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PRINT Summer 2011

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DESPITE THE UNDIMINISHED reputation of Willem de Kooning as one of America’s preeminent gestural abstractionists, more than a quarter century has passed since his work was last afforded a comprehensive museum survey in the US. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art in New York brings that interregnum to a close with “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” organized by the institution’s curator emeritus, John Elderfield. In anticipation of the exhibition’s opening in September, artist Terry Winters spoke with Elderfield about de Kooning and the important lessons of abstraction still to be gleaned from the painter’s transformative work.

Willem de Kooning, Orestes, 1947, enamel and paper on board, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8.

TERRY WINTERS: How do you begin putting together an exhibition like this—what’s the strategy? Do you start with a certain set of questions or concerns?

JOHN ELDERFIELD: Yes, but the questions also come along as you’re working. In fact, at a certain point, they just start rolling down the hill at you. And certainly some of the motivation is simply feeling that it’s an exhibition I’d like to see myself.

The past twenty years have brought us major retrospectives of the work of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, but the last de Kooning retrospective was back in 1983, at the Whitney. At the outset, I wanted to get a sense of de Kooning’s artistic practice as it extended between types of work. As I began my research, though, I found myself more and more interested in trying to fathom the big breaks or, perhaps better, trying to figure out whether there even were big breaks.

TW: His approach to practice seems like a key difference in relation to the other painters you mentioned. There’s a fluidity to his work because of his involvement with process and his interest in developing images in unexpected ways.

JE: Yes, I agree. His colleagues now seem more tied to the history of that period than he does. He seems absolutely a mid-twentieth-century painter, but look at the work in the context of his peers and it doesn’t fit. I think that’s why everybody has always said Woman I [1950–52] looks out of place at MoMA. I think de Kooning is often out of place.

TW: Because of the way he connects to earlier historical paintings?

JE: Well, that is one reason. Clement Greenberg was right: De Kooning’s ambition was to create a synthesis between the decorative flatness of modernist painting and something messier and more volumetric. And so you can see why Greenberg just walked away after Excavation [1950]. Up to that point, de Kooning is doing what everyone else is doing, although he is caught by other impulses. The fact that he’s working simultaneously on paintings that become abstract and others that become figurative seems to be central to his thinking. He wants both to be options.

The idea of fitting into some historical inevitability was a great force behind what Newman and Rothko and Pollock did. They saw themselves as gathering momentum from the past and really pushing forward. But because de Kooning didn’t see himself in a track, he was free to look at anything. And he obviously looked at a lot of things and thought about a lot of things and how they worked, and he was able to find a use for them.

I was thinking recently, for instance, about the huge impact Guernica had in the ’40s. Maybe Excavation was an attempt to address its implications. De Kooning had to have been fascinated by the idea that a painting could be constructed by composing various discrete spaces. That spaces themselves could be elements of composition that you could put together—organize into a colonnade of spaces. In the ’40s pictures, when de Kooning moves an image from one painting to another, he’s not just moving the figuration, he’s moving the space.

TW: And those concerns don’t fit with Greenberg’s narrative. De Kooning didn’t follow the prescribed trajectory.

JE: And the way we have understood the history of art after Abstract Expressionism has made it harder to find a place for him. The 1960s happened, and the options of Pop art and Minimalism didn’t seem to have anything to do with de Kooning. It was especially the dominance with which Minimalism took hold of everything that made it harder for de Kooning to have a place.

TW: Particularly the way Judd formulated the conversation. Anyone who couldn’t justify the literalness of Minimalist work was seen as being retrograde. De Kooning, with his willingness to complicate space, seemed tied to older European concerns. Plus, he was being blamed for his many followers.

JE: His followers at times made highly accomplished things, but things that are conceptually more conservative than de Kooning’s work. This bothered Greenberg, and it’s one of the reasons that he says de Kooning became popular in the early ’50s—because his open spaces made things comfortable for people. Maybe. But that didn’t mean he was making sentimental and nostalgic art himself. Johns and Rauschenberg, for example, understood the idea central to the Woman paintings, of creating a field of painterliness, which is attached to an image. Orestes [1947], with the big flat shapes, is really Johns’s Numbers before the Numbers [1957–69].

TW: Where image and paint are inseparable?

JE: You can see them separately, in a funny way. It was Johns who said you can make them seem separate if you choose an even more iconic image—so you don’t have a woman, you have a number or a flag or a map.

