PRINT January 1968

Willem de Kooning

OVER 15 YEARS AGO De Kooning published a text called The Renaissance and Order. It appeared at a critical moment in his career: just after Excavation, the summa of his tautly controlled abstractions of the later 1940s, had established in Venice and Chicago his apparent hegemony over ambitious, advanced painting in New York, and just before the appearance of Woman I would transform authority into notoriety. The text was about measurement. It stoutly denied to the objective laws of perspective their central place in the content of Renaissance painting. In de Kooning’s eyes the content issued instead from the artist’s subjective judgment about how much space should be allotted to each participant in the event he was describing. “It was up to the artist to measure out the exact space for a person to die in or be dead already. The exactness of the space was determined or, rather, inspired by whatever reason the person was dying or being killed for. The space thus measured out on the original plane of the canvas surface became a ‘place’ somewhere on the floor.” Cherishing Western art for its insistence upon, and capacity for measurement, for its assertion that everything that consumed the painter was present to him and could therefore be submitted to “measurement,” de Kooning criticized Oriental art for its “state of not being here,” for its absence.

This concern for measurement derived from the preoccupations of Cubism which de Kooning had assumed in his own art in the late 1930s. In speaking of Cubism’s substitution of what he called the visual space of the canvas surface for the tactile or real space of the external world, Braque wrote, “In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other. This is what led me . . . from landscape to still life.” The relationship de Kooning bore to the Cubism of Braque and Picasso—a relationship Clement Greenberg was the first to point to in de Kooning’s work as immediate and irrefutable—guaranteed that measurement would preoccupy his painting as it had theirs.

In the early phases of Cubism, illusionism had been siphoned off from the depicted objects which normally supported it, and shading had become the agent of an imagined contact between the viewer and the surface itself. The strokes of light and dark paint which modeled the surface of the canvas projected illusionism per se into a palpable, touchable entity: the fossilized imprint of the artist’s hand eking out of the canvas the shallow depressions and projections which could affirm the wholeness and continuity of what Kahnweiler had called the tableau objet. One of the aspects of Analytic Cubism which made possible this positive tactile relationship between the areas of shading and the artist’s or viewer’s real hands is that the portrait heads and still-life objects, which exclusively formed the subject matter of the paintings, were given at full-scale. Since the picture frame was thereby denied the role of mediating between a world on this side of the canvas which contained objects at human scale and a world on the other side which either reduced or enlarged them through the medium of illusionistic projection, the illusionism which so persuasively moved across the surface of the painting became pointedly the property of the canvas-object rather than that of an imagined world.

By 1912, as Mr. Greenberg has pointed out, the Cubist kind of illusionism had so threatened to swamp the painting and obscure the depicted objects that Picasso and Braque had to choose between it and representation. In Late Cubism the agent for the representation they chose became line instead of shading. Line was resurrected as the schematic contour of objects flattened and drained of body; but it became a boundary that pointedly could not establish the measurable relationships between the entities it enclosed. The most line could do in Late Cubism was to symbolize space, and in so doing, line acted in the areas between the parallel planes of the Synthetic Cubist painting as strangely dematerialized signs for distance.

While de Kooning’s painting in the early 1940s had depended upon the regular, decorative line of late Cubism, in the paintings of 1946–50, de Kooning’s line became the means of synthesizing the opposite kinds of abstraction that squared off against each other across the dividing line between Early and Late Cubism. It was the accomplishment of his art of the mid- and late 1940s to convert the metaphysical line of Late Cubism into something once again measurable by touch. In de Kooning’s eyes this did not mean simply moving backwards; rather, his use of line extended the capacities of the earlier art to make transparent to one another the simultaneous presence of the entire surface of the painting and the viewer’s act of apprehending it.

Since line could be made to appear to bound everything on either side of it, de Kooning’s line was able to serve as the contour for every available area within the painting. The question of what was figure and what was ground, what was bounded and what was unbounded, was mooted by the capacity of de Kooning’s line to corporealize every part of the painting’s surface. And this capacity seemed, at least in part, to be a function of scale. Like the canvases of Analytic Cubism, de Kooning’s early paintings had confined themselves to still lifes in which objects retained their actual size, or full-scale portrait heads. After his line had become the descriptor for abstract shapes, de Kooning maintained the sense of scale-parity that one finds both in his own earlier work and that of Early Cubism, so that once again the framing edge did not seem to signal the beginning of the illusionistic envelope. Because the abstract shapes bounded by his line also did not seem to intimate that they “really” existed at a different scale from the actual planes which abutted and turned against each other on the real surface of the picture, every part of that surface seemed to be created and made measurable by de Kooning’s line.

