PRINT January 1997


The last act of Willem de Kooning’s art reminds me of a self-portrait by another Dutchman, Rembrandt van Rijn, that hangs in the Frick Collection. In Rembrandt’s rugged last style, it renders a man who is old, fat, and probably sick, not long for this world, and who meets our gaze with tired, not terribly interested, but speaking eyes. In three-quarter view, filling the frame and crowding the picture plane, he sits heavily, looming at us. He wears a baggy smock that, belted high, gives the bizarre impression that he has breasts. Where are his knees? They are fudged. There is not enough pictorial space for them. Confronting the picture, we are in Rembrandt’s lap.

The painting summons a maternal myth, comic in a bottomless, wonderful, perhaps frightening way. It suggests overripened life like that of a pumpkin past its prime. I imagine the depicted person saying, “Here, take me. Eat me, if you are hungry. I am no good to myself any more. I am full of stuff that may be treasure or junk, for all I know. My days of caring are over. Have what you want. Here.” Where, besides King Lear, are abjection and nobility so combined? My problem with both this picture and de Kooning’s late paintings is in knowing how to receive such gifts. I suspect that it needs courage.

WHEN I WAS PREPARING A PUBLIC talk on de Kooning’s late, late works, which I like a lot, an art-world acquaintance said, “You aren’t going to go into all that Alzheimer’s crap, are you?” “Of course not!” I answered quickly. What did he take me for? Then, in my talk, I went into Alzheimer’s (or senility, the less expensive term I prefer) at length. Not to address it would be like ignoring an elephant in the living room, I decided. The talk went well. I found that reading into this work a great artist’s adjustments to flagging mental powers made engaging though limited sense of very strange paintings.

Why had I so vehemently denied my readiness to do any such thing? I suppose it was shame at the thought of dignifying vulgar reductions of art, of which none may be baser than medical diagnosis. (The lèse-majesté of rifling abstract work for signs of a shot brain hardly needs emphasizing.) Beyond that, one recoils from popular beliefs that artists are screwy. From the lurid pathos of Van Gogh’s ear to Morley Safer’s smirky revulsion on 60 Minutes in 1993, artistic audacity is met with one tone after another of condescension or outright disgust among healthy-minded citizens, who will have only too little trouble interpreting the news that a man gone in the head is deemed a hero of abstract art. Don’t give the bastards an inch, my acquaintance implied, calling me to the ranks.

Then there is the subtle embarrassment that attends de Kooning’s standing in just about every sector of the art culture. Here is someone who ought to be safely historical, long since pensioned off with a ceremonial epithet: Last of the So-Called Geniuses, maybe. We likely feel entitled to deal with him in general terms, rather than exercising a technical formal literacy that is rusty among those of us who once practiced it and all but a dead language for younger art professionals. Only some artists are apt to embrace the challenge, or the ordeal, of de Kooning’s late work as something urgently important and inspiring. Those artists will catch the rest of us up eventually.

De Kooning today fits less comfortably, if at all, into familiar genealogies of genre, style, and idea than he did at his contrarian peak. His mythic individualism—the “Luciferian pride” (Clement Greenberg, 1955) with which he did or did not become “the outstanding painter of the ideological epoch in American art” (Harold Rosenberg, 1972)—seems outlandish now that individuality itself is so doubtful a concept. To put it another way: de Kooning’s independence has outlasted pretty much everything it used to be independent of. The notion that his talent survived his own wits simply crowns our perplexity. And yet there the late paintings are: smack in the middle of the 1980s, where I believe they will bulk ever larger with time.

The paintings are dizzyingly various and inventive, packed with surprises that make looking at them a daunting exercise, at first. Their beauty registers, in jolts, after prolonged efforts of acquaintance. We have only begun to see them. The present show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art samples just three dozen or so of the 288 paintings made from 1980, the same year de Kooning suffered a breakdown and completed as few as three of them, through a golden period in 1983–86, when he produced at the astonishing rate of almost a painting a week, to the end of 1987, when, in the judgment of several of the seven experts who convened in his studio at The Springs in 1995 (while the artist, oblivious, was tended by nurses in another room), his art declined gravely. Still unshown are fifty-three canvases from 1988 to 1990, the year when de Kooning “finally drifted away from his brushes.”

The quote is from curator Robert Storr’s authoritative essay in the catalogue Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s. I rely heavily on Stores trove of information and analysis regarding the artist’s endgame circumstances and methods. On the question of Alzheimer’s —questionable indeed, since that diagnosis can be confirmed only by an autopsy—Storr turns up sharply conflicting medical testimony. One specialist declares that, while color perception is “preserved until quite late in the disease,” “orientation, size, perspective, motion, all those things are affected quite early. . . .” Another assures us that Alzheimer’s “spares procedural memory: the ability to perform complex motor acts.”

If de Kooning has Alzheimer’s, his late work refutes the first doctor and makes a wizard of the second. Most of all, the late work endorses a passage quoted by Storr from the indispensable Oliver Sacks, who holds for the stubborn survival of “ever-changing ‘global mappings’ of neuronal activity, which involve every part of the brain and are unique to each individual.” “‘Style,’ neurologically, is the deepest part of one’s being,” Sacks writes, “and may be preserved, almost to the last, in a dementia.” De Kooning’s art in the ’80s lost much of its former character, most obviously athletic vigor, while not only retaining a de Kooning–esque feel but introducing unexampled levels and resources of style. These paintings stand alone in his career and in the world.

