PRINT March 1984


THE WILLEM DE KOONING retrospective at the Whitney Museum was, for some of us at least, a sentimental occasion. De Kooning, now nearly 80, is the “grand old man” of Modernist American art, if only because he is almost the only major artist of his generation to have lived long enough to attain this virtually irrelevant but nonetheless symbolic distinction. Arshile Gorky, whose influence de Kooning acknowledges and who would be de Kooning’s age had he lived, died, a suicide, in 1948. Jackson Pollock died in an accident in 1956, Franz Kline died from natural causes in 1962, David Smith was an accident victim in 1965. Mark Rothko, also a suicide, and Barnett Newman both died in 1970 and Clyfford Still, also de Kooning’s age, died in 1980. His life has been much like theirs were—difficult artistically and personally for many years, followed by a success that was not all roses. He has overcome much and continues to paint, apparently, pretty much all the time. A fair share of the works in the survey (which lacked critical pictures from the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago) have been painted since the mid ’70s, they may arguably be his most successful works to date. The paintings of his “innovative” years—the late ’40s and part of the early ’50s—belong to history, and to address his current work by the standards or problems they represent and confront is not to want anything to change or not to want to admit that just about everything has changed. The new works tell us that for better or worse de Kooning has changed; that is what a Modernist artist not only should do, but has to do.

So, in fact, de Kooning is not a “heroic” figure—yet. Indeed, it is impossible to see anyone or anything in art currently as heroic. Material success on an unprecedented scale, rampant internationalism, and a sense of living in an era of potential Apocalypse, an expression actually of anxiety caused by drastic change and upheaval everywhere, make it impossible to regard anything but true old-master art as permanently “great,” or just spiritually and esthetically permanent. Everything else is provisional—suddenly—at least everything since Manet. Manet, his recent retrospective made very clear, had his problems and many of his problems are still with us. In one sense that’s a good sign. It means that some sort of continuity underlies the strenuous ideological activity that has characterized Modernism generally, but especially the past 20 or 25 years, that there remains a matrix of possibilities within the conventions of Modernism or, more accurately, within the conventions of art. By the same token we are guaranteed, because of what appears to be the permanent restlessness of the 20th century, acres of artistic rubbish, largely because of an appropriation and literary oversimplification of technological culture that equals Surrealism’s flaky relationship to Freudian psychology for shadiness of artistic reasoning.

The radical thing about de Kooning’s work since the mid ’70s is that it is abstract. The earlier works look abstract, but are not, being examples of what Clement Greenberg called “homeless representation,” inferring rather than depicting the figurative. While there is no such thing actually as an abstract painting, that is, an artwork without a subject or a “representation,” de Kooning has not addressed himself so directly to the visual sense before. These later paintings are about the medium, the surface, and a kind of physiognomic articulation of both, however else they might have been inspired by “nature.” De Kooning paints them with broad licks of not very symbolically laden color. The function of his color is mostly to register fluid shapes and generalized masses rather than to create any atmospheric density through simultaneous contrast of color. Despite the broad configurations, the shading of the strokes echoes de Kooning’s traditional orientation to modeling. The paintings literally record the “tracks” de Kooning makes with very wide brushes while seeking congruent marks and masses that sometimes seem to float or, conversely, to sprawl, across the surface, setting up a metaphorical ambience of movement. Despite the ubiquitous liquefaction of the surface, the paintings are essentially linear. Screams of Children Come from Seagulls, 1975, like Untitled III, 1976, which hung right next to it, and Untitled II, 1977, seems to be built out of grandly disheveled ribbons of graphic color which unravel and ricochet at the same time; yet facturally, their tactile density absorbs, even transcends the linear aspect. They hover, like all of the works of these past few years, on the brink of arbitrariness, between manner and matter, and we will need more time to digest them. Two or three paintings from 1981 and 1982 seem to mark a retreat back into a tighter, more discernible linearity, but they do not alter the impression of a dramatic recovery from the choked but listless canvases of the ’60s.