TW: As I was walking through MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition today, it occurred to me that if AbEx was about anything, it was about scale. No work has been made since then that doesn’t address that scale in one way or another, whether it’s Minimalism, process or Land art, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter. One way or another, everyone addresses it or tries to avoid it—whether it’s people doing a kind of figurative work now, self-consciously making easel paintings again, or supersizing the scale of the mural or whatever. It’s either a reaction against or an extension of what the Abstract Expressionists established. What about the issue of scale and de Kooning’s choice of size? After Excavation, few paintings would be larger than his standard seventy-by-eighty-inch canvas.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 1/4.

JE: Scale, of course, is never only an issue of size. In his case, it very much relates to the cumulative painterly activity that goes on until the pictures get made. That is one reason why he didn’t make many big pictures. After Excavation he said, This thing is taking me forever, I just can’t work like this.

TW: But there were other motivations with regard to his choice of size.

JE: As I’ve been thinking about his paintings from the ’60s and ’70s in particular, I find it interesting that, when they’re seen from a distance, their painterly quality disappears. Working in the studio with his chair far back from the picture, de Kooning obviously wanted to calibrate two things: the sense of the canvas at a distance without the tactile presence, and then working very physically, up close.

TW: So what was he seeing at a distance?

JE: Well, when you see them at a distance, they look like small paintings without any texture. And then you walk up to them, and they’re big paintings with qualities you associate with small paintings. He said that one reason he wanted to keep the paintings wet all the time—which also precluded working on a big picture—was so that he could achieve the kind of freshness that you usually only get with a really small painting. This is part of the wonderful shock of these ’60s and ’70s pictures. Moreover, unlike earlier paintings by de Kooning, where you were given lots of clues as to the temporality of the creation, with the later paintings it’s just all there.

TW: And he’s keeping the paintings wet in order for them to feel instantaneous.

JE: I think in a way they are instantaneous.

TW: Everything was slippery and subject to the same set of changes that were happening on the surface.

JE: Yes. Interestingly, that’s one of the reasons why he didn’t use earth colors. He knew that they dried quicker, so he couldn’t get that effect. Those color charts that he made—the ones you see in photographs of his studio—had to do with mixing earth colors from prismatic colors. It’s incredible, the kind of thoughtfulness that went into his work.

TW: The paintings are extremely intricate.

JE: It has been interesting reading the critical literature, because both sides—the Greenberg side and the [Thomas B.] Hess/[Harold] Rosenberg side—make so much about spontaneity and a willed de-skilling, as we’d now call it. But when you look at the pictures, you see they’re not spontaneous, and they’re hugely skillful. It’s just a different kind of skill.

The critics set up an opposition between things that are willed and things that are spontaneous. But de Kooning found ways to make marks that were both willed and last-minute. There’s a wonderful story about what he learned from Arshile Gorky: Gorky said you determine where you are going to put the line, and at the last minute you move your hand and put it somewhere else.

There’s the sense that his skill lay in building up a kind of resistance to conventional facility. And it’s something that is only achieved, paradoxically, by habit and by repetition. In that sense, it’s like regular artisanal skills—

TW: —and a kind of athleticism; there’s kinetic or muscle memory involved. And as you say, he set up obstacles and then invented ways to get around his own ability.

JE: I think it’s one of the things that allowed him to paint even with his physical impairments in the ’80s. Because he had been, in a way, training for it all his life. He just knew how to do it.

TW: While always allowing the qualities of the material itself to help form the image.

JE: Yes, finding pictures through the manipulation of the medium, which he did from early on, like the amazing black-and-white picture, at MoMAPainting [1948]—where the surface is leatherlike. The paint was applied as treacle, which flattened out. He had the skills to coax the material into doing things that he had no way of predicting. Or even after having made so many paintings, and generally knowing what’s going to happen, there’s always going to be something unpredictable. That’s the nature of material, but art is always about human agency.

TW: De Kooning pushed paint to extremes: It was his method for generating pictures. He hits a peak in the mid-’70s—and he’s off on his own at that point, I imagine?

JE: At that point, yes. And it’s funny because it’s also the moment where he’s most like the old masters he loved. He’s most like a Venetian painter, in that he’s interested in color as a singular thing rather than colors in plural to be placed next to each other and organized. That organization was something characteristic of both Minimal and Pop art. With de Kooning’s paintings, you feel it’s more about some kind of Venetian envelope of color, and how he found space in that continuum.

Willem de Kooning in his studio, East Hampton, New York, 1967. Photo: Ben Van Meerendonk/Getty Images.

TW: Because he was working a completely wet surface, there is a seamlessness, which gives his canvases an odd, screenlike quality. And that uniformity of the screen surprisingly opens up to illusionistic vistas. There is something so mysterious and contemporary about those ’70s paintings now.

