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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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