New York

Willem de Kooning

Xavier Fourcade Gallery

Of what use are these pictures? I know this is the wrong question to ask of them, but the usual art-historical questions seem much more wrong. Art historically, Willem de Kooning seems to have solved “the problem of modern painting” by dissolving it. Heinrich Wölffin inadvertently articulated that problem as the balancing of seemingly contradictory antitheses—the linear and the painterly, planarity and recession, closed and open form, multiplicity and unity, clarity and inchoateness; yet when Thomas Hess wrote that “de Kooning’s paintings are based on contradictions kept contradictory in order to reveal the clarity of ambiguities,” he was in effect saying that ambiguity had become a cliché in de Kooning’s work. Contradiction was all too clear and routine. Given that what de Kooning has to say about Modern painting has become all too obvious, and tipping our hats to his peculiarly art-historical realization of Charles Baudelaire’s notion that “the painter of modern life . . . must express at once the attitude and the gesture of living beings, whether solemn or grotesque, and their luminous explosion in space,” we must ask ourselves what de Kooning has to say about those living beings. Rather than letting the pictures settle back into their prestige we should ask about their human use.

De Kooning once said that “to desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.” The courting of anxiety is common in Modern art; neoexpressionism makes clear that it continues today, perhaps as a smug sign of superiority, perhaps as the artist’s red badge of courage at facing not just art but life. What de Kooning contributes is a stretching of the expressionist sign system customarily used to articulate modern anxiety to an extreme that gives it new preconscious and unconscious effect. If we compare the new paintings here with the new drawings, which are more obviously figural in theme, it becomes clear that the paintings are more disorganized—more generally biomorphic than particularly figural. Often, thinly painted planar shapes with emphatically broadened yet contained and containing contours, loosely reminiscent of parts of the female anatomy in their curvilinearity, are related in an interlocking structure. The composition has a casual effect—it seems more like a controlled accident than do the shapes within it—yet it cannot be segmented without total destruction.

When visual structure reaches this stage of regressive slipperiness, descriptions of it tend to fall back on those musical metaphors that have been much applied to abstract painting. And de Kooning’s pictures may in fact be thought of as a kind of Wagnerian visual music, full of biomorphic leitmotifs interwoven in a fluid continuum of color, now linear, more often like silver on the back of an old mirror—the forms are differentiated in density, and give the sense that if they were peeled off some miraculous apparition would emerge, some strange embodiment of voided substance. Certain remarks on music by Heinz Kohut and Siegmund Levarie are relevant here: “Through music, a psychological situation is created in which the individual is confronted with a complex, nonverbal influx of auditory stimuli which, essentially, cannot be understood in other terms. Such a situation resembles the one in which the unorganized ego faces the world.” If we apply this idea pari passu to the seemingly random visual stimuli in de Kooning’s paintings, they are seen to offer a situation of untranslatability of visual stimuli. The bait of untranslatability is the oldest one by which painting asserts its autonomy; the untranslatable is