PRINT November 1994

New World Order

NEAR THE BEGINNING OF “Willem de Kooning: Paintings” are the pictures of seated women the artist painted in the early ’40s. Made with delicate, muscular lines and hot colors, these images show the artist’s elegance, his knack for the flattening and slippage of forms, and the high-flash sexiness that de Kooning, a Calvinist born in 1904, was happy to call “vulgar” but that nowadays looks like standard urban allure.1 The stylistic sources of these imaginary portraits were no mystery, especially not to him. In the catalogue of the show, which debuted earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art and is about to open in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marla Prather quotes de Kooning on Modernist tradition and how he and his downtown friends dealt with it: “Picasso and Matisse showed us the way and we filled in with our own personalities.”2

Toward the end of the ’40s, de Kooning forced Surrealist biomorphism to cooperate with Analytical Cubism and came up with the white-on-black paintings that may be his best. In abstractions like Painting, 1948, voluptuous contours bring to mind the warmth and sliding weight of buttocks, breasts, and thighs: in murky light, a damp grinding. Straight lines and right angles suggest woodwork and window frames. Sometimes a shape looks like a coupling of organic and carpentered form. In de Kooning’s theater, nothing, not even the stage set, goes unembraced.

White on black became the black on white of Attic and Zot, both 1949. Fleeing that narrow set of alternatives, de Kooning fell into Excavation, 1950, an immense canvas the color of clay in two senses—earth and flesh. Excavation is de Kooning’s challenge to Jackson Pollock, and fails if you believe, as I do, that Pollock’s drip paintings chart a space that de Kooning simply can’t enter. But Excavation does succeed as an extravagant episode in de Kooning’s career of tearing down Cubism and rebuilding it at a huge, rackety, New World scale. The “Women” of 1950–55, hilariously derelict pictures, are Cubist structures as spooky architectural follies, intricate edifices built as ruins (hence “woman the eternal” as the Victorian Gothic home for “modern man’s” rather theatrical idea of his sexual terrors). De Kooning was so much a late Cubist that he felt obliged to state, “I never made a Cubistic painting.”3 Pablo Picasso was his ever-present exemplar, and a competitor so challenging that de Kooning spent decades trying to lose him. He also had other exemplars—Joan Miró, Paul Cézanne, Piet Mondrian, Rembrandt. The photographer Rudy Burkhardt, a friend of the painter since the ’30s, remembers de Kooning’s wish to paint like the messy Chaim Soutine and the excessively neat Ingres, not one after the other but both at once.4

At every big de Kooning show I find that a new batch of his pictures has become my favorite. At the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, my best-in-show vote went to the works that Thomas Hess, the curator of that exhibition, called “abstract urban landscapes”—pictures like Gotham News, 1955–56, and Police Gazette, 1954–55.5 (Both reappeared at the National Gallery, though Gotham News will return to the Albright-Knox, in Buffalo, without stopping off at the Met.) This time I liked best of all the “abstract parkway landscapes” of 1957–60, and especially Montauk Highway, 1958, and Door to the River, 1960. I even came away from the show with a favorite color: not the deep, luminous blue stretching across the upper reaches of these pictures but the bruised-looking ocher that manages to remind me of raw, bulldozed earth and a quality of autumnal North Atlantic light—afternoon light filtered through leaves that have turned. These de Koonings have virtues in common with the best picture postcards.

“Abstract parkway landscapes” is Hess’ phrase, invented for the catalogue of the 1968 MOMA exhibition. He was responding to de Kooning’s offhand eulogies of “weekend drives.” “I like New York City,” de Kooning said in 1960, “but I love to go out in a car. . . . I’m just crazy about going over the roads and highways . . . the big embankments and the shoulders of the roads, and the curves are flawless—the lawning of it, the grass. This I don’t particularly like or dislike, but I wholly approve of it.”6 “It” is several things: the highway system that connects city and country and has the scale of both, and that system’s “flawless,” boring design and execution. De Kooning’s parkway landscapes have the scale of this big-time American engineering, and some of its shapes: wide straightaways and curves with a slow, arrogant sweep. Those who know the East Coast can hardly avoid reading Long Island’s flatness into Montauk Highway. Door to the River seems to set the highway or the rush of it alongside architecture at the edge of Manhattan, which is to say the river’s edge, though you could just as easily say that de Kooning is referring here to some large, light-shot place out of town.

These pictures offer no handy binarisms, no simple dichotomy of city versus country. They are about a third term, the connection between the first two, a linkage rendered in ways that throw all terms in doubt. In the late ’50s, de Kooning’s idea of the countryside was fairly sketchy, a variant on his idea of the city, which was intricate and far from tidy. Though de Kooning grew up in Rotterdam, as the ’50s ended he had spent most of his adult life in New York, a messy place all out of European scale. New York is charged with the metaphor of America as the realm of infinite possibility. The pressure of that metaphor pushes all the large gestures in the parkway landscapes.

Yet this is not to say that de Kooning accepts America’s largest idea about itself. He is in general a skeptic, a man who once said, at the Club, “We are all basing our work on paintings in whose ideas we no longer believe.”7 And to carry out the shift of style that produced the parkway landscapes, he worked from an idea of himself that no longer quite cohered: he became a de Kooning-esque painter, a de Kooning acolyte. Actually the “abstract parkway landscapes” are sufficiently far from de Kooning as to approach Franz Kline, like Kline in color, though they appeared before Kline himself had switched from black and white to a full palette. About 1956, a number of New York painters had looked at Kline’s wide swaths of black paint and decided he had the right way to get pigment onto canvas. You see the force of his example in pictures by Elaine de Kooning, Al Held, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie, Joan Mitchell, and others—artists often considered followers of de Kooning. In the parkway landscapes, Willem himself found uses for Kline’s boldness. Even so, his mix of delicacy and brusque urgency is always recognizable.

