New York

Willem de Kooning

Xavier Fourcade Gallery

Critics have shown their prodigious capacity for invention when it has come to rationalizing their dislike of Willem de Kooning’s art. There is the “self-indulgent” argument, forwarded by Hilton Kramer (who hasn’t liked the work since the ’40s). This view considers de Kooning’s expressive obviousness an orgy of “pictorial self-dramatization and unbridled pictorial display,” which sounds good to me, but is meant to sound very bad. Then there is the “too late, too blind” school of formalist criticism which sloughed de Kooning off for just never really understanding the real problems of modern painting. A while ago, in this magazine, another view was formulated as the “excessive” argument: Irving Sandler wrote that de Kooning is not getting worse but paints too damn much, leaving the critic with the prickly problem of which ones are the real masterpieces.

To me this means: de Kooning hasn’t ever played the art world game, and he seems to have become indifferent to its dictates as the years have passed. He follows the strategies of his own history rather than art world news. The simplest way of proving this: today’s taste allows two painting structures, the allover picture based on a unit of repeated action, uniform and mechanical; and the flat, geometrically composed, architectural, shape-controlled structure. De Kooning has moved—swerved, really—away from both kinds. There has been no allover saturation since the ’40s and no gestaltlike pictures since the ’50s, Kline-like “landscapes.” The new paintings show him extending beyond either contemporary standard.

Repeated action in a de Kooning is never a purely structural matter to build coherence, to knit the surface. Nor are the pictorial or gestural layerings there for formal unity, but for “narrative” purposes, as successions of activity, not for the marking of time, but for plot purposes. We know how he works: layers and layers whisked away with pails of water thrown at the painting’s surface for that blur, distortion, endless transformation and adjustment. There is now a disconcerting, violent clumsiness and messiness right along side, under, and over rigid, controlled sections There is “too much” variety in every painting—that excess which is so frightening to critics, which is too inventive. It keeps the paintings from being one thing, looking one way, and so you cannot “summarize”—a critical problem perhaps, but not a mistake or error of judgment on de Kooning’s part. The paintings lack structure only from the point of view of other art. His is not a bony, skeletal, or an architectural, hierarchical conception of form; nor is it the mushy oil-paint-and-human-flesh metaphor again; nor is there the muscularity of ”action" painting. De Kooning has shifted sights to the strength and resiliency, the malleability and suppleness of cartilage, of knuckles and knees, the sometimes flexible, sometimes painful movements of joints, of movements alternately elegant and arthritic, shivering.

Each of the new paintings has its own kind of skin and terrain, its own color range (from black/blue/white to violet/yellow-green/bright-orange to thistle/black/ochre). The rapid shifts from a vestige of charcoal drawing in a lower right hand corner to a black imprint or trace of crumpled newspaper in the upper left show de Kooning still thinking about collage, traditional manufacture, and painting as an inventory of clichés from history. Crude “M-W” brushstrokes, spasmodic and “uncontrolled,” sit along side of a black-on-wet-white, gravity-defying gesture beginning with a flick of the wrist, carrying a paint-encrusted, half-foot wide house-painting brush up and over, ending with a streaked vapor trail. He can still pull paint out like a fluid ribbon, push it like icing, drip and splash it as if exploiting the vulgarity of Action painting, that fiction as open to cliché as the de Kooning Marilyn. Vulgarity and finesse are never combined, just contrasted. De Kooning rejects all synthesis as completion—neither art nor life processes achieves finality. So he throws in contour drawing and shape modeling—out of favor for decades—and throws the color/line distinction back into the fighting arena.

This de Kooning as show-off should make us stop and think. How many artists are as capable, have such range, such facility, have such a backlog of experience that they dare misuse their expertise? I’m not talking about shock effect or conscious badness. De Kooning’s is a drive toward a dynamism of opposed forces never canceling each other out, of fields of force, of the greatest possible variety and tension. It is in the performance that one senses this, not in any attributed meaning. The de Kooning landscape has become a magnetic or electrical atmosphere of impulses, of positive and negative attractions and repulsions. This is the virtuoso who can still let go: the most outrageous painting is covered with a chemically induced but uncontrollable puckered surface, grooved by the action of water and oil, a kind of crinkled foam which has just been left to happen.

Jeff Perrone