JE: That screenlike quality is interesting, but for de Kooning that was not possible without the handmadeness. That said, the idea that somehow he should now be thought of as being again of interest because we’re tired of technology and we like the handmade, that’s a kind of nostalgia which has nothing to do with him. That approach doesn’t address why he is relevant, because painterly painters have been doing that forever. Why is it we care about him in a different way? I think it has precisely to do with this strange seamless quality you mention. When de Kooning stops being painterly in the ’80s, you actually see it for what it is: a rolling, turbulent kind of space.

TW: The ’80s pictures aren’t wildly gestural, but they are physical. The shapes are thoroughly invested with de Kooning’s technical and emotional experience.

JE: And so, induced.

TW: Yes, induced—whereby the imagery emerges from the painter’s engagement. He’s demarcating a limited space within which he can operate. He talks about exploring the space between the fingertips of his extended hands; he’s occupying that space.

JE: He’s in there.

TW: He’s moving material and opening an available expanse, unlike expressionistic space, where one is looking in from the outside.

JE: That’s the big problem with the whole action-painting paradigm. Somehow the mark is referring back to the gesture, the gesture is referring back to the person. This isn’t what de Kooning’s work is about at all.

TW: He once said, “One thing nice about space is it just keeps on going,” and if you’re willing, you can go along for the ride. What you called an “envelope of color” seems like a way he organized the commotion of his pictures. And that chromatic space feels like something new. It’s not relational composition or Pollock’s allover painting. The way that figural images emerge within that field seems like another category of representation.

JE: It’s difficult to talk about because of the terms. One of the very smart things about Greenberg’s take on de Kooning is that he understands that there are certain things traditional to representation that don’t actually have to be used to produce representational pictures but that nonetheless will continue to invoke a kind of figural spatiality even if they’re not invoking “the figure.” And, conversely, things that are associated with abstraction can actually be used to make figural images.

De Kooning operates within that orbit, but he complicates it further because he realizes that, first of all, he isn’t against figuration. At least not in the way Greenberg is against the idea. The latter came to see Abstract Expressionism as conservative because of its wish to hold on to figural reference.

Greenberg admires pictorial elements purged of volume and form, so that’s what he finds admirable about Pollock—the line doesn’t come to a defined shape. It does in de Kooning, and so the black-and-white paintings of 1947 through ’49 are thought to be inferior to Pollock’s. Which is to say, they evoke representation even though they are abstract. And I think this is something de Kooning wants and clings to, but not out of nostalgia—rather to recognize that the art of painting would be impoverished if there weren’t a way of remaking that space. I think this is what is going on.

TW: In one way or another, throughout all of his work.

JE: It was there in the early ’40s, and its development led to Excavation. Then what happens in and after the ’50s is extraordinary and, I believe, still not understood properly.

TW: So what was he doing in the ’50s? Following through on, or trying to extend, the implications of the black-and-white pictures?

JE: What Greenberg had said about the 1948 show seems very much to the point. He said that de Kooning wanted the flat decorative aspects of modernist picture making, but to still find space for sculptural form and contour—the rolling volumes of the old masters. He might be seen as bringing those things together. And maybe having to bring them together was the basis of figuring out what a new kind of spatiality could be. Knowing that if he didn’t bring them together, he would be restricted to a kind of stage-set painting. Basically a kind of Cubist scrim, where everything was arranged in parallel to the picture plane.

I think this is the fascination of what happens afterward. Because the Woman paintings really are both. They are flat and frontal, confined to their format, but the cursive marks are still the kind of mark-making that was there in the late-’40s pictures, just flattened out and made into big planes.

Willem de Kooning, Interchange, 1955, oil on canvas, 79 x 69.

TW: Which still have modeling. You can’t avoid those spatial readings.

JE: No. And then he moves out of the Woman pictures by effectively zooming in on them. There’s one beautiful painting from ’54 or ’55 of two women, where one of them is recognizable as a woman and the other, if taken by itself, you wouldn’t recognize because all the internal contours are offset from the whole body [Two Women, 1954–55]. And this is what’s happening as well in the mid-’50s, with, say, Interchange [1955].

TW: That charged space between depicted figures is also a subject, maybe the same subject?

JE: The space is as much body as the figures are, and the figures are as much space.

TW: And you get a sense that the space he’s inventing and activating is complete and whole and yet full of incident across the surface. Maybe that’s what he is seeing from a distance: the painting as an image of his movement and activity.

But regarding his formal attitude, I’m curious where you put him in relationship to Mondrian. Mondrian seems to be on his mind through so many periods, in terms of both the use of primary colors and the way in which everything is perfectly arranged, even within the agitation.