Parkways led de Kooning from Manhattan to Springs, on Long Island, where he settled in 1963. Urban angularity disappeared from his pictures as he let himself be entranced by the shimmer of light on water and the country’s lush curves. De Kooning now entered the last and most unapologetic of his calendar-girl periods. Before, his leer had been tempered by dread or an idea of refinement. Now he wallowed in pink, trying to mix Soutine not with Ingres but with Rubens.

Skipping around the sculptures that preoccupied de Kooning in 1973–74, the Washington show has a small but strong selection of the paintings he made between 1975 and ’78. In these grand, skidding pictures he revives his Manhattan arias in a mood at once elegiac and panicky. Because they are as crowded as Police Gazette or Gotham News, these works do not feel like summaries. Only in 1981 did the summation begin, leading de Kooning back to clarities as sparse as the ones you see in his abstractions of the ’30s, when he was still a provincial Modernist looking for the master logic of his medium. What de Kooning clarifies in these late works is the habitual shape, the characteristic thrust and torque, of the gestures he began to make when he realized that there is no master logic and that he would have to rely on his personality.

Is de Kooning America’s best European painter? Europe’s best American painter? He is deliberately, provokingly elusive, and he gives that quality to his subjects. “The landscape is in the Woman,” he said, “and there is Woman in the landscapes.”8 By the mid ’50s, her massively voluptuous shapes had merged with drifts of cloud and water and terrain. De Kooning said he “could sustain this thing all the time because it could change all the time; she . . . could not be there, or come back again, she could be any size.”9 She could be either sex. “You can’t always tell a man from a woman in my painting,” he noted, adding, “Those women are perhaps the feminine side of me—but with big shoulders. I’m not so big, but I’m very masculine and this masculinity mixed up with femininity comes out on the canvas.”10 Maybe we could take away a lesson here about the provisional nature of the self.

If so, de Kooning is the opposite of what Rosenberg wanted him to be: the action painter who examines his painting in progress for “the true image of his identity.”11 The Rosenbergian painter “accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating”—himself and the self-image that are in essence identical.12 For de Kooning, much more than that was real, or real enough: the past, the ordinary world, low art, the art world and its politics of style. Rosenberg’s action painter is an earnest, existentializing chap alive to nothing but a prim melodrama about his own authenticity. De Kooning’s paintings teach a better—anyway, a more amusing—way to be: alert and responsive to the tireless variety of high culture and the world beyond its porous borders.

This is no doubt a good lesson, or more congenial than Rosenberg’s, but so what? We could learn it from the work of any halfway lively painter or from one corner of a de Kooning canvas. Having learned it, what are we to do with the rest of his oeuvre? The trouble with the lessons taught by art is that they don’t require us to look at anything very hard. And what if we do pay attention to de Kooning’s imagery? He is always driven by something small, a fragment of the world or drift of feeling—the “flash,” the “glimpse,” that he talked about on occasion, a private experience that he renders public at a large scale.13 It is an art that encourages us to invent stories, maybe, but not to extract any moral. Uneasy in the absence of didactic rewards, we may let the pleasure of de Kooning’s art elude us. And even if we don’t, we may still ask: what’s the point? It’s a dreary, unanswerable question, yet it lingers, so let me make this suggestion.

In the pleasures of paintings as complex as de Kooning’s, one can glimpse an allegory of utopian happiness. For if society were to fit our sensibilities as well as the universe of his imagery fits his, we would indeed be citizens of a utopia. Everything would work, both perfectly and with surprises, so utopia wouldn’t be boring. All major art offers this utopian allegory, which is also a reproach: life may never work as well as art, but can’t we learn anything from art’s example? To avoid the reproach we overlook the allegory, and miss the one moral argument that the skeptical de Kooning was willing to make.



1. See the artist’s statements on the subject in “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” 1951, reprinted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exhibition catalogue, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968, p. 145; and in Sam Hunter, “De Kooning: Je dessine les yeux fermés,” Galerie Jardin des Arts 152, November 1975, p. 70.

2. Willem de Kooning, statement, 1982, quoted in Marla Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994, p. 80. The exhibition opened in Washington in May and is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it will remain until 8 January 1995. It will appear at the Tate Gallery, London, front 15 February to 7 May.

3. De Kooning, quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” 1972, in The Case of the Baffled Radical, Chicago: at the University Press, 1985, p. 148.

4. Rudy Burkhardt, “Long Ago with Willem de Kooning,” Art Journal 48, Fall 1989, p. 223.

5. Hess, p. 26.

6. De Kooning, quoted in David Sylvester, “Content is a glimpse ...,” Location 1 no. 1, Spring 1963, p. 28. Reprinted in De Kooning, text by Harold Rosenberg, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978 (second printing), p. 206.

7. De Kooning, quoted in Rosenberg, “Willem de Kooning,” 1973, Art & Other Serious Matters, Chicago: at the University Press, 1985, p. 154.

8. De Kooning, quoted in Hess, p. 100. In 1955, de Kooning painted a picture called Woman as Landscape.

9. De Kooning, quoted in Rosenberg, “Willem de Kooning,” 1973, Art & Other Serious Matters, p. 164. The ellipsis is in the original.

10. De Kooning, quoted in David L. Shirey, “Don Quixote in Springs,” Newsweek XX no. XX, 20 February 1978, p. 80. See also Judith Zilczer, “De Kooning and Urban Expressionism,” Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1993, p.53.

11. Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” 1952, in The Tradition of the New, Chicago: at the University Press, 1982, p. 31.

12. Ibid., p. 32.

13. De Kooning, statement, 1959, quoted in Prather, p. 130.