-of-passion stabbing could possibly work its way into his newest novel, The Cat's Table, released this month. It isn't the sort of novel, on its surface, that should seem to have one: it is the story of an 11 year-old boy, nicknamed Mynah, on a passage from southeast Asia to London aboard a gigantic 1950s ocean liner called the Oronsay. He quickly makes two friends, the impetuous Cassius and the sweet, fragile Ramadhin, and the three set out to learn all they can in the three weeks they are together.

At first, it seems like The Cat's Table should be the novel in which Ondaatje finally leaves the erotic stabbings out. But to think so is to give him both too much credit (he can't resist!) and too little (when he does find a way to push the knife in, so to speak, it's well deserved). But to come back to Ondaatje's own scars: why should I care if he has them? Isn't it unfair to assume that his favorite motif is based in personal experience? Didn't Barthes teach us not to care anyway? Isn't it, you know, fiction?

Yes and no, I think, when it comes to this one. Thankfully, we're not beholden to Barthes anymore, so we can indulge in the delicious speculation that The Cat's Table might be, in part, a memoir. As a boy, Ondaatje took the same journey his protagonist did, from southeast Asia to London. When we flash forward to his protagonist's future, the character lives in Canada just as the author does. They end up at the same school. And Mynah, that echoing bird, is a nickname for Michael.

Ondaatje hasn't made any secret of any of this; there is no clumsy disguise at play here. He makes his intentions clear in an author's note:

Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat's Table is fictional — from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator. And while there was a ship named the Oronsay (there were in fact several Oronsays), the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.

It is worth recognizing that this note appears at the end of the novel, though, not the beginning; it's a coda once the story has been told. By this point, we will have learned not to care — because one final way in which the author and his protagonist are similar is that they are both at their best when they observe others. The most beautiful sections of The Cat's Table aren't on the ship at all; they are portraits of the passengers Mynah comes to know, deeply embedded in the past and the future.

"A novel is a mirror walking down a road," Ondaatje wrote in The English Patient. That isn't true for every writer, but it is true for him, and it's what makes the question of whether his claim — that The Cat's Table is not autobiography — is a lie, essentially uninteresting. A mirror can't walk down a road on its own; it has to be held by someone who won't be reflected in it. On second thought, if I ever get Ondaatje alone in a room, I don't want to know a thing about whatever scars he might have.

Ondaatje is not read as widely among literary-fiction snobs as he should be; I know plenty of people who clamored for galleys of The Marriage Plot but neither knew nor cared that Ondaatje, too, had a novel coming out this month. It isn't so hard to figure out why. I think many more people have seen the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine hates the film version of The English Patient than have actually seen the film, and many more people saw the film than read the novel it was based on.

I actually thought the film was pretty good — Ralph Fiennes still gives me a little frisson, even now, even when he's playing Voldemort — but I do sort of understand. I first read Ondaatje my senior year of high school, when The English Patient was on the syllabus for my English class. We read it near the end of the year, and we had all been dreading it since the beginning. Being warned against something, even by someone you don't trust, makes it hard to embrace that thing. Nothing ruins the pleasure you can get from art like being exposed to someone else's distaste for it. We were all primed to think the novel would be long and slow: because if the movie was, the book must be even worse. In retrospect, maybe we ought to have been more discerning in whose criticism we trusted.

Further, the fans of the movie alienated us. We wondered: How could this book, which had been turned into the kind of movie that moms loved, possibly resonate with us young, sexy teenagers? It did, to an outstanding degree, maybe because our expectations were so low. My classmates liked it more than Beowulf, Macbeth, and infinitely more than Beloved (can't win 'em all). I remember a kid named Travis, talking about the book in study hall, stunned at how moved he was.

In college, too, I knew lots of people who should have been Ondaatje's target audience: young, desperate to prove their literary worth, going through novels almost as fast as cigarette packs. Here, the film adaptation of The English Patient struck another fatal blow. It was an unapologetic prestige film, with a big budget, distributed by Miramax. It won all the Oscars, and it won them in a really good year for independent film. An unnecessary binary opposition fell into place: the Coen brothers are us; Minghella is them. The English Patient — and with it, Ondaatje — became The Man.

It's a shame, because others of Ondaatje's novels really would make excellent films. Anil's Ghost is a beautiful story of loss, hiding inside the kind of grisly mystery that American audiences love to buy tickets for. Any filmmaker who is obsessive about light and interested in a kind of pastoral brutalism — okay, any filmmaker who is Terrence Malick — would do well with Divisadero. But of all his novels, The Cat's Table is the one I would most like to see committed to screen. It is more linear than a lot of the author's work, for one thing. And because the novel's main setting is so rigid — a three-week span, a single ocean liner — the temporal and geographic divergences are easy to swallow.

It would be such a gift to actors, too, to offer them these roles: Mynah, Cassius, Ramadhin, and their companions at the Cat's Table ("the least privileged place," furthest from the Captain's Table, where passengers are "constantly toasting one another's significance"). There's gregarious Mr. Mazappa, who tells the boys dirty jokes and whose presence is mourned after he departs; Mr. Nevil, who dismantles ships; Miss Lasqueti, who keeps dozens of pigeons in a coat with special pockets.

And further on the ship, there is Michael's 17-year-old cousin, Emily, who has her own growing-up to do and of whose own bildungsroman we are allowed glimpses from time to time. There is an Australian girl on roller skates; a villainous captain; a sophisticated thief; a cursed millionaire beset by rabies; a prisoner rumored to have killed a judge. Would that Robert Altman were still alive! One of the novel's best qualities is its constant acknowledgment that every character we meet has his or her own life, with its own complications, and any one of them could be enough to write a book about. It is something Michael and his friends learn: "We came to understand that small but important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement."

Ondaatje himself is interested in film, and there is a lovely scene in the novel in which The Four Feathers is shown onboard the ship. It is a little jarring, too, when the grown-up narrator Michael opens a chapter with the sentence, "Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne." One of the best things that did come out of The English Patient's film adaptation is Ondaatje's relationship with Walter Murch, who edited the film. Ondaatje turned a series of interviews he did with Murch into a book, titled The Conversations. (The title's a little cheeky; Murch was an Oscar nominee for sound editing Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.)

Ondaatje directed a couple of films himself, little-seen things in the 1970s, but it is clear in The Conversations that what really fascinates him in film production is editing. It's not surprising; those who love Ondaatje praise the lyrical nature of his writing, and no one is a film's poet more than its editor. As Murch explains in the book: "There's an incredible richness that comes from the unanticipated collisions of things."

Ondaatje is not a subtle writer — those stabbings! — but he is a subtle storyteller, and a complicated one. It's hard to summarize the plot of The Cat's Table because the plot is so sneaky: you don't realize the events of the novel are building toward a climax until you've already reached it. The first two hundred pages of the novel feel simply like a series of stolen moments that aren't necessarily getting at anything larger — and if you are the kind of person who can tolerate that kind of thing, you'll happily float along for the ride, simply because the musings are so beautiful.

Take this example: Mynah falls a little in love with his cousin Emily, as is apt to happen to young boys who have older, beautiful cousins. He writes, "When I left Emily's room… I knew I would always be linked to her, by some underground river or a seam of coal or silver." Or this, in a flash-forward to many years later, when Mynah is reunited by a funeral with a girl with whom he had formative romantic experiences as a teenager: "Our desires were fed by an earlier time, from that very early morning in our youth when she seemed painted by those shifting green branches. We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie."

Even during a harrowing scene, when Mynah and his friend Cassius impulsively (and idiotically) decide to lash themselves to the upper deck during a powerful storm, Ondaatje finds some poetry: "During those few hours when we believed we had given up any chance of our lives, everything coalesced. I was something orderless in a jar, unable to escape what was happening… All I held on to was that I was not alone. Cassius was with me. Now and then our heads turned simultaneously in the lightning and we each saw the blunt, washed-out face of the other."

With language like that, who needs a plot?, I found myself rationalizing, before I figured out what Ondaatje was up to with The Cat's Table. This is where that memoir fallback comes in handy: if Ondaatje is simply recalling what happened to him, then he can be forgiven for the book's events not falling into a neat narrative arc, because when does real life work that way?

