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|
|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|
|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:
|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:
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Ruth's Zowie, 1957||Door to the River, 1960|
|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?