Willem de Kooning: The Dislocation of History

Pt. 1: Early works

Action Painting as defined by Harold Rosenberg:

“Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating...The artist works in a condition of open possibility, risking, to follow Kierkegaard, the anguish of the aesthetic, which accompanies possibility lacking in reality....Each stroke had to be a decision, and was answered by a new question.  By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.”

One of the things which I find interesting about Harold Rosenberg's discussions of de Kooning is the fact that although he does see de Kooning as the paradigm of the action painter, at the same time, he remarks that nothing de Kooning ever does is truly spontaneous or unplanned.  He describes de Kooning's use of art historical sources as a type of dislocation: he looks at Mondrian, at surrealism, at Picasso, at ancient art; he takes things out; transforms them; returns them to art but on his own terms.  And so we see him doing this in his earliest abstractions, where we trace the vestiges of an interest in Mondrian, and somewhat later, where we can't be sure if the influence is biomorphic abstraction, taken from surrealism or from his friend Gorky.

de Kooning: untitled, 1931  de Kooning: Elegy, 1939

Paintings of Men

It seems likely that Gorky's influence was felt more strongly on the series of men.  In particular, the painting of two men standing shows de Kooning engaged in an attempt to reconcile the figure to the flat space of a painting which is similar to the challenge Gorky set himself in his paintings of his mother.
de Kooning: Man, 1939 (oil on paper, mounted on board; 11x9") Gorky: The Artist and His Mother, 1929-36 de Kooning: Two Men Standing, 1938

The first series of women:

Seated Woman, 1940 Pink Lady, 1944 pencil drawing of Elaine De Kooning, 1940

De Kooning was a marvelous draughtsman, clearly evidenced by the exquisite pencil drawing of Elaine. Surely, the drawing with its Ingre-esque qualities was the inspiration for these paintings. The paintings do retain a sense of the lyrical line we see in the drawing.  Yet the evolution is clearly away from that lyricism, as the pentimenti become more dominant and almost aggressive.  At the same time, we already see evidence of something essential about de Kooning.  In dramatic contrast to the other abstract expressionists, de Kooning never denounced the figure and he never rejected the influence of the “old masters.”  Barnett Newman called on artists to start over; de Kooning believed it was impossible to reject what had already been done.  What he did reject was the idea of an unchanging signature style marked by purity or exclusion of other influences.  What therefore characterizes his work to a far greater degree than that of most of the other abstract expressionists is the inclusive nature of his approach to art and art history.

Pink Angels, 1945 (oil, charcoal/canvas; 52x40) (detail from) Picasso: Guernica, 1938

In his unique amalgamation of Picasso and Gorky which really begins with Pink Angels, de Kooning's paintings enter a period in which:

Pink Angels is a break-through painting for de Kooning, with its nearly complete rejection of traditional modeling, and the way in which the body is violently dismembered.  Part of the background in this painting directly generates three closely related works in 1945-6:  Fire Island, Labyrinth (a stage backdrop) and Judgment Day, where once again, we can identify a Picasso-esque influence on the composition but united this time with a much stronger influence from Gorky.  These paintings have been described as containing “animate and inanimate fields” or forms which are, for the most part, biomorphic and therefore suggestive of animate forms but at the same time, have so little basis in recognizable living things, that they also seem to be inanimate.
Gorky: How My Mother's Apron Unfolds in My Life, 1944 De Kooning: Judgement Day, 1946 Picasso: Nude in a Red Armchair, 1929

The "black-and-white" paintings of the period from about 1946-9 and the paintings which have been described as urban abstractions follow directly from de Kooning's works of 1946 and the Pink Angels/Judgment Day series in their combination of being organic yet inanimate, continuing the amalgamation of Gorky and Picasso, and retaining the "no-space" or no-environment of the women paintings, but without the women.

De Kooning’s first show, in 1948, consisted of his black-and-white paintings.  De Kooning took an obvious interest in his environment, and most writers agree that paintings such as these, in particular Black Friday, seem to have been inspired by New York City imagery, from its noise and darkness to the surreal effects of shadows and light falling between the skyscrapers.  His black paintings have a flattened effect, which, according to one writer, looks as if they have been steam-rolled onto the paper, but in that flatness, they also suggest the urban pavement scarred by urban refuse.  The notion of things being compressed into the pavement also relates to de Kooning's and Gorky’s interest in camouflage, although in this case, not necessarily covering up parts of a larger figure but creating forms that are too indistinct to fully identify.

Light in August, 1946, 55x41" Black Friday, 1948, 43x38"

The interest in black-and-white painting is shared by most of the abstract expressionists.  Some of the reasons which have been proposed (apart from the possibility that de Kooning could not afford to buy tubes of oils) include the following:

From black and white to white with color:

The series gradually gives way to paintings that are almost all white and then to paintings which include color again, although they continue to remain city-environments of some sort.  The titles of these paintings also reflect de Kooning’s interest in the real world, often suggesting specific items or places, which are then unrecognizable in the final painting, and at other times, suggesting the complete absence of a relationship to the real world, but with no discernible difference from the paintings with more specific names.
Attic, 1949 (oil, enamel, newspaper transfer, on canvas; 61x81") Excavation, 1950 (o/c, 6'8x8'4)

One writer claims that de Kooning’s interest in the real world sets him apart from the other abstract expressionists.  Perhaps it makes more sense to see de Kooning’s presumed relationship to the real world as one of metamorphosis and transfiguration, much as we find in Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko, although clearly a different sort of relationship than we see in Pollock.  The shape-shifting of de Kooning’s figures, the suggestions of metamorphosis and camouflage, may actually be a sign of his strong relationship to both the real world and the world of archetypal imagery and passions, and therefore one of the ways in which he reveals his connection to the "strange attractors" of abstract expressionism, in this case, the surreal/Jungian attractor of primeval emotions and the archetypal unconscious.

Part 2: From Women to Landscapes

From Gorgons to Sleeping Beauty? The Second Series of Women

Woman I, 1950-2 Woman and Bicycle, 1952-3

“The women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn’t go on...." (De Kooning)

Marilyn Monroe, 1954 Woman VI, 1953

What are they?  Sex icons?  Psychological battles being played out in de Kooning's subconscious?  metaphors of the creative struggle? "monuments of confusion"?

What de Kooning told an interviewer:
“The women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn’t go on.  It did one thing for me; it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light–because the woman was the thing I wanted to get hold of.  I put it in the center of the canvas because there was no reason to put it on the side.  So I thought I might as well stick to the idea that it’s got two eyes, a nose and mouth and neck.  I got to the anatomy and I felt myself almost getting flustered.  I really never could get hold of it.  It almost petered out.  I never could complete it and when I think of it now, it wasn’t such a bright idea.  But I don’t think artists have such bright ideas.”

Women through the ages:

the Gorgon Medusa and children, from the temple of Artemis in Corfu, 6th century b.c.e Woman of Willendorf, from Austria, ca. 22,000 b.c.e.

We can find a lot of sources for his women, and we can, of course, take de Kooning at his word about how they had to do with the idea of the female through the ages.  But there are a couple of problems with doing this: 1) great artists are usually great (at least in part) because they respond to social/cultural/psychological moods and currents in society in their art work; 2) people who look at art work are also responding to these currents and very few people have simply responded to de Kooning's paintings as being about nothing (?) more than the "female through the ages"; 3) artists who are speaking for public record may not be telling us everything that went into their painting, and without reading every statement made or spoken by the artist during his or her life, we risk letting one statement serve as an oversimplification.  As Jonathan Fineberg wrote in the introduction to his book:
"Whereas in science one aspires to the simplest explanation of the phenomenon under scrutiny, the whole point of art and the humanities is to open our minds to more alternatives and ambiguities in the way we see the world."

With that in mind, we can consider the feminist perspective that de Kooning paints "gorgons" which must be slayed by the male hero, and that this quest then becomes a metaphor for the artist's quest after a creative vision. We can also consider a more recent interpretation, one which tries to see in the chaos and fury of the paintings the dynamics of a person's life. Donald Kuspit suggests that the tensions in the paintings of women are a reflection of de Kooning's ambivalence about women, an ambivalence which is fueled by hate on one side and love on the other. Personally, I don't think it matters whether de Kooning was ambivalent about women; what matters is what we see in the painting, and in that respect, Kuspit's interpretation is convincing. He goes on to suggest that the woman in all the paintings is a mother figure made sensual and sexual and therefore not permissible; this woman is alluring and dangerous and therefore must be kept at a distance, or worse, she must be destroyed. But if you destroy what you desire, in some manner you destroy yourself as well. So what does de Kooning do? He engages in this relentless process of "castrating" the mother and by symbolic extension, himself; he undermines her power by ripping her open, turning her inside out so that the paintings of the women are paintings of female genitals, the part of the body that symbolizes sex and birth, or the creative process. It is only by ripping her open that he can merge with her and enter into the creativity which belongs to the woman. This story about de Kooning's paintings ends by saying that his late paintings (in the 1980s and 90s), when we no longer see signs of this battle with the woman, are the failures; they lack the tension and ambiguity and vulgarity of the earlier paintings.

