PRINT January 2005


De Kooning: An American Master

IN WRITING THEIR large-scale biography of Willem de Kooning, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan evidently faced several major difficulties. The first is that, notwithstanding his majestic creative achievements, de Kooning led a rather uneventful life. True, there was his adventure in 1926 as a stowaway aboard a dirty British ship that got him to the United States, plus the numerous affairs that, in later years, were increasingly interspersed with his drunken binges. But a boat trip, copious lovemaking, and booze do not a biography of more than seven hundred pages make––or at least not a gripping one. By the time I reached the last page of De Kooning: An American Master, my feeling was not that it was a bad read or even an altogether boring one––on the contrary, the narrative is comprehensive and has some fine moments, especially when addressing the artist’s poignant last decade (other than curiously omitting the dealer Matthew Marks’s jousting, among others’, over the estate). Instead, I longed for the good old days when it seemed that only world-historical figures such as Caesar, Napoleon, and Churchill were deemed worthy of the full monty. This book is an inadvertent reminder that the most significant element about artists is often . . . their art.

While writers tend to lend themselves to biographical treatment because their creations are crafted from the same medium of literature, painters are less adaptable. Those like Picasso, whose lives had it all—lusty romance, private drama, an eloquently hypnotic personality, and interaction with some of the more significant events and/or cultural icons of the age—remain in the minority. De Kooning’s scenario was the reverse. Afraid of flying, he traveled relatively little and late, generally had a charming though somewhat inscrutable manner, and mostly steered clear of the spotlight. Another difficulty facing the biographer is that de Kooning never aspired to be a heavyweight intellectual in the mold of Motherwell or Rothko. Nor was he dogged by the notoriety or tragedy that attended Pollock and Gorky. However, it is precisely the taste for lengthy accounts of the careers of such Abstract Expressionists that has set the wheels of publishing in motion for the present tome. A halt should be called here before the market is burdened with more potential soap operas devoted to their artistically worthy colleagues who led even less newsworthy existences. Any hypothetical biographer of, say, Bradley Walker Tomlin, might be reduced to telling us about his taste in socks or breakfast foods.

So how does De Kooning: An American Master square up to the competition? Sensibly, Stevens and Swan have resisted the temptation to lubricate their tale with the kind of gossipy scandal that simultaneously marred and lent a certain pizzazz to Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. The best—or worst—tidbit that we get in this vein is the revelation that de Kooning didn’t experience oral sex until the ripe age of thirty (an anticlimax for someone whose youth doubtless took him through the raunchy red-light districts of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Manhattan). By contrast, the rich detailing that has fueled no fewer than three biographies of Gorky proves more scanty or pedestrian in de Kooning’s case. He was not a big letter writer or diarist, his pronouncements are piquant yet terse, and his Dutch background cannot compare with the allure of Armenia’s storied history. Another alternative is the psychological approach espoused by James E.B. Breslin’s 1993 biographical study of Rothko. That Breslin (who did an enormous amount of research) at times lapsed into parlor Freudianism and some dubious hypotheses probably warned Stevens and Swan off this path. Lastly, Dore Ashton adopted a diametrically opposed pitch in About Rothko. Her succinct, ruminative perspective wove a web of poetic ideas, which could be alternately thoughtful and frustrating. Nevertheless, I wish Stevens and Swan had veered more toward this approach, to which should be added Musa Mayer’s wonderful journey in Night Studio around her father, Philip Guston. But then their enterprise would not uphold the Great American Something or Other tradition that their subtitle implies.

The book’s winning feature is de Kooning’s own personality. He emerges as a genuinely likeable guy—the opposite of his battle-ax of a mother—who always cast a wry eye on the world’s follies. Ultimately no human being mattered as much to de Kooning as his work, which is surely the best of vices that a painter can nurture from the viewpoint of posterity. At the immediate level, it led to a degree of self-centeredness that could easily be mistaken for downright selfishness if you happened to be one of the many partners—ranging from de Kooning’s wife, Elaine, thence to Pollock’s ex-lover Ruth Kligman to the long-suffering Joan Ward, who gave birth to his daughter—whom he shuffled around like a pack of cards. As a father to Lisa, de Kooning was similarly loving yet inconstant. What otherwise remained constant throughout his life was the fact of his working-class roots, which, though he was never very politically engaged, led him to empathize with common people and to feel uncomfortable in the company of the average art crowd’s dinner party. Surrounded by the socially ambitious or lofty, de Kooning played the idiot savant, epitomized by his quip to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller: “You look like a million bucks!” Such a deceptively simple knack of holding his own against the pomp and wiles of vanity fair merged with another perennial characteristic—a famous capacity to leave contradictions unresolved. This penchant for paradox governs de Kooning’s statements, nowhere more pointedly than in his declaration “You have to change to stay the same.” Stevens and Swan, like most commentators, are thus quick to highlight the contesting extremes of de Kooning’s endeavors—high craft and low vulgarity, erotic excess peppered by religious undertones, luscious bawdiness versus dark horror, and so forth. However, they repeatedly fail to pursue their own clues, and these oversights detract from the text’s art-historical punch.

A key subtheme, of course, concerns de Kooning’s Dutchness, specifically his affinities with the pictorial heritage of the Flemish and Netherlandish old masters. The closest the authors come to piecing the jigsaw together is when they observe that in Woman I de Kooning emerged as the “master of a Rabelaisian strain of grotesquerie, that was traditionally very important in the Low Countries.” Here their hint begs for further discussion and, above all, a firmer grasp of the relevance of the two old masters from de Kooning’s homeland who meshed provocatively with his deepest interests—Bosch and Brueghel.

The documentation of de Kooning’s early years is probably as detailed as it ever can be (although Judith Wolfe’s doctoral thesis, which the authors acknowledge, must stand as the most exhaustive account of this period). For example, we are told that a lost picture from the mid- 1920s “depicted Bosch-like figures being vomited from an open mouth.” Unfortunately, we never get the final installment to this tantalizing morsel; namely, that de Kooning’s Man, 1967, paraphrases the man-excreting Satan-demon of Bosch’s Garden of Earthy Delights. Any precursor who could engage de Kooning’s attention at points more than forty years apart must have meant a lot to him. To draw another analogy, few twentieth-century painters have explored the color pink so wholeheartedly as de Kooning, not to mention titles such as Pink Angels, Pink Lady, Pink Landscape, etc. (while Stevens and Swan stress de Kooning’s romance with this color, they skirt the thorny question of who originated such titles). Is it sheer coincidence that Bosch’s universe is full of pinks, whether the palest flesh of mortal sinners or the shocking flamingo hues that dot the landscape of the Garden of Earthly Delights? The same pink dominates—among countless possible instances—Bill-Lee’s Delight of 1946. Perhaps Bill had Boschian delights on his mind.

As for Brueghel, Stevens and Swan again appear to miss the forest for the trees. They note that de Kooning stayed in Brussels for some six months in 1924 but not that the year was widely considered as the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, with various commemorative festivals duly held in that very city. Later, a good account of the pictorial savageries of de Kooning’s 1940s abstractions culminates with a discussion of the cataclysmic Excavation. What might have capped this passage is a remarkable memory of Elaine’s recounted by Edvard Lieber, her confidant in later years. In short, the reproduction that de Kooning used while completing Excavation was of Brueghel’s Triumph of Death. The hellish fiery reds and roiling all-over composition typified by such images as Gansevoort Street may owe as much to the artist’s Netherlandish forebear as they do to any Matisse or Soutine.

Still, Stevens and Swan get it right when dubbing de Kooning “a great modern conservative.” He was conservative in the same paradoxical way as the Dutch themselves have often appeared to be—at once straight-laced traditional and highly liberal or forward-looking. De Kooning would play the prim-and- proper burgher by giving bouquets of flowers to his girlfriends while scandalizing even avant-garde aesthetic tastes with the carnivalesque boobs-in-your-face signboards that constitute one aspect of the Women paintings. It was de Kooning’s genius to update the folkish carnival realms of his Low Country ancestors to the grinding urban rhythms of Tenth Street.

No Abstract Expressionist was less unequivocally an “American” master than de Kooning. He was perennially adrift between Old and New Worlds. That he never learned to drive or swim somehow fits the profile of this quintessential dramatist of New York’s speeding pace and rhapsodist of Long Island’s bucolic seascapes. For every trace of modern Sartrean existentialism in de Kooning’s mentality there is also a touch of the venerable wis- dom evinced by another native of Rotterdam—Erasmus—who praised the paradoxical, shifting faces of that ancient bitch goddess, Folly.

Has the figure who memorably declared himself a “slipping glimpser” slipped through the broad dragnet of Stevens and Swan’s scrutiny? If what one demands is a solid story of their subject’s main achievements, personality, and general doings, the answer is no. Stevens and Swan manage this well despite padding that sometimes obscures the sharper contours of their central protagonist. On the other hand, the complexities of the mind and intricate artistic strategies of this “great modern conservative” at times seem to float free from the grip of his biographers—as gracefully, indeed, as de Kooning’s evanescent late paintings melt away before our eyes.

David Anfam is the author of Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 1998).


Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning: An American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 708 pages.