New York

Willem De Kooning

The image of Willem De Kooning that emerges from the critical writing of the last 15 years is that of a modern master who in his late 60s and 70s has earned the right to give free rein to every impulse and who has retained the sureness of eye and hand to do so triumphantly. There is general agreement that the impulses unleashed are lyrical, indeed bucolic; this recent style is often attributed to his move from New York City to eastern Long Island. As Diane Waldman wrote: “Exuberant, free and innovatory, [de Kooning’s paintings] are a great late flowering.” This is the summary remark of her introduction to the catalogue of “Willem de Kooning in East Hampton,” a show at the Guggenheim consisting of some hundred works dating from 1962 to 1977.

Mark Stevens of Newsweek likened the exhibition to “a visit to a marvelously rank tropical garden. It bursts with color, life and juice.” In a similar (but negative) manner, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times commented on de Kooning’s “delectable painterly surfaces, which begin by seducing the eye and end . . . in a suffocating surfeit of sweetness and charm.” Gone is the old de Kooning, according to this interpretation, the Tenth Street de Kooning who had painted pictures so rawly energetic, ambiguous, and packed with unexpected, multilayered and often contradictory meanings that one was kept perpetually anxious and off balance (as one imagined de Kooning himself had been while painting), much as one marveled at his virtuosity in juggling manifold variables.

There is no denying the new de Kooning’s bravura—the masterly aplomb, the confidence, the ease with which his recent painting seems to be carried off. And one cannot help but respond to the sheer sensuousness of his energetic, painterly brush; his high-keyed color—the flesh pinks, sun and beach yellows, foliage greens, and air and water blues; and the vivid light that pervades the picture plane. Yet I remain uneasy, nagged by an edge of rawness, or is it messiness, by a certain laxness that may be self-indulgent. Or is it the issue of the risks de Kooning takes? Does the old de Kooning continue to lurk beneath the sumptuous and seemingly slack surface? I believe he does.

The first difficulty is the meaning of subject matter. De Kooning obviously intends to turn the human figure and landscape into each other—a problem that has fascinated him since his “Woman” series of the ’50s (and is reminiscent of the late Picasso’s fascination with presenting simultaneous front and rear views of the female body). In relating figure to landscape, de Kooning distorted the image of woman, often to the extent of mangling it. But there seem to be other reasons for the distortion: de Kooning’s grappling with his conception of woman, his ideas, attitudes, feelings, appetites and hang-ups. How else account for the common pose of the figures painted after 1963, squatting like animals, thighs or haunches spread, pudenda exposed brazenly, defiantly, mockingly, inviting sex or perhaps defecating. They are formidable presences, seductive and repellent, sometimes funny, but so revealing that they leave one more embarrassed than amused. De Kooning’s landscape is Arcadian, but its denizens are anything but classical Eves, goddesses or nymphs. Quite the contrary; the new series of women is the culmination of the anticlassical tradition in Western art of our time (as Cézanne’s nudes were in his). Even Soutine’s deformed figures, which de Kooning’s most resemble, seem placid by comparison.

In the ’70s, de Kooning has increasingly submerged his woman into landscape, or more accurately, absorbed both into a light-filled field of abstract gestures. Indeed, his late “abstraction” is gestural to a degree that his earlier painting was not, although he had been a major innovator of the gestural tendency in Abstract Expressionism. That is, de Kooning has replaced the muscular, swift, overlapping and interpenetrating broad swaths of his ’50s pictures with unmodified, individuated brushstrokes roughly one to three inches in width, drawn over the picture surface.

The fleshy brush is slower in movement, but there is no loss of the energy that always distinguished de Kooning’s work. If anything, the new “abstractions” look wilder, more impetuous than previous pictures. It is noteworthy that there is a counter-gestural component in de Kooning’s late painting, a considered contrast of varied textures—wrinkled, grainy, viscous, slick and scraped. However, the “unfinished” look of the dragged and scumbled brush makes the strongest impression. And it is this look that most causes de Kooning’s recent work to appear problematic—no mean achievement when one considers that advanced artists have been deliberately testing the limits of the “unfinished” look for over a century, so much so that it has become a modernist tradition.

The image of woman in the “abstractions”—or what remains of it, mostly pinks strewn over the picture surface—is not as disquieting as when the image was whole. Indeed, the less recognizable the figures, the more lyrical and hedonistic the paintings become (except that de Kooning’s melange is less a gentle fusion than an explosion of flesh, shrubbery, sand, water and sky). But even a modicum of hedonism appears to have made de Kooning uneasy, for he poses a new, unnerving problem. His loose brushstrokes that spread with abandon over the picture surface, opening it (somewhat like Pollock’s linear “drips”), threaten to destroy structure.

Kramer was bothered by this “slack” and “invertebrate quality” of de Kooning’s design and considered it “almost to amount to a failure of will,” “an intellectual sloth,” and a loss of seriousness and “a certain element of pictorial ‘conscience.’” Robert Hughes of Time was also taken aback by “a polymorphous, ill-focused energy.” Both critics yearned for de Kooning’s earlier Cubist-inspired composition, muscular drawing and articulation of form. But his gestural fields do not collapse, partly because they are unified by a single light. More important, de Kooning appears to intend to achieve pictorial order on the precarious brink of chaos. Seen with this in mind, the risks he takes, for example, verging on slackness or disintegration, are exhilarating—and upsetting, just as the old de Kooning was. Indeed, remarks he made in 1951 seem just as appropriate today as they were then. “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity. . . . Some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit. They do not want to ‘sit in style.’”

One final issue remains, that of quality. This problem is exacerbated by the increase in de Kooning’s output in the last decade or so, much of which is obviously not on a par with the rest. But the more critical question is: how does the late work compare with what came before? My past experience advises me to be cautious in answering. De Kooning’s work has always needed time—familiarity—to sort itself out. In my own memory, each of his shows was greeted as inferior to his last, even by many in his own circle of admirers and disciples. I recall in particular the initial negative response to the Whitney Museum’s Door to the River, 1960. This made me wonder when he was ever good, not to mention great. (One prominent critic not particularly sympathetic to de Kooning has claimed repeatedly that his painting began its downward course in the ’30s.)

Nonetheless, I will venture the guess that de Kooning’s late work generally will not look as masterly in time as his earlier work. But what of such pictures as Untitled I, 1975, Untitled II , 1976 or Untitled I, 1977? I am prepared to prove myself wrong.

Irving Sandler