PRINT January 1975

De Kooning: Criticism and Art History

ONE OF THOSE EXHIBITIONSthat originate out of town and never come to New York City is “De Kooning: Drawings/Sculptures.” Originated by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show has traveled to Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Buffalo and will close in Houston. Over and above the interest of the work in the show, the occasion has another significance: the catalogue essays by Philip Larson and Peter Schjeldahl mark a change in de Kooning criticism which may be of some consequence in the interpretation of his work with possible repercussions on his reputation as well. It represents the entry of another generation and another kind of writer into what has been the very narrow preserve of de Kooning criticism. In fact, to see the exhibition and the catalogue texts in perspective, it might be useful to consider the formation of the de Kooning canon—it is hardly less than that—and see how Larson and Schjeldahl confirm or deny it.

Discussion of de Kooning has been firmly in the hands of two writers, both close friends of the artist, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess. They have not only produced the major texts on the artist, they have also established the framework within which he is generally viewed. The process began with Rosenberg’s brilliant article in Art News in December, 1952, on “The American Action Painters” in which a new slogan was launched. No artist was named in it, and the terms of Rosenberg’s argument were not such as to inhibit wholesale application. Rosenberg did this himself later, encouraged no doubt by the extraordinary currency his term enjoyed. Nonetheless, the artist central to the article, though unnamed, was de Kooning. As Rosenberg put it later: “de Kooning’s improvisations provided the model for the concept of Action Painting.”1 Three months after Rosenberg’s piece, Hess published in the same magazine “De Kooning Paints a Picture.” This was one of a series of articles which included coverage of Kline and Pollock in their studios, the latter painting no less a work than the majesterial black painting, No. 32. None of the other pieces in the series had anything like the impact of Hess’s piece, which dealt with the production of Woman 1, 1950–52. If Rosenberg handled the theoretical discontinuity of the creative act and the consequent art object, Hess showed, close-up, the hectic process of decision-making as an activity that served the artist more than it contributed to a terminal image of final certainty.

These are the initiating acts that set the contour of de Kooning criticism for 20 years. In 1959 the Hess book on the artist came out, the only forceful and serious work in an abortive series on Great American Artists. What the book did was to carry to an interested public, including artists, information derived from studio talk and, I suppose, late-night sessions with de Kooning. Written from beside the artist, the book is redolent of personal contact and transmitted opinion, straight from the horse’s mouth. To read the book, as I did at the time, without knowing the artist, was to feel dramatically closer to an American artist than I had ever felt before. Hess’s tight web of documentation and poeticized gossip brought de Kooning, or rather an image of de Kooning, very near. Whereas Rosenberg deals consistently in ideal schemata, never individuals (witness his book on Gorky, originally scheduled for the Great American Artists), Hess has a flair for intimacy. Incidentally, the fact that Rosenberg’s first monograph should be on Gorky (1962) can be viewed as a back-up move for de Kooning, given the two artists’ close association and stylistic affinities. A glance at a bibliography will show that although plenty of writers wrote about de Kooning in the ’60s, they did not come up with a view of de Kooning other than that established by Hess and Rosenberg. Resistance came from one area, that of Clement Greenberg and his followers, but the criticism is as special in its malice as Hess’s and Rosenberg’s is in their partisanship.

De Kooning is the only Abstract Expressionist who was known in the ’50s to use sketches (the others either did not or kept it quiet), so that Rosenberg has to dismiss this suspicion of traditional practice. This is how he did it: “If a painting is an action, the sketch is one action, the painting that follows it another”; from which of course it follows that “the second cannot be ‘better’ or more complete than the first.”2 Rosenberg’s view of art and the artist is that “the painting itself is a ‘moment’ in the adulterated mixture of his life.”3 Thus the artist is alone with his act, equivocally related to the rest of his life, and what we see when we look is not an object in the traditional sense, but the traces of what meant something else to the artist. Hess has more confidence in the outcome of the act, but his account is pretty close to Rosenberg’s: “de Kooning’s paintings are based on contradictions kept contradictory in order to reveal the clarity of ambiguities, the concrete reality of unanswered questions, the unity of simultaneity and multiplicity.”4 Though Hess is dealing with more specifics than Rosenberg, they agree that there is a complexity, unsanctioned by traditional esthetics, which is uniquely de Kooning’s. De Kooning, Hess, and Rosenberg were in contact and had been for a long time: “Harold Rosenberg recalls a conversation with de Kooning in the 1930s,”5 and Hess remembers “watching de Kooning begin a drawing in 1951, sitting idly by a window, the pad on his knee.”6 Although Hess is very candid in remarks like these, we need to bear in mind that his closeness to the artist could lead to highly misleading remarks: “one of the decisions many New York artists made in the 1940s was to have their paintings mean anything and everything.” This notion of promiscuous signification can be applied to de Kooning, but how about to Pollock, Newman, and Rothko? Here we see a sign of what, in their enthusiasm, Hess and Rosenberg set out to do for de Kooning, namely, bestow centrality upon him.