Once art writers began to champion Abstract Expressionism, their most strenuous efforts were concerted toward isolating features in the new painting that seemed without precedent in the history of art, and presenting the newness of these features as virtues in and of themselves. Flung paint, in being a technical departure, had to constitute a conceptual one as well. The same was true of the “newly heroic” scale; and the ephithet “the big painting” seemed always to connote quality. If de Kooning’s abstractions in the late 1940s were able to make size a virtue, it was because his anti-diagrammatic use of line made apparent that the size of the picture support was an integral part of the experience of painting. As his line invested abstract shapes with the materiality of the actual picture surface, literal size became transparently coextensive with the depicted size and the painting’s limits were made conspicuous as a real property of that surface; whereas before they had merely signaled the beginning of an illusion.

In the “Women” series which followed the abstract paintings of the late 1940s, de Kooning’s line broadened into the more expansive, blurred edge which became the hallmark of his style. The edges which now incorporated transitions from extreme dark to light within one, single, fatty gesture of the brush, began to open up the tautly bounded field of the painting to imprecise suggestions of deep space. In these works, de Kooning’s line had begun to lose the capacity for measurement and to revert to bounding anatomical parts set awash on an inchoate wave of traditional naturalistic space. Yet in the “Women” de Kooning tried to defeat illusionism by recreating the figures at actual scale (see Woman I and Woman and Bicycle).

Harold Rosenberg has disallowed de Kooning the seriousness of his early formal achievement, claiming that de Kooning never attempted to engage in the modernist exploration of his early abstract painting: “In his 35 years of creating art in New York, modernism after modernism has washed over his head, always affecting him yet without throwing him off his course.” Rosenberg likes to see de Kooning as some kind of expert surfer, tucked inside the curl of his emotions, but the total emptiness of de Kooning’s latest paintings on exhibition at Knoedler Galleries betrays how those emotions can become a kind of manneristic tic.

These paintings are again of women, but for all the explosiveness of their surfaces—with the familiar smeared color and the rivulets of oil and turpentine which splash and run across the divisions of their isolated shapes—they seem like nervous attempts to somehow reenter the dialogue of advanced painting, and to assert the continuing relevance of de Kooning’s distinctive terminology in an on-going formal colloquy.

In most of the narrow vertical paintings (a new format for de Kooning) he has made a point of leaving strips of bare canvas either at the top or bottom of the painting (and sometimes both). Or, often within a square format he will leave an L-shaped white channel running along two sides of the canvas between the painted image and the frame (see Woman with a Green and Beige Background, 1966, and Snake Charmer, 1967). Having reserved these white margins, de Kooning “assumes” the remaining colored field to the shape of the canvas which supports it. It is as if he feels that the force of the framing edge must exercise its own priorities to somehow contain or box-in the forces of paint pushing outward.

The drawing that cuts through the oily fields of color similarly seems to be directed by the desire to assent to the prerogatives of the over-all shape of the painting. In some of the works the drawing trues off against the edges, and quite often the figures are symmetrically disposed around the center of the canvas. A typical format results in a limply frontal nude, whose head is flattened against the white margin separating it from the edge of the picture, whose body hangs pendent about a strongly asserted central axis, and whose legs splay out in symmetrical repetition from the strident line which defines the groin. In Pink Woman Torso, 1967, there is an even more explicit attempt to make the image respond to the priorities of the given painting field. The canvas is divided into four quadrants each filled to overflowing with a variation on the same anatomical theme. A pink, comma-like swathe cuts through the upper right quadrant to describe the shoulder and pendulous breast of a nude; the left upper quadrant presents this in mirror image; the left lower quadrant turns the shape 180° to represent thigh and buttocks and is again mirrored in the remaining quadrant. But in order for the familiar anatomy-become-paint to read as an affirmation of the geometrical givens of the picture, de Kooning bounds the pink shapes with deep vermillion and green contours. The accentuated shapes can now make their point as reflection/reversals of one another and the colored swathes which form the shapes will be held flat against the canvas plane. But in these paintings the assertive outlines define shapes which the color can only aimlessly fill in, and between which the surface is consumed by an unbridled, traditional illusionism. The qualities once achieved by de Kooning’s line are lost. Its decorative slackness is guaranteed by a relationship between the image and the surrounding frame which, in depicting the figures at reduced scale, cannot address either the picture surface or its bounding edge as real phenomena.

In the paintings at Knoedler one finds not so much a parody of early de Kooning (although that is certainly there) but an ineffectual attempt to alleviate the arbitrariness of his painterly language by assimilating it to the rigorous task of discovering the grammar of the picture field. De Kooning seems to be peripherally aware in these paintings that other artists have entirely reformulated the question of measurement. But he does not seem to know why or to what end.

Rosalind Krauss