The last fifty pages of the novel, though, make clear that there was always a plan for these characters — and because of that, we should probably take Ondaatje at face value when he says he created them. Having finished the novel, as I thought back through its turns, I realized it spirals outward. The adventures Mynah shares with Ramadhin and Cassius start as harmless, typical kids' fare: they swipe extra breakfast from an upper deck, causing the captain to search for a stowaway; they dismantle a cane chair and smoke its twigs; they steal away to spy on the prisoner's midnight walks.

As the novel goes on, though, the stakes get higher, with real repercussions: when Cassius and Mynah lash themselves to the deck during the storm, it nearly kills them; and the dog they pick up during a port stop in Aden really does kill the cursed millionaire. (It bites his throat, which I suppose is about as close to stabbing as a dog can get.) The last scene on the ship gathers nearly all the novel's characters and lets them participate in, or at least bear witness to, a desperate, dramatic event that the author has spent the rest of the text earning. And as a final, perfect stroke, it's an event the narrator himself spends much of his life misunderstanding. He doesn't get the whole truth until years later, when that older cousin Emily volunteers some information that corrects Mynah's version of the history of the Oronsay. I am jealous, at last, of Ondaatje's little Mynah: how wonderful would it be not only to remember your adolescence in such detail, but to be able to fact check it?

For a grown-up reader, one of the most comforting aspects of The Cat's Table is that, although it is at heart a coming-of-age novel, it doesn't present adulthood as a teleological endpoint. Mynah does not arrive in London having learned everything he needs to know, not even about what's just happened in his three weeks aboard the Oronsay, some of which will take decades to unpack. It's more a novel about sailing away from something, I think, than sailing toward something: as Mynah's knowledge of life grows with each new experience aboard the ship, the point of its origin (and the person he was there) becomes more and more unknowable. "A boy goes out the door in the morning and will continue to be busy in the evolving map of his world," Ondaatje writes.

Maybe what The Cat's Table represents to its author is simply a chance to be that kind of busy once again. Near the end of a lengthy Guardian profile published in August, Ondaatje pulls a Robert Frost quotation out of his wallet and reads it aloud to his interviewer: "What we do when we write represents the last of our childhood. We may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly."

Putting aside how charming it is that Ondaatje is the sort of person who carries quotations in his wallet — he figuratively, as well as literally, comes from a place that no longer exists — the self-awareness of this gesture is remarkable. Certainly, whether The Cat's Table is steeped in autobiography or not, it represents the author coming to terms with all the aspects of childhood, including its ending. Ondaatje is 68 years old; he has been an adult for half a century. But there will always be a quality of youth to his work, or more specifically of adolescence, the protracted "last of childhood." This is what I like best about him: the sense that his characters, of all ages, live in a world stuffed with possibility; the desperate immediacy of their actions; their sometimes foolish ardor. A lot of the pleasure of reading Ondaatje comes from visiting this sort of mindset, which most of us experience only in glimpses. Ondaatje, it would seem, is fortunate enough to live in it permanently.

And as for Frost's permission for the writer to be irresponsible, I think the keyword is "somewhat." When Ondaatje's characters are stabbed, as in all the instances mentioned above, it is almost always in a meaty place — an arm, a shoulder. The act won't kill the victim, or even seriously damage him; it just changes him, adds the mark of a passionately lived life. And while Ondaatje's characters do die sometimes, it is never because their author has been reckless with them.

When reflecting on his own journey from Ceylon to London, Ondaatje muses, "I would not send an 11-year-old child on a three-hour train ride, let alone a three-week boat trip." A cranky reader might point out that the author does exactly this to his own protagonist: he creates the child Mynah, only to loose him on a journey for which he is probably not adequately prepared. But I have learned not to doubt Ondaatje's compassion. I don't think he would have put his protagonist on the boat unless he knew Mynah would emerge safely on the other side, in a different world, a different person.

Alexandria Symonds is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here and she tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about authentrification.