It appears that Hess and Rosenberg wanted a replacement for Picasso. Picasso was, for an exceptionally long time, considered to be the representative man of his period. The notion is that some great artists, more than others, condense in themselves the feelings and ideas of their culture, summarizing the “real” concerns of history at a certain moment of time. Other artists can be terrific, but on a less ambitious scale; the representative artist symbolizes a totality. It was certainly time to get rid of the Picasso-as-world-picture theory and de Kooning was a suitable candidate, younger than Picasso and living in New York. De Kooning’s art is usually mobile in a zone between abstraction and figurative iconography, an ambiguity which was taken by his early supporters as proof of a Faustian appetite. “You can find Soutine (of the Ceret period), Courbet, Lautrec, and the Le Mains and Pompeian frescoes in de Kooning’s pictures,”8 according to Hess. Thus even de Kooning’s allusive mode of painting becomes not a sign of, say, eclecticism, but another proof of the summarizing scope of the man.

So far we have a situation in which two writers are supporting an artist still not famous though on his way to becoming celebrated. Most art critics have participated in efforts of this sort in which we try to win recognition, or, justice, or, more recognition and more justice for an admired artist. Not all our campaigns are as successful as this one. By the late ’50s and early ’60s, the public options of painting in New York had been constricted by the dominance of de Kooning’s model as an artist. This position was the consequence of the influential work of the artist, the supportive criticism of Hess and Rosenberg (and, of course, with Hess came Art News), and the attraction of de Kooning’s own personality, felt by other artists, as by Rosenberg and Hess. The remarkable prominence of de Kooning continued to be maintained by these two critics through the ’60s. In 1968 Hess arranged the long-delayed retrospective (though it was not called that) at The Museum of Modern Art, and Rosenberg wrote three pieces expressly on de Kooning. In one of them he said: “Like Western civilization, like humanity itself, de Kooning is constantly declared by critics to be in a state of decline.”9 I get Rosenberg’s irony, but am still skeptical of the scale of the comparison. And how about the consequences of one of de Kooning’s decisions: “This amalgamation defied history’s ‘laws of development’ by setting against them the will of an artist with a consciousness of history:”10 Here Rosenberg treats de Kooning as a force counter to history, but equal, which is no less than should be expected of a man who is like both Western civilization and humanity. I quote this rhetoric to make the point that Rosenberg continues to uphold de Kooning as the representative man, the type of artist for this moment of history, the man after Picasso.

Has the heroization of de Kooning cooled as he achieved his present status, one of global fame? Here are quotations from Hess in 1968: “To finish meant to settle for the possible at a given moment.”11 Here is the existential doctrine of endless acts being used once again to confer a virtue on open-textured painting that closed surface paintings presumably lack. “Joining impossibles is a de Kooning method.”12 For heaven’s sake, he’s only painting: criteria of possibility or impossibility refer simply to the painting process and its outcome. If the picture is a signifier is it of some impossible state? According to Hess, “his brushmarks do symbolize his independence, his liberty, but always as a hard-won emancipation.”13 Do you know of anyone whose liberty comes easily, or would admit it if it did? De Kooning’s normal operating procedure as a painter is merely being dressed up in existential cliché. Rosenberg maintains the accustomed argument in a big picture book just published. Of the recent paintings of women he observes that “they are products of his latest devices for circumventing his willful mind and trained hand!”14 That is to say, de Kooning draws, paints, sculpts with closed eyes, left hand, both hands, or while watching television, all of which are old habits of de Kooning’s. He is said to be still “gambling with the possible destruction of each work-in-progress by holding it open to associations that spring up in the course of its creation.”15 However, not unexpectedly, “some of the paintings—for example, Untitled, 1967—are among the most lyrical creations of the century.”16 Why, if the point of de Kooning is the existential act, should he now be the author of some of “the most lyrical creations of the century”? This is not the language of existentialist criticism or early support, but of promotion.

