PRINT November 1994

Old School Master

HERE ARE HIS OWN FAMOUS WORDS, but he didn’t know they stated a problem, he couldn’t see the problem even when it stared him in the face: “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”1 He didn’t know that this idea kept him from Modern greatness, or rather that it made him a great old master, for it’s an old master idea of painting, not a Modern one. As idée fixe, flesh implies a traditionalist’s reliance, indeed dependence, on the model (however abstracted or disguised)—an inability to break away from the objective referent. Thus it implies a misunderstanding of the whole direction in which Modern painting was moving in de Kooning’s era: the liberation from any model (external or internal), any descriptive mimetic purpose—any association beyond what is immanent in paint itself, in its fluidity and lability. This line of Modernist art fosters a sense of spontaneity. Painting becomes primary, self-reflexive, apparently parthenogenetic process; gesture reacts to and builds on gesture, seemingly without interference from reflection. The image may take chance form, but more often it flows with raw grace. There is a sense of unpredictable eruption—automatist abandon—bursting the seams of the picture, making it uncontainable: a magmatic flow of protean expression, an abstract catharsis of archaic passion.

Wassily Kandinsky announced the goal and Jackson Pollock realized it. De Kooning did not. Thinking he was rendering his memories and fantasies of touching and caressing and rubbing and kneading flesh—if also of jabbing and poking and tearing and crushing it—he could not paint “informally” and freely. His paint is hemmed in by its representational purpose, by its instrumental role in his conscious reflection on the body, by his inherited wish to render the body, if in a new way. His paint must fit the body, its procrustean bed. When it doesn’t it seems wasted. De Kooning is a libertine, but not a painterly one: he wants to plumb female flesh, leave his painterly fingerprints in it, rather than paint for the sake of painting.

It is hard, perhaps narcissistically impossible, for an artist to break away completely from the figure. It is hard to realize spontaneity, let alone sustain it;2 hard to stop thought’s interference in feeling, in process; hard to efface oneself, to become simply the medium of one’s spontaneity, to suspend the way the mind inhibits process by preconceiving its goal. It is hard to make the dynamics of painting what count, not the subject matter; the how of painting, not what issues from it. De Kooning can never forget what he is painting. However dynamically he works, he is addressing a subject matter, and a tired, overworked, academic one at that: flesh. And flesh in his images is more an idea than a sensation, simply because he knows he is addressing it. His paintings invite us to interpret them rather than merge with them.

As you look at a de Kooning, then, it comes to seem less and less spontaneous. Indeed it may come to seem contrived, mannerist, stylized, arch. This art is ultimately not about liberation but about craft, not about dissolving flesh into paint that is thrilling enough in itself to make the figure seem beside the point, but about crafting flesh into abstract shapes, half erotic curve, half aggressive angle. The picture frame is a window in which the female body is exhibited as in Holland’s red-light districts. And the women are small-time cabaret performers, clearly related to the whores of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. De Kooning has a strong sense of the eros of paint, but a stronger one of the eros of flesh. His obsession with flesh sometimes makes his pictures seem like scenes from a superior pulp literature. Indeed his attitude to the female body resembles that of Zola: he wants to see it decay.3

Like Picasso, de Kooning could never make the leap into total abstraction, could never forgo memory and perception.4 Both artists had the opportunity to do so, at a time when that would have advanced the power of art, and both failed to take it. Though both suggest the inadequacy of representation, even the ultimate unrepresentability of things (especially human beings), I think they were both afraid of the disembodiment that comes with total abstraction. For them that disembodiment meant death. De Kooning came closest to taking the step in his paintings of the ’80s, their shapes being schematic reprises—hollow ghosts—of those of 1948, his annus mirabilis, as David Sylvester calls it.5 The body’s planes have disintegrated into gestural sketches, petrified fragments afloat in an unscalable, immeasurable space. Precious and fetishized, they have lost their juice. These paintings bring to a climax the obsession with disaster and violence seen in de Kooning’s paintings of the late ’40s. (In the early ’50s that obsession is transferred from landscape to woman, who becomes a disaster in her own right.) This decadence is as close as de Kooning dares come to disembodiment. At least he is bolder than Picasso, the ridiculer of Pollock.

De Kooning’s work is original, but his originality is traditional rather than Modern. In fact he treats Modern style as traditional style in disguise, having little if any idea of the issues that led to Modern painting’s creation—that necessitated a new esthetic. The conditions of modernity don’t surprise him as they did earlier generations; they are a fait accompli. He doesn’t see Modern art’s radical difference. He likes the “old new”—Cubism, say—but has little understanding of its point. He enthuses about Cubism’s “wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection” without asking where its uncertainty comes from, seeing it simply as a “poetic frame.”6 Similarly, he’s “crazy” about the “lushness” and “fleshiness” of Soutine’s paint—it’s the somewhat more sure “substance” he hangs on the Cubist frame—but seems to miss the emotional rationale for it.7