In 1980, De Kooning finally (but for one slip) ended his periodic, disastrous bouts of drinking. He also began suffering severe memory loss, accelerating a trend already apparent. The last time I visited him, in 1978, he greeted me in his slangy, eternally Dutch-accented way, “I don’t remember so good any more, d’ya mind?” I said I didn’t. He said, “Neither do I. Let’s talk!” He then rambled and repeated himself, though his volatile humor was unquenched. Showing me what was up in the studio, he vented half-serious anguish. “Why do I do all this stuff?” he moaned, and added, “I don’t need the money!” The question remains a splendid one, the answer a fertile mystery.

Was there ever a great deal to de Kooning as a man apart from his work? I think there wasn’t and that he knew it, with pain and occasional rage. After 1980, there was less and less. The consequences for his painting included unprecedented ease and fluency, the death of his famous dissatisfaction and of his compensating willfulness. He had forgotten to be anxious. The late work is frictionless, in a classicist key at once architectonic and pastoral, lyricizing a potential or parallel world—like no one else so much as Piet Mondrian. Who would have thought that de Kooning had such a lot of Mondrian in him, set to kick in like a backup generator when the more crackling, ironic circuits of his creative personality failed?

De Kooning’s long estranged wife Elaine returned in 1978 to care for him with his daughter Lisa and a team of studio assistants. Contrary to gossip fueled by the stony defensive silence of de Kooning’s inner circle, the assistants did not even remotely “paint his paintings,” though they took an increasing hand in helping him start each work. By 1985, they had largely taken over the initial stage of his normal practice: copying onto canvas, in charcoal, passages of old drawings by him (he had stopped making drawings) and at times filling in a first coat of white between the lines. In the late paintings that have been shown so far, all such preparation disappeared beneath many subsequent stages. The assistants decided that a painting was done when de Kooning ceased work on it for a time judged long enough. (Connoisseurship is in for some sweaty labor in distinguishing the finished from the abandoned, a call apt to be in flux for generations.)

Intermittently in 1981–82 and completely thereafter, de Kooning lost his stroke. It had been his hallmark contribution to the art of painting: an arm motion that unclenched one of the most concentratedly intelligent marks ever seen. The stroke could deliver at once line, shape, color, contour, depth, touch, rhythm, and, crucially, scale. Not to be at sea in a pre-1980s de Kooning, requires that you grasp the muscular eloquence, both fierce and delicate, of that visible exertion, which communicates between the artist’s body and your own. In many of his effusions of the 1970s, it’s as if he were holding you by the hand as all hell breaks loose around you. Actually, there is plenty of compositional rigor in even the most rip-roaring de Kooning, and it is this rigor that stands forth, nakedly at play, toward the end.

Ceasing to do his stroke, de Kooning commenced to render it. Big directional shapes that used to be created in one dashing go are made of additive, small strokes or are edited from underlayers with masking strokes of white (somewhat like Arshile Gorky circa 1940). Some dragged swaths made with a wide, loaded brush stop suddenly, sliced off in space to breathtaking, racy effect. Undulating strands like ribbons in a wind are bodiless. Their often feathered textures have a whizzing quality, a sizzle of speed, without kinetic grab. The strands get where they are going as if by the remote control of an impersonal will that is uncannily alert to the compositional needs of a particular picture. De Kooning seems less to make than to conjure painting from an incomprehensibly rich lode of memory, reached through forgetfulness.

Late de Kooning trades in symbol for sign. Its elements sacrifice emotional resonance and gain declarative purity as sheer signifiers, unreferential despite occasionally cartoonish graphic whims. (As always, Women come and go.) From having been “episodes of painting,” in Storr's phrase, de Kooning’s works become episodes of picturemaking. They are about spending funds of drawing, texture, and color at the behest of an imagination that, allergic to anything already known, must refresh itself constantly to stay alive. In this, though little else, de Kooning’s late work recalls the oft-cited cutouts of Henri Matisse. The self-affirming deployment of their gifts took consuming, jealous precedence for both old painters. Late Matisse bequeathed subsequent artists a new, bedrock model of pictorial aesthetics. Late de Kooning will prove to have done the same, differently.

Looking at late de Kooning entails an awkward adjustment to new things: new for him and new, period. At first, their affectless air may discourage. They do not catch us up. But stick around, concentrating on what’s there and on the phenomenal intelligence that governs its unfolding. (Complicating one’s effort is the variety of the work, which keeps shifting gears from picture to picture and beggars cumulative analysis. I recommend a dose of two or three paintings per really attentive viewing.) What’s there may approach perfection as closely as human performance can. Tension does not disappear with the fading of de Kooning’s anxiety. It is transferred to the vicarious determination of each formal element to be emphatic, harmonious, and interesting.

What does “knowing how to paint” mean? Nothing in theory, practically anything in practice. Late de Koonings strike me as embodied theories of painting: meaning nothing, and meaning it with precision. They are pictures of pure capacity. The work entails fantastic abilities not even for their own sake, but for no sake. Its sustaining urge makes the Beckettian “can’t go on, will go on,” everybody’s favorite survival formula, seem a baroquely prolix sentiment. It is an urge prior to any word or idea. I propose that late de Kooning is the degree zero of painting, attained not through simplification but, fully complex, through being emptied of anything not identical with its execution. This work henceforth defines the verb to paint. Every painter from now on will learn from it or will know nothing strong.

“Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s” was organized by Gary Garrets, Elise S. Haas Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The show has traveled from San Francisco to Minneapolis, Bonn, and Rotterdam, and will be on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 22 January–29 April 1997.