Obviously, then, de Kooning has not completely divorced himself from the more dramatic works that first earned him his reputation, such as Painting, 1948, Night Square, ca. 1950–51, and the very large Excavation, 1950, none of which were loaned for the New York exhibition and whose absence was immediately noticeable to anyone familiar with de Kooning’s career. Untitled and Black Friday, both 1948, and Attic, 1949, were only partially successful as stand-ins for these critical works which clearly link de Kooning with Gorky and Pollock especially. In time de Kooning’s association with Gorky prevails because of their mutual preference for cursively drawn but symbolically inflected shapes and outlines, which derive from the combined influence of Surrealism and Synthetic Cubism—and in which sense the paintings of the late ’40s differ from the dripped Pollocks of that time and from de Kooning’s own recent production. The black and white outlines which racily define loose clusters of overlapping and interwoven biomorphic forms or “areas” in the densely painted earlier pictures emerge, one might say mature, in recent years as sweeping, autonomous, seemingly helter-skelter arabesques without any primarily depictive function. Yet no more than the pictures of his “breakthrough” years do the new works attain, nor do they seem to desire, the full “all-over” quality of the best Pollocks, whose decorative unity represents an emphatic wholeness of effect and affect of the kind Duchamp mistakenly referred to as “retinality” (though it is unlikely he had Pollock in mind—not even he would have dared such heresy). The notion, once more ascendant, that abstract art appeals mainly to the eye is a form of ideological puritanism, but underlying it is a reasonable doubt about “meaning” that plagued many Abstract Expressionists.

There are two possible explanations for de Kooning’s continued resistance to or difficulty with the decorative. De Kooning appears not to have been as clear about the problem of style as Pollock was (he had a rigorously traditional training in his native Holland) and he was probably affected by the rhetoric of crisis that was best articulated in the writings of his friend the critic Harold Rosenberg, especially Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters,” published in 1952. The essay embodies, in sharp distinction to the “formalist” theory of Modernism propounded by Clement Greenberg, the ethical and existential imperatives that many painters assumed in the wake of the political disillusionment and cultural isolation of advanced American art during the ’30s and ’40s, a time when Social Realism was considered the dominant advanced style. (In 1947, for instance, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the works of Ben Shahn.) In practice this meant either an equivocal relationship to the figure, so preeminent in Gorky and obviously de Kooning, though Pollock was also affected, or the sort of dramatic allusiveness that gradually infiltrated Rothko’s work. This despite the fact that Rosenberg emphasized the “act” rather than the “image.” In a way, the “beauty” of the decorative was probably seen as a betrayal of an otherwise vaguely articulated ideal of being “avant-garde” in art and life. Even Pollock may have seen it that way, for he had begun to withdraw from his “all-over” style not too long before he died. Indeed, his death in an automobile accident further encouraged a misreading of his art as no less violent than his life, as compatible with a kind of moral risk-taking that conferred “meaning” on the “artistic” “act,” and by extension the art.

But the almost foreboding quality of de Kooning’s paradigmatic Abstract Expressionist pictures is also rooted in artistic issues that are clearly evident in the early figurative works of the late 1930s. De Kooning seems not to have been able to finish any of them, at least those pictures exhibited. The figure forms are blurred, or, as the influence of Picasso (and possibly John Graham) is surrealized by the mounting momentum of de Kooning’s whiplash drawing, they are distorted in bizarre ways. Details are depicted realistically, like eyes or a fold of drapery, but the drawing becomes increasingly stylized, and extremities literally start to disappear. Glazier, ca. 1940, lacks arms; Portrait of Max Margulis, 1944, is missing both hands. The notorious “Women” series of the ’50s revives this conflict between the growing pressure of the medium and a contradictory and belated degree of finish. This is not just a matter of conflicting linear and painterly modes, but a demand for discreteness of both surface and sign, one which would naturally seem more dramatic and “expressionistic” when the subject is plainly a voluptuous object—a woman.

The result, instead, is a species of compulsive caricature, an aspect that is markedly present in the far too many similar drawings that were displayed in a separate retrospective of drawings that accompanied the painting exhibit, drawings as rubbery as the mostly pink (or yellow) figures that de Kooning painted in the ’60s. These literally wishy-washy paintings underscore the depth of de Kooning’s ambivalence about the role of the figure in his art. For de Kooning the figure has been more of a concession to art’s social contract, and if his handling of it has represented anything psychological, as most commentators have insisted, it is less about the relations between the sexes than about authority and the limits of freedom implied in any social contract. In other words, the vehemence of his representations of the figure reflects the conflict engendered by his search for personal autonomy and his evident frustration, since the figure, when an assertive presence, simply blocks his passage into the painting. It is usually an immovable mass surrounded by the debris of the depreciated materiality of both the medium and the surface. Invariably the fixated glare of a grotesque face, detached from the medium, stares out triumphant. This grotesque quality is literalized in some 25 bronze sculptures de Kooning has executed since 1969. In these the figure image is a consequence of, and yet embodies, its own disembodiment by the violent manual manipulation of the original clay versions. Gruesomely misshapen, they render endurance as much as they do horror, but even more they objectify the principle underlying de Kooning’s paintings that date from about 1975. Style is no longer an obligation, nor currency. Ideas, sublimated, are now linked to immediacy of pictorialization, to a conflation of “acts” as one single, charged sign of authority—his own. In certain respects, de Kooning begins to resemble Monet.

Sidney Tillim is a painter and critic who lives in New York City and teaches at Bennington College.