New York

Willem de Kooning

Xavier Fourcade Gallery

In 1971, John Ashbery, discussing Willem de Kooning’s future work, wrote: “All that we know is that it will change, and in art . . . any change has to be for the better since it shows that the artist hasn’t yet given in to the ever-present temptation to stand still . . .” It is 1976 and de Kooning’s new works show no signs of “change,” stylistically and thematically, in relation to his work of the past 10 years. Here again appear disembodied snippets of his notorious Women, truncated legs, flat hysterical eyes, railroad-track teeth, and again his paint, in love with itself, dries in thick textural landscapes.

That de Kooning is giving birth to the same child cannot be denied and yet can be overlooked because the product is fresh and pleasing. Not to be ignored, however, is our reaction to stasis. The old woman in the street wearing opaque raspberry gardenia lipstick in an attempt to preserve the florid gaudiness of her prime is endearing but ultimately and overwhelmingly repugnant. Being cultists of change, we depart, muttering silent promises that never shall we demand anything less than change from ourselves and from others.

The arch “other,” the artist, responding to the need for movement, is compelled constantly to flee his past, his instincts, and the clutches of the blind orbit of an innate or cultivated manner. Periodicity becomes the meter of change, and till recently de Kooning has joined in this “dance” in which the artist traditionally has been propelled to travel and mutate faster and at a more pronounced rate than his audience. At 72, de Kooning, instead of being that step ahead, instead of projecting himself as change, as future, as movement, idles at the shores between his celebrated past and the formative present. It is this very non-movement which makes us suspicious, uneasy, anxious.

We look to the artist to alleviate the anxiety of our manual and temporal limitations. If the circumscription is accentuated by an artist who does not change, who gets caught in a groove of his own artistic record, we either call him mystic or mannered. De Kooning is not a mystic. He treats his themes, his colors, his paints, like meat and potatoes. Then is his reiteration mannered?

The epithet “mannered” is a negative one because philologically and in actuality it is rooted in the manos, in the hand. No matter how we train our hand to disguise its characteristic inflections, no matter how penetratingly and scrupulously our eyes will the writing-tool to make new and foreign marks, our signatures unfailingly, and yes, perhaps disappointingly, reveal themselves as limited by being ours.

If we are to believe the shading of this art historical cognomen, one would think that the mind, not the hand, perpetrates a brushstroke and paints a painting. De Kooning, imprisoned as we all are by unshakeable givens such as the arc formed by the extension of his arm, heightens our angst by restating these restrictions. The broad strokes marking the span and curve of his outstretched arm repeatedly strain to bind, embrace, to conquer his canvases. In the smaller paintings de Kooning again describes his limits, failing to scale down his strokes to the smaller format.

By resolutely and zealously applying the same colors, by executing the same strokes, causing similar effects, interactions and counter-reactions, de Kooning reinforces that his works are not the result of reflection in that there is no concept of equivalence functioning other than with associations and references to himself, his past work and his own body. Though surely not the revelations of youth, de Kooning’s 1976 works are by no means suffering from the infirmities of age.

Judith Cardozo