In combining Cubism and Soutine, however, the intellectual and expressionist extremes of Modernism, de Kooning unwittingly states the unconscious rationale of his art, the problem that gives it significance: it is an unsure reflection of the body. De Kooning has a problem with the body, especially the female body. It causes him anxiety. This is why his gestures always adumbrate the body or its parts. Thus however “philobatic” de Kooning tries to be, especially in his landscapes, he remains anxiously “ocnophilic” in his handling of both painting and the figure.8 In the later mannerist paintings he reconciles the two, creating a philobatic space in which ocnophilic relics of the body survive. These paralyzed paroxysms of flesh, abstract memento mori of de Kooning’s earlier, fuller touch, are ironically as close to freedom—pure painterly freedom, and freedom from the body—as he comes. But such freedom is death for him, showing the loss of the body, the fading of flesh. The last works show what was latent in de Kooning’s art all along: death without transfiguration, without even the redemption of art.

De Kooning’s obsession with the body, the “limiting situation” of his painting, is traditional, but his attitude to the body is what is most Modern about him. It is finally an attitude to sexuality: his sardonic distortion of woman—he works her body over and into the grotesque, he mocks her flesh as he desires it, he turns her into a caricature—suggests his fear of her, and the hostility of his relations with her.9 He is trying to master his desire for her by turning her into a monster, trying to unmask her—her beauty is, after all, skin deep. And he violently rips that skin off. His conflicted attitude to paint—is it orgasmic flesh or pure spontaneity?—echoes in his conflicted attitude to woman: is she comic-book trash or sublime beauty? Death incarnate or pure libido?

In his early works de Kooning identified with men (some recur in his later sculpture), in mid career he defended his masculinity by aggressively attacking the feminine, in his late work he asserted an impotent masculinity by disintegrating woman’s body altogether. It is as though he could not rise to the occasion of woman’s body, and so had to abolish it. In the end de Kooning admired man’s body—and person—more than woman’s body and personality. The heroic male figures in his early so-called “Depression Portraits” have an air of fortitude, determination, and concentration—they are remarkably self-aware and self-contained, for all the “disturbance” in their appearances. His women, on the other hand, exhibit themselves with a certain provocative, truculent narcissism. The men stood up to de Kooning, the women capitulated (at least in fantasy), if not without exacting a price. Finally, de Kooning’s work achieved a triumphant asexuality. The body became an abstract object that no longer had any emotional point—a plaything of art, existing only for the tricks one could play with it, the lame ironies with which one could suggest mastery of it. This was de Kooning’s ultimate defense against flesh.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY, Stony Brook, A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University, and a contributing editor of Artforum. His book Primordial Presences: The Sculpture of Karel Appel was recently published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, and his earlier Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist is about to he released in a German edition, as Über den mythos vom Avantgarde-künstler, by Ritter Verlag, Klagenfurt.



1. Willem de Kooning, quoted in David Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason,” Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, p. 16.

2. Jackson Pollock supposedly said that he could only paint spontaneously in a “trance,” which was invariably short-lived. The allover paintings in fact show signs of a conflict between expression and repression—false starts, hesitations, and a kind of self-distracting, broken gesture.

3. I think de Kooning’s attitude to the female body resembles that of Zola, whose curiosity about Nana’s body masks hatred of it. He eventually makes her flesh diseased, and she dies. The narrative of woman’s body from Jacobean drama to Sade and on is haunted by the sense of it as tainted. This perverse voyeurism reappears in de Kooning’s notion of content as a glimpse. See Peter Brooks, Body Works: Objects of Desire in Modern Narratives, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

4. Picasso said, “Abstract art is only painting. What about drama? There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, New York: Viking, Documents of 20th-Century Art, 1972, p. 64. De Kooning seems to believe this too.

5. Sylvester, p. 30.

6. Quoted in ibid., p. 17.

7. Quoted in ibid., p. 22.

8. Michael Balint develops the distinction between ocnophilia and philo-batism in his Thrills and Regressions, London: Maresfield Library, 1985. Ocnophilia involves clinging to the object for security—holding onto it for dear emotional life—while philobatism allows an independence from it, the ego strength to he “completely on one’s own, with hands empty” (p. 28). Ocnophilia is more emotionally infantile than philobatism, the ocnophile’s object being the “safe, loving mother,” in whatever disguise. De Kooning is most philobatic in his landscapes, where there is no object, however much there is the ghost of one. But he is generally ocnophilic.

9. De Kooning’s paintings are readily comprehensible in terms of the categories of hostility Wolfgang Lederer discusses in his classic study The Fear of Women, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. See also Gerald Schoenewolf, in Sexual Animosity between Man and Woman, Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1989, p. 17. I think de Kooning experienced women as narcissistically injuring him with their own narcissism, which he depicted in ruthless terms. His aggressive treatment of women reflects a sense of rejection—his feeling that women had no need for him—even as he clings to woman for emotional fuel. His is a classic case of identifying with the fraudulent self-sufficiency of the emotional aggressor, another defense and double hind. De Kooning’s woman is the classic example of a person one can live neither with nor without.