"Pau Hafa Sloppið Undan Punga Myrkursins" - Olafur Arnalds (mp3)

"Wildfires" - Josh Ritter (mp3)

"Kids on the Run" - Tallest Man on Earth (mp3)

Wednesday
Oct122011

In Which We Use Our Backpacks For Pillows

Girls in the Window

by EMMA KEMPSELL

Amsterdam looks like Paris when it folds back on itself in Inception. You can walk ten blocks and it all looks the same: rows of buildings sighing against one another, lining the canals. But Amsterdam is nothing like Paris, or Inception: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Paris hides its sex under sheaths of sophisticated black, and tucked away on top of hills; Amsterdam throws sex at you from windows with neon lights. And yes, Parisians smoke, but they only inhale for so long.

The first coffee shop we went to was Susie’s Saloon, which we kept forgetting, calling it Susie's Boutique, or Susie's Parlor, and once, I think, Sally’s House. Poor Susie. We sat at a large wooden table at the back. It was "the best seat in the house", and we bought Cokes sporadically to keep it, passing three joints around at once. I closed my eyes when the smoke hit the back of my throat. I looked up when I exhaled and felt it move through my veins, hitting the top of my head, filling it with lightness. Moving my head too quickly made the world whir past my eyes like a heavily distorted bass line.

Our group was big enough to allow for occasional zoning out. I’d listen to the start of a conversation, and then daydream without fully realizing. It’s like getting to the bottom of a page and realizing that you haven’t actually read anything. After what felt like days, I would rejoin the conversation with an earnest stare and an abrupt, “What?” If I got bored I'd look at Alex and smile slowly until he laughed, then we'd look at Gemma, laughing, until we were all in hysterics. Repeat ad infinitum. Or, for at least twenty minutes.

When we went to rent bikes to cycle to the Van Gogh museum, my stomach looped into knots. I couldn't even consider the pleasant prospect of feeling wind in my hair, the gentle rise and fall of the cobbled streets beneath me, or the exhilaration I might feel afterwards. I was too busy imagining my demise. It would be at a junction or lights; I would panic, fall and cause a huge scene. The small street would suddenly be filled with angry bodies: boys with long greasy hair wearing heavy metal t-shirts, fresh, perfume advert-perfect blonde women with flowers peaking from their bags, men in ties with briefcases and more experienced children on bikes would jostle to shout close to my face in Dutch as my friends doubled over their bikes with laughter.

My bloodied hands would sting, and my face would burn red. I would feel five years old and I might have tried to jump into a canal of my own accord, if only to hide my face. So I didn’t get on a bike, I went to a sun filled rooftop with my roommate, where we had the best iced-coffee known to man and let our heads become clouded with lemon haze and The National.

The sky was blue and bright at one in the afternoon. We walked down a small alley and as I turned my head in what felt like slow motion, I saw three girls gyrating slowly in their underwear. Only a thin layer of glass separated us. I spun my head back to face my friend. Without realizing what we’d walked into, we just kept walking. At the end of the street we took respite at the side of a bridge. It was dirtier than I expected, and less sexy.

For the girls in the windows, there is no pretense of interest. This is not porn, they are not actors. Their hands might move under their red panties, but they don't pretend to enjoy it; some of them look downright terrified. Their eyes are glazed over and sad, but the worst thing is that they watch you watching them. It’s a strange situation to be in because although you expect it to be a removed titillation, it’s interactive, and on top of that, one of you looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Maybe they act more interested for prospective customers, maybe they just let their guard down to find their own little moments of respite in the eyes of young girls who could just as easily be behind the window, but aren’t. We walked back the way we came, because we needed to see it again, prepared. It was more depressing the second time.

Our group expanded at night as we followed people we barely knew who barely knew where they were going. The fuzzy yellow lights doubled with reflection in the canals, as we snaked around the little streets in packs until we were lost. At the door of a grungy dubstep club, the music searched through the walls and floor to find our feet. It carried us to a corner booth where we sank into a yawning leather couch. It thumped along with our hearts after the first hit. We made our way to the bar under the dropping beats, pale green flashing lights, and the flailing arms of possessed dancers.

The glare of the sun hit our contracted pupils and opened them wide with light when we finally ventured outside. The world looked like the result of a disposable camera or a watercolor. The trees were greener than before, the sky bluer and the water in the canals followed us peacefully down the street. The apartment buildings are varying heights, shapes and shades of coffee and ochre. With no spaces between them, they give the impression of being merely a facade with nothing beyond the slim depth. The building on our corner was green, and like Gatsby's light we would look for it when we needed to find home. Everything was beautifully hazy, yet clear. I felt like I had returned to something familiar but long forgotten.