JE: From what de Kooning wrote about pure abstraction, it seems pretty clear that Mondrian is the only one he had any time for. He’s really unpleasant about other people. And I think some of it is the way he got to abstraction himself, through WPA-type abstraction, strongly influenced by Léger. You can look at de Kooning’s first abstract paintings and say they actually aren’t abstract, they’re representational pictures of abstract forms. As you can also say of a Léger “Contrast of Forms” work. It’s representational painting of something that you can’t recognize. This is something de Kooning had to work his way through.

Mondrian helped him by making paintings that speak in terms of spatiality but that are also extraordinarily embodied. Standing in front of his pictures you feel a physical presence. De Kooning wanted all of that. But maybe he didn’t want the dynamic equilibrium of Mondrian, where you have something here and you put something there. You don’t really feel that de Kooning is doing that.

TW: He’s building a complex picture, where everything is equally important although the distribution isn’t equal—or random. He’s painting scale-free networks. That’s a term being used now to describe the way many things connect—biological systems, airline routes, and social groups. In some ways, de Kooning’s paintings can be seen to anticipate that model.

He spoke about not being interested in established orders, complaining that “the Greeks hid behind their columns.” You sense him trying to find his own systems of order—at arm’s length and also at a distance—while you’re trying to figure out the image. That isn’t something you’re doing with Mondrian.

JE: True. And some of de Kooning’s paintings are pretty memorable as images. There are great paintings in the world that are very hard to remember. Presumably it has to do with graphic clarity; you can remember a Matisse more easily than a Bonnard, where you can never actually hold all the information together.

De Kooning wants it both ways. Some of his paintings are extremely memorable, and others you find you haven’t remembered at all well. Some of this has to do with the perception of size. It’s also difficult to hold that memory. There have been times when I’ve gone to Chicago and found Excavation to be much smaller than I’d thought; other times, I found it larger than I’d remembered.

TW: De Kooning is recording so much information that it’s difficult to put into patterns—patterns that become memorable. But then there are paintings that appear like illuminations— . . . Whose Name Was Writ in Water [1975], for instance.

JE: Yes. It comes back, I suppose, to his dislike of geometric abstract art (with the exception of Mondrian’s, of course)—his feeling that painting is not about taking things out. He wants to put more and more things in. I’ve been thinking about the kind of imprinting he was doing, like the newspaper in Easter Monday [1955–56].

What he’s doing in the Woman paintings is comparable to what happened with early Johns, where the background is the graphic image and the foreground is the painterliness. De Kooning then switches them back around and imprints the image on top of the painterliness in a few pictures. But obviously, he never really pursued that. He does it in Gotham News [1955] and then in Easter Monday. When asked about it, he said, Well, it was an accident, but he thought it looked kind of nice. He realized there was something about it he could use, although that device goes into abeyance for the rest of the ’50s and into the ’60s, when the work gets flatter and flatter.

Willem de Kooning, Gotham News, 1955, oil, enamel, charcoal, and newspaper transfer on canvas, 69 x 79.

TW: When he’s using a big, wide brush—the paintings are flatter and more engaged with Kline. Then, by the time he moves to East Hampton [in 1961], everything opens up and expands.

JE: It’s ironic that it’s at precisely this moment that painting in New York switches to something similar to what he’s just given up. No longer flat, and graphically clear, his work looks increasingly anomalous in the context of New York painting. And by 1975 the paintings become drop-dead amazing.

TW: Yes, they’re great, but even in the ’60s, with the first Montauk painting [Montauk I, 1969], which seems like a hyperdimensional version of the Parkway pictures [1957–61], he’s conjuring up baroque spaces. You were talking about him finding images. And that imagery is so alive, almost in an animistic way. The pictures have a cave-art feeling to them—in the sense that if there were cave art now, this is it.

JE: But it isn’t primitivism; it isn’t stylistic.

TW: I don’t think so, because initially he distrusts the image, and he’s finding it new again in every picture. You feel it when the paintings are working, and his discoveries are often shocking. You don’t really know if the entities in his paintings are benevolent or malevolent. He’s finding his way into another descriptive space.

JE: Yes, where representation isn’t a bad word. And where one can accept the fact that abstract painting can be representational. And I think it’s not a matter of being figurative, and neither is it of being a representation of the abstract. It’s the other way around, the way in which the mechanisms of abstraction can be mechanisms of representation. Because if they’re not that, what future is there for them? That seems to be one of the messages.

TW: Maybe his real audience is now—good timing.

JE: Yes. How do you use abstraction in a way that creates a representation of spaces that you can’t achieve through the means of classical representation? I think this is why de Kooning’s work matters.