Issue Number: 114
A reassessment of Willem de Kooning’s art places him unequivocally among America’s greatest painters of the 20th century, writes Edmund Fawcett
Willem de Kooning, 'Woman I', 1950-52. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Willem de Kooning (1904-97) had little patience with cerebral art talk. ‘Some guy came to my studio for 15 minutes,’ he once complained, ‘and wrote something that took six hours to read.’ He was no kinder about big retrospectives. They treat painters like sausages, he said, tying them up at both ends and stamping them with the name of a museum. Perhaps, though, even he would have made an exception for de Kooning: A Retrospective, a magnificent book on his life and work timed for the recent big show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Few who love painting will deny that de Kooning, who was born in Holland but stowed away on a ship to the United States in 1926, was one of the great painters of the past half-century. Yet fast on the heels of that acknowledgment comes all too often a ‘but’. Yes, de Kooning was great, but after 1950 he abandoned abstraction for figuration. He was great, but in his Woman paintings, with their outsize breasts and threatening teeth, he gave in to angry misogyny. He was great, but his painterly skills looked back to Europe and its classic moderns instead of forwards to America and the post-moderns. He was great but, with recognition and success at the age of 50, he became a falling-down drunk and before long a demented old man.
A model of intelligent art publishing, this catalogue sweeps away those ‘buts’. It shows how they have survived in the main on muddled or partisan categories, ill-informed gossip or simply not looking. The book’s 504 pages of text and illustration – more than 500 in colour – show us the measure of de Kooning’s achievement in full.
Each of nine essays focuses on a period in his career or an aspect of the work. Before each essay comes a chronology of the relevant years. The writings and letters of de Kooning, family and friends are amply quoted. Read together these chronologies add up almost to a biography of de Kooning plus a small-scale social history of the New York art world at mid-century. After each essay come notes on his adventurous and ever-changing methods and materials. This craftsman in oils also used household enamels and salad oil for binder. He experimented at drawing with his eyes shut, with his left hand and with both hands simultaneously.
John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA and curator of the de Kooning show, contributes three of the thematic essays, as well as an introductory overview. With the eye of a devotee and the skill of a cross-examining counsel, Elderfield answers the doubters. De Kooning did not alternate between representation and abstraction, he argues. Rather he was often doing both at the same time. The distinction itself is indeed blurry. Let your eye and imagination loose on the jostling limbs and in-out zigzags of the nearly seven-by-nine-foot masterwork Excavation (1950) and the question, ‘is this abstract or representational?’ will soon lose urgency or sense. Contrary to legend, de Kooning’s Woman series did not cause shock and rejection when first shown in 1953. Rather than misogynist or demeaning, many took them to be teasing, affectionate and honest. De Kooning’s women struck Linda Nochlin, a champion of feminist art criticism, as ‘fierce and well-defended’.
The contrasting responses to de Kooning of two contending champions of New York art criticism at mid-century, Clement Greeenberg and Harold Rosenberg, are scrutinised in turn. Greenberg chided him for abandoning abstraction. Rosenberg welcomed him as an ‘action painter’. Elderfield skilfully frees the painter from each of those authoritative-sounding categories. That de Kooning revelled in past art and drew on European masters, Elderfield and his co-authors happily allow. They dot the text with small images of earlier works de Kooning had probably studied or glimpsed and used as underground sources: Breughel, Veronese, Poussin, Rubens, Ingres, Picasso. The ferociously grinning figure in Woman I (1950-52) suggested to de Kooning’s friend and supporter, Thomas Hess, Editor of Artnews, ‘a Michelangelo Sibyl who reads comic books’.
When, in the 1960s, artistic aims and ambitions changed, and with them, taste, de Kooning stayed a painterly painter. The story is told of how one night he accosted Andy Warhol and drunkenly told him, ‘You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work.’ Like that of the newcomer Giotto and his perfectly drawn circle, such stories are repeated less for their truth than to dramatise a turning point, a passing of the torch. Art had changed. De Kooning hadn’t. He never thought of himself as in a vanguard of progress. ‘Being anti-traditional,’ he said, ‘is just as corny as being traditional.’
His later years were rough on him, his women and his work. As his health worsened and his short-term memory slipped, he was nevertheless still capable of great things, among them works from the Untitled series of the late 1970s and some at least of the looping, ribbony final paintings, including the joyful, funny Cat’s Meow of 1987. Elderfield disposes persuasively of the rumour, repeated on no visible evidence, that these last paintings were executed largely by assistants and passed off as de Koonings.
About art, de Kooning expressed himself cryptically and in jokes. Above all, he kept it short. In homage to that wisecracking style, the late British critic and admirer of de Kooning, David Sylvester, once said that the tangled strands in Jackson Pollock’s work reminded him of pasta, de Kooning’s of pizza, with its ‘melted mix’ of many ingredients, some easy to spot, some ‘smeared beyond recognition’. Maybe to see what Sylvester was getting at, you had better look for yourself. This marvellous book is a good place to start. And if you missed the New York show you can glimpse de Kooning’s women in Munich.