At 7 a.m. we made our way through the quiet streets to go home. At the airport my friends dozed on the floor using their backpacks as pillows. We all sat in a silent row with droopy eyes eating Callipos at 8 a.m. An old man stared and we laughed at his overly aggressive expression. When it was time to leave I left my unfinished ice lolly to my friends, hugged everyone and walked away to the sound them shouting, "Bye!" three thousand times to my back. My roommate told me later that she nearly cried. I slept fitfully on the way home, waking up to watch the world whir past the window. I listened to The Middle East on repeat the entire time. I bought an apple pie and some ice cream. When I got home I went to bed after my grandmother told me I looked "a little jaded."

Emma Kempsell is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Aberdeen. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Miles on a Car" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

"The Reason Why" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

"You Won't Let Me" - Rachael Yamagata (mp3)

The new album from Rachael Yamagata, entitled Chesapeake, was released this week.


Tuesday
Oct112011

In Which We Are Psychologically Attached To Willem De Kooning

In or Out of Hell

by BARBARA GALLETLY

de Kooning: A Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art
on display until January 9, 2012

Clear even in Willem de Kooning's earlier work, in the beautiful pants on "Seated Man" and in the pretty, pensive "Portrait of Elaine" is his uncanny talent for dynamic composition, an ability to deliver serenity and the verge of madness in the same package. So it is only natural that his shift from realism to abstraction was graceful, intelligent. Just a few years later, in his early 1940s portraits of men and women where deliberately articulated design elements and limbs float on color-blocked fields of turquoise, yellow, pink, de Kooning would already be the de Kooning we know.

This is also the period in which Elaine, who would become de Kooning's wife, morphs into the painter's better-known women of the early forties. I think even 1944's famous "Pink Lady" looks an awful lot like her. These ethereal, amorphous women will have her eyes as long as they have eyes at all. Even without exception of the famous black-and-whitening of his paintings that took place after his term at Black Mountain College (fine, let’s except a couple of paintings, 1951's "Untitled," and other sapolin on enamel works), his color palate remains recognizable. Pinky, fleshy tones he used in the forties and fifties populate a plurality of paintings in the show. Familiar slatherings of yellows and turquoises offset the human tones.

in East Hampton, 1953

A retrospective at a major museum is an interesting tribute, especially when a very famous artist is involved. What would be a more natural way to demonstrate that artist’s value, his mark on the world, than to guarantee he join the immortals as really, tremendously important? The homage is a function of, or will almost certainly result in, a critical reevaluation and revision of cultural memory of the artist exhibited. It makes a mark on a personal level too. Pacing madly around galleries that claim to contain a complete record of a great artist’s career, one can’t help but wonder what it means that immortality can be distilled in such a way or what it means to be so close to it.

Well, I agree with the whole world even if I don’t love Willem de Kooning quite as much as Peter Schjeldahl does. MOMA’s de Kooning, A Retrospective, selected and mounted meticulously by chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield, is wonderful. Much has been written on the painter, but only now are we presented with the opportunity to meditate on his prolific genius in person, freed from comparisons to his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock (to whose his fame, prestige, influence his has been considered runner-up). Its transcendental beauty is that it documents the painter's uncanny ability to portray the complexity of human emotional life, even if it is just his own, as it evolved.

"Portrait of Elaine" 1940-41

I must mention two things. One, Willem and Elaine were married in 1943, five years after they met (his 1940 drawing was made early in their relationship). And they remained married until her death. Both painters were passionate in their personal and creative lives, and it was by all accounts a strange and stormy sixty years, replete with interloping third parties and alcoholic binges. This may be putting it mildly: for most of their marriage they lived separately; he had a daughter with his longtime lover, Joan Ward, and Joan would eventually host Elaine’s funeral.

I think it is possible he really hated her on a subconscious level, but Elaine was equally strong-willed, a driven perfectionist determined that her husband would succeed, and while she maintained her own career separately she supported him publicly, promoting his work in a way he was never capable of doing. As Marc Stevens and Annalyn Swan recorded in their excellent 2004 biography, de Kooning: An American Master, Elaine once commented that, for her husband, "a woman is a woman is a woman." This quite apart from his comment: "We have no life together but I'm psychologically attached to her."

"Woman" 1949

Second, if the more famous remark he made that "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented" resounds in his work, I think just as interesting is the statement he made regarding abstraction, which can be found mounted on a card in the gallery containing "Excavation":

I’m not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.

I mostly take this to mean that de Kooning paints more like Cy Twombly than Jackson Pollock: he is dealing in signs, flesh and feeling. These unequivocal statements are cues, and evidence in favor of the assumption that no matter how abstract a form it takes it, flesh is a major part of the extraordinary appeal of de Kooning’s work.

Women occupy a lot of the work in the exhibit in a fairly obvious way, tempering abstraction, facilitating an observer’s entry into the paintings. There are exceptions. Take two roughly contemporaneous works: "Gansevoort Street," from 1949, is awash in red meat, butcher blood, isn’t it? This and his largest easel painting "Excavation" are hard to love. I think this is because they are too red, too white, and therefore drained of life: too inhumane. "No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell," wrote Antonin Artaud, and I can't help but agree that this is the case for de Kooning.

Post-"Excavation" came more women and some of de Kooning’s most famous work. Presented in a gallery called "Women to Landscape," are a series of large format paintings: "Woman I," 1950-2, was a work he painted and repainted, and the various iterations are shown on the MOMA's exhibit website. The canvas is populated by a scrapped city of women over time, or an exploding woman layered in frames on top of herself. De Kooning stabs "Woman III" with smears of red, but she is nothing compared to the gruesomely bloody "Woman V." I find these paintings deeply violent, profoundly disturbing. But then again, the rather abstract "Woman Wind Window II" from 1950, is a cheery, almost Pop-y work.

In the next two decades de Kooning distanced himself from such evident violence (from "Women to Landscape," was born "Full Arm Sweep"), as if his rage has suddenly mellowed. This period was characterized by a new painterly expansion of strokes, a freedom from black, from line. A total departure from the urban landscape of 1955, "Gotham News," was de Kooning’s subsequent foray into abstract pastoral landscape. "Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point" is beautiful in a new way, calmer and bright; de Kooning’s flesh tones have returned, this time in pale sand that blushes under the yolky sun.

"Clam Diggers", 1963

Beginning in the sixties flattened fields of female flesh also frolic on the shores of eastern Long Island. "Clam Diggers" seems to prefigure the doughy bodies of "Montauk III" and "Montauk I." In the "The Visit," a bare splayed nude appears to me as a mother nursing a baby. Most creepy is "Woman, Sag Harbor" from 1964, which, perhaps because of the context from which it has emerged, reminds me more of a Soutine animal carcass stitched with shocks of red than anything else. One or two works from this period incorporate collage, reminders of historical context: 1964 was also the year Robert Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale (in 1953 Rauschenberg had produced the sensational "I Erased de Kooning").

"New Directions" (1969-1978) encompasses his final and mad effort to squeeze life out of life. De Kooning’s sculpture of this era is a fascinating, palpable embodiment of the physical and emotional expression of which he had become master. Beginning in the late 1970s though it became evident that de Kooning was entering the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and his eyesight began to deteriorate. He would continue to work through the mid-eighties. In the words of John Elderfield: "I think there's something poignant about an artist painting his own disappearance. It's something that doesn’t happen much..."

Finally come the "Late Paintings," including an almost cartoonish "Garden in Delft" and his most contemporary painting in the exhibition, 1987's "The Cat’s Meow" — which is now owned by Jasper Johns — in which de Kooning is no longer to attack entire canvases, and he has returned to the line. For the first time in his life, he does not spread himself over every breath of canvas, and this is a strange moment indeed. Just two years later he would be in such a diminished state that he never knew Elaine had died.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her summer.

"Two Women With Still Life" 1953"Last Chance for a Slow Dance" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)

"If You Could Buy Me Anything" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)

"Go to Sleep" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)