Perhaps the alternative position is that in the late paintings, the artist has succeeded in merging with the creativity of the woman; the vestiges of the battle remain but the battle is over.  Although I don't think his interpretation works when we get to the late paintings (which some people find as sexual and erotic as the others), Kuspit's interpretation does have the virtue of finding some support from de Kooning's life and his always ambivalent and conflicted relationship with his mother and with other women, Elaine among them.  Kuspit, however, does not insist that we have to find psychobiographical parallels in de Kooning's life; he speaks more of an attempt to analyze the painting itself as though the painting has a psychological personality.

A second series of urban landscapes

Gotham News, 1955-6 (oil and newspaper transfer on canvas) Easter Monday, 1956 (oil, newspaper transfer/canvas)

Just as he did in the late 40s, de Kooning enters another period in which the women seems to have left the painting.  Yet every sign of the struggle between woman and background remains, so that we may not entirely trust our eyes when we don't see her in these.  Almost seeming to be a type of in-between painting, with the density of something like Excavation, on the one hand, and the aggressive and bold quality of the 1950s women, on the other, they also suggest the beginning of a more relaxed landscape painting.

Both of these paintings used newspaper pieces to slow the drying process and in good reproductions (or in real life), it is usually possible to see the remnant or "ghosts" of these pieces of newsprint.  They serve to remind us that de Kooning did, in fact, keep the present and real world in his paintings but that he may also have been using the newspaper ghosts as reminders of the papiers collés made by Picasso.

The cityscapes become countryscapes by 1960.  They are increasingly expansive in the type of space they create and have a more relaxed ambience to them.  De Kooning did move to Long Island at this time, so the real geographic change in his life may have been a factor; the influence of his friend Franz Kline may have also played a role.  Certainly, the calligraphic quality of the broad brushstrokes would seem to bear the imprint of Kline; Kline, meanwhile, began to introduce color into his typically black and white paintings.

From city to country

Ruth's Zowie, 1957 Door to the River, 1960

The third series of women ("lipstick" women)

Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964 photo of cheerleaders from the NY Times, 1964 Clam Diggers, 1963

In much the same way as with the earlier women, we can still identify a wide range of possible sources for these new women: from Rubens and Renoir to the expressionist Emil Nolde or Chaim Soutine, while the photograph of cheerleaders is undeniably appealing and convincing as an immediate source.  But just as with the second series of women, these sources do not have to be seen as being exclusive of one another.  All these references (and more) are likely to have been intended given de Kooning's continuous and simultaneous engagement with art history and popular culture.

Renoir: Bathers, 1917 Rubens: The Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1618

One unusual feature of this series is the format: they are painted on commercially available doors and therefore tend to be long and narrow paintings.  This format sets up a battle between the expansive form of the female figure and the constraining form of the door.

The Visit, 1966-7 Woman Accabonic, 1966

De Kooning's true synthesis of woman and environment or figure and abstraction comes in the 70s.  By the 1980s and early 90s, he has achieved a new level of integration, characterized by graceful flowing lines and expansive fields of white, but at the same time, suggesting another visit to the biomorphic forms of the 30s, almost as though the artist has completed a full circle in painting.  Some critics see the paintings of the 70s as a true "late" style for de Kooning, rather than the paintings of the late 1980s and 90s, which they find unaccountably lyrical for an artist known for his aggressive style, and therefore suggestive of an artist who has ceased to be entirely in control of his output.  Not everyone agrees with this assessment, and perhaps it is still too soon to make an objective assessment of the last works of an artist who died in 1997, with a career spanning most of the 20th century.

Whose Name was Writ in Water, 1975 untitled XIV, 1977
untitled III, 1981 Morning: The Springs, 1981

For De Kooning, painting was a way of living.  Not only did he live in the act of painting, but he never stopped painting and he never committed himself to final decisions.  He believed in multiplicity, in conditions of “both-and” rather than “and-or.”  In this respect, his paintings make multiplicity into their basic premise.  In addition to the visible presence of each decision made in a single painting, there are the multitude of connections between the earlier and later paintings, but in each new context, the earlier forms assume a new meaning or new possibility.  It is because of this orientation to multiplicity and painting as a never-ending enterprise that de Kooning is unmistakeably an action painter (despite the fact that he never finished a painting, at least in his words).

But it is the women of the 50s, beginning with Woman I, who hold the key to understanding de Kooning as an abstract expressionist, in part because these paintings make the woman into a totem: a conduit of forces throughout history and nature and art, a synthesis of creation and annihilation.  Woman I is the painting in which de Kooning gives birth, metaphorically speaking, to a new world, but in his case, the imagery for this new world is endowed with sexuality and sexual power, making it more archetypal, primitive, and procreative, at the same time that it speaks to and connects to contemporary popular culture.  Death and eros combined in the image of a woman: what visual metaphor could be better for the abstract expressionist goal of creating a new world from the chaos and destruction of the old?