All of de Kooning’s revisions, abandonments, and delays, by which Hess and Rosenberg think he eludes the categories that contain less virile artists, issue, ultimately, in paintings. That these bear the signs of sweat and contradiction is not hard to see, but what does this mean in terms of looking at them as paintings? The anxiety that leads to irresolution and abrupt conclusions has led to a style of improvised painterliness. The possibilities that an existentialist reading attributes to these paintings amount, in fact, to three. 1. The gestural brushwork is sometimes the record of visual perception, but kinesthetic, haptic, or mnemonic passages occur as well. 2. The paintings have an iconography which ranges, so far as the women are concerned, between Rubens’ plastic fleshiness, pinups, and Cubism. Common to Rubens and Cubism is the infrastructure of European portraiture since the 16th century: that is to say, full-length and half-length figures, seated or standing, occupy set portions of the upright canvas or arena, as it used to be called. 3. When his art gets more gestural, without arriving at a figure, a landscape format emerges. Here de Kooning puts the space of the world into his pictures, downtown New York in the abstractions of the late ’50s or the beach at East Hampton in the recent works with what Rosenberg calls “today’s cuties.”17 The possibilities presented in de Kooning’s paintings are only those that follow from the conflation of these motifs. The connotations of the female iconography, including as it does sexual and mythological references, are not unusually extensive by 20th-century standards. De Kooning is associational and permissive but this is a structure, an attitude, every bit as fixed, once he stops working on a piece, as other artists supposedly trapped by mere possibility.

I am not opposed to the application of existentialism to art criticism in principle (see, for example, Merleau-Ponty’s well-known essay on Cézanne). The difficulty for me lies in the exaggerated way in which de Kooning has been discussed, as if he were the only model of authenticity. When postwar art in New York was in its origins, this had a polemical value (it was, for one thing, an argument against abstract art). However, now that de Kooning is an eminent figure of world art it is not the same thing to find the same language still in use, unless Hess and Rosenberg simply see de Kooning’s development of the last 20 years as their confirmation and monument. Certainly there is a tendency to judge the present of art by the past of de Kooning, as when Hess, in his informative book on de Kooning’s drawings, writes: “The use of the grid has been recognized as one of the characteristics of advanced art of the 1960s. Indeed critic Lucy Lippard organized an exhibition on this theme.”18 He then goes on to impute bad faith either to her or to “the formalist spokesmen for 1960s painting” for ignoring drawings by de Kooning of 1950 on graph paper. In fact the grid is entirely incidental to the paintmarks in these works: the paper is obviously something that just came to hand. To turn de Kooning into a grid-user is ridiculous, unless one believes that he is, in his person, all of modern art. In truth, there is a series of drawings by de Kooning of 1959–60 in which his customary opposition of the gestural swipe and the sudden cutting edge of the paper are assembled on a module dictated by the paper size. These interrupted but reiterated gestures might well have been included in a grid exhibition, but why does Hess not mention them? Presumably because they are not early enough to preserve de Kooning’s pioneer status.

The problem of getting artists out of their friends’ hands is one that has occurred before in 20th-century criticism. There is no doubt that those who know artists are initially the best qualified to write about them. They have sources of information that can be brought to bear in the interpretation of new work (like early Hess on de Kooning). It is the prolongation of early criticism, which is topical and exploratory, into the discussion of the same artist as a celebrity that is unsatisfactory. It tends to arrest opinion at the writer’s point of entry into the subject, and so perpetuate ideas past their point of usefulness. In the case of Picasso, the escape from friends’ eulogies has only been achieved lately, for example, in research and articles by Americans in which sensibility and art-historical methodology have shifted the ways in which aspects of Picasso have to be seen. Theodore Reff on the Pink period, Leo Steinberg and Robert Rosenblum on the later women, are examples of such revisionary work. The question is, has it begun with de Kooning?

In the catalogue De Kooning: Drawings/Sculptures, Martin Friedman’s acknowledgments read as follows: “Philip Larson, Curator at Walker Art Center, worked closely with the artist on many aspects of preparing the exhibition and wrote the catalogue essay on the drawings. Poet and critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote the perceptive articles on de Kooning’s sculpture.” On the first page Larson’s text strikes a new note in de Kooning criticism from that which we have been discussing.“The sketches reveal a fine sensibility not widely appreciated outside a small collectors’ circle, yet this extensive body of work is unmatched among his generation of Abstract Expressionists.” This sounds like an article in The Burlington Magazine of around 1912. And from later: “The ghost-like hallucinatory images in the ‘woman’ pastels are an achievement in the medium unsurpassed in mid-century American art, and remind us that human presence is not easily disposed of.” This language, that of conventional art-historical praise, is not exactly what one had hoped for. For instance, does Larson mean that the pastels must be considered as the best art or the best pastels of their moment? lithe former, the idea is stupid; if the latter, it is inconsequential. Whichever he means, I consider such assertions tendentious and not the proper subject of criticism anyway. It should be more descriptive and less status-conferring.

A part of what one hoped for from a new writer on de Kooning was the ability to look at his work just as art, not as an existential gesture against the void. But Larson lets us down. For example, he lumps together Rothko, Still, Mondrian [sic], and de Kooning as “pioneer abstractionists.” He is discussing traces of subject matter in their work and notes, in order, “skyfilled landscape,” “primal mountain formations,” “New York street plans,” and “seething orgies.” His point is merely that “there has been considerable debate about over just how abstract” these artists were. (For the record, the skies and the mountains are illusory; the street plans have a legitimate associational value; and the orgies are there, though this is a coarse way of describing de Kooning’s Cubist warehouse.) Larson goes from this unsatisfactory unifying of divergent artists to discuss de Kooning’s subject matter: “Critics have long assumed that de Kooning’s Abstract Expressionist work deals with images of sex and violence,” he comments. Well, does it or doesn’t it? Larson’s conclusion is that the subject matter “should probably be construed broadly, as a generalized battlefield of life forces.” That is to say, the general view of de Kooning is to be maintained but not investigated closely; Larson will perpetuate the general view but under conditions of benign neglect. What I hoped for from him was a conservative and rational account of de Kooning and occasionally we glimpse what such a study might deliver. He compares “de Kooning’s pastel women and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s pastels of Berlin prostitutes and ’tough’ show girls.” It is an interesting point, but he does not go from this to a discussion of de Kooning as a late Expressionist, which seems the obvious and illuminating next step in the argument. De Kooning was influenced by at least one Expressionist of the second generation, Soutine, so this would have been a natural clue to follow up.

The timidity of an art historian can be a source of value, as it inhibits wild generalization or unverifiable estheticizing, but it can also act as a low ceiling. For instance, Larson refers to gestural works of 1959–60 and proposes that “their firm, direct calligraphy suggests Kline’s influence.” This may be so and he reproduces Kline’s New York, 1953, along with a two-sheet drawing, Black and White (Rome), 1959, to support his point. And there the matter rests. Why does Larson not go into the still unsettled question about the earlier relationship of de Kooning and Kline where the pivotal topic is: did Kline begin his large black-and-white paintings under de Kooning’s example? It seems likely, but is not proved, that de Kooning was influential here and it is the kind of matter one expects art historians to address. The plain fact seems to be that Larson just does not know enough about New York art and artists contemporary with de Kooning. It is as if he were to write about, say, Girolamo da Carpi without knowing about Ferrara.

The art historian’s traditional respect for facts can become a mere respect for authority. An example of this occurs when Larson writes that de Kooning “always believed the well-planned ‘accident’ could eradicate any left-over classical notions about expressing human form.” We have seen that this is an adage rather than an insight in the de Kooning literature; what we expect now is a discussion of what is continuous and systematic in these attempts to surpass himself that de Kooning makes. It is disappointing that the first published attempt by an art historically trained writer on de Kooning should be so unsatisfactory. That my expectations were not unreasonable can be shown by reference to Jim M. Jordan’s Gorky Drawings (1969), a brief but rethought and exact text on the artist. As for Peter Schjeldahl’s text on the sculpture, what can I say? It is a beatific blurb that affably affirms the mesmerizing monumentality of a major master. De Kooning criticism is still in the hands of its founders.



1. "De Kooning: ’Painting Is a Way’,’ in Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object, New York, 1964, p. 117. Originally published in The New Yorker, February 16, 1963.

2. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News, December, 1952. Quoted from Henry Geldzahler, New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970, New York, 1969, p. 342.

3. Ibid., p. 343.

4. Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 15.

6. Thomas B. Hess, De Kooning’s Drawings, New York, 1972, p. 16.

7. Hess, 1959, p. 19.

8. Hess, 1959, p. 31.

9. Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object, p. 123.

10. Ibid., p. 114.

11. Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1968, p. 23.

12. Ibid., p. 72.

13. Ibid., p. 55.

14. Harold Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1974, p. 35.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Hess, 1972, p. 35.