PRINT January 1980

Willem de Kooning at the Pittsburgh International

IS DE KOONING “A Nietzsche who has read Wittgenstein,“ or ”a celebrity more and more alienated from his true qualities“? Is painting for him ”a real action, comparable to crossing an ocean“? Is his art ”a Soutine repainted by Mondrian,” “a painted Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or a ”self-evident“ combination of ”the great plastic and painterly traditions of Western painting with Late Cubist syntax"? The effect of such criticism is to hide Willem de Kooning’s art beneath a mass of literary ideas. Can we still see his pictures?

Pre-1975 de Koonings tend to come in two formats, tall rectangles for human figures and wide rectangles for landscapes or interiors (exceptions to this rule tend to be less successful work). Tall rectangles provide natural images for female bodies, a space de Kooning can hollow out in vertical, frontally oriented symmetrical compositions. Does he attack these women, or make love to them, or both? The limited reference to actual figures and the blatantly competing colors suggest not altogether unaggressive fantasies about these bodies. If Kenneth Clark is right to assert that “in European art there has always been a belief that the more a figure reveals its inner structure the more respectable it becomes” (The Nude; a Study in Ideal Form, 1956), this way is positively disrespectful. But is not love required, too, obsessively to attempt to put together the body this way, without reference to some preconceived image of it?

Actually, the women are perhaps best understood as a compositional device, their emotional ambiguity a reflection of the compositional ambiguities of these paintings. De Kooning can show an outlined figure with a “Sienese-madonna” shape, Woman Sitting, 1943–44. or reduce most of the body to Hofmannesque color planes, Woman VI,1953. And the background can be solid pale colors, in the seated women from the early 1940s, or broken into a succession of smaller planes or spatters of paint, as in the women from the early 1950s. De Kooning’s development is toward a more complex spatial organization. But given a few hints—a depicted face, the outline of a body—we can readily read even chaotic-looking pictures as representations of a person centered on the canvas in front of a background.

The wide rectangles provide no such obviously unambiguous way of orienting the viewer in relation to a picture space. The early Untitled, 1944, uses an allover red reminiscent of Matisse’s Red Studio, the rectangular planes of green and blue becoming framed abstract pictures within the larger picture. Later, sometimes larger and more chaotic pictures, such as Composition, 1955, are tied together with a similar all-over use of red. The famous black-on-white abstracts of the late 1940s use a similar, if different looking, method of composition, a repetition of relatively homogeneous, essentially monocolored, planes.

The landscapes of the mid 1950s to early 1960s pose more complex problems. Some, like Suburb in Havana, 1959, but not all, appeal to our natural tendency to read the top of a picture as the blue sky, the bottom as the land. Often de Kooning seeks to make these pictures legible without using definite representational references, by showing larger and fewer forms than in the “Women.” Sometimes his gestures-in-color appear too large. Often, as with Palisade, 1957, we see something like a black-on-white Kline with the image and background painted in different colors. But this suspension of a large, indefinitely shaped form in front of a colored background looks less clear or dramatic, and so is less satisfying, than a Kline. The simplification of color and form required, compared to that in the "Women,” is too great a sacrifice to warrant this result. Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, 1963, works better because it is organized around a centralized white parallelogram, a compositional surrogate for the woman’s body.

In a fascinating variety of ways de Kooning tries to go beyond this identification whereby a tall rectangle seen frontally equals “woman.” He makes the tall rectangle taller, suspending the figure so that she no longer faces us frontally (Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964); or uses a wide rectangle to show several women side by side; or moves the woman into the landscape, suggesting in Woman on a Sign II, 1967, that we see her from below, as if looking up at a Tiepolo ceiling. The ad hoc character of these devices, and the fact that none is systematically developed by de Kooning, may suggest that they are somehow ultimately unsatisfactory.

The post-1975 works abandon use of the female figure as a structuring principle. De Kooning in effect redoes the wide rectangles without reference to a figure. He uses a heterogeneous repertoire of forms—straight or curved lines going at all angles, various solid shapes—and garish or grotesque color contrasts. We can try to focus on one color, then another; or we can attempt to collect forms by relation to their shape or direction. But wherever we start, any one way of synthesizing the picture elements seems arbitrary, merely one possible way of organizing our perceptions.

Certain representational works raise analogous problems. “If we like an art self-contained,” Fromentin says, Rubens can only irritate. His work is ”conceived, so to speak, in fragments“ (The Masters of Past Time, 1876). Riegl points to the same difficulty when he speaks (in a 1902 essay on Geertgen tot Sint Jans included in his Dutch Group-Portrait, 1939) of the tendency of Dutch painting ”to avoid subordination and to isolate figures from one another.“ Most abstract works use some system of pictorial hierarchy—whether it be Hofmann’s color rectangles, Diebenkorn’s play with an abstracted perspective, or one of many other techniques—to subordinate the smaller to the larger units of organization. And many abstract paintings more easily achieve such an organization by using only a few radically simplified forms. De Kooning violates such notions of good design. Even when he paints in Rubensesque colors, the visual effect is more complicated-looking than in a Rubens. For one thing, it is hard to imagine pictures that look less like how we think nature appears. (One possible analogy is Rauschenberg’s collages, with their assembly of a heterogeneous collection of images without obvious suggestion of how those images are to be linked together.) Baudelaire, who tells us that a true colorist ”knows by instinct [that] melody means unity of color" (Salon of 1846), would be astonished and dismayed.

Seeing this grouping of de Koonings is illuminating. In seeing an assembly of Nolands, Stellas or Louises we see the evolution of successive images and their development in a series of works. One “Protractor” or “Unfurled” is seen as one possible way of developing that image. De Koonings seen together do not function in that way. His recent works offer nothing like such a design capable of being developed in a series. Rather, walking into the group of late 1970s works is like hearing a dozen chamber groups rehearsing different works simultaneously.

All this is not to say whether these pictures are good or bad. Such judgments seem limited ways of dealing with pictures, a way of cutting ourselves off from experiencing them. What is remarkable is how unacceptable these de Koonings look. Written off decades ago for having outlived his time, today de Kooning possesses the capacity to startle in ways that advanced artists of a decade ago no longer possess. Twenty-five years ago it might have seemed that de Kooning would become a kind of uninhibited Francis Bacon. But contrary to what was claimed by critics who believed that his return to the human figure made his work merely reactionary, we can now see that, if he clung to the “woman” so long, it was because she provided him with ways of developing a kind of pictorial structure that, separated now from the use of the figure, appears startlingly new. Is that what de Kooning meant when he wrote in 1950 that for the Renaissance artist “the ‘content’ was his way of making the happening . . . measurable from as many angles as possible”?

David Carrier teaches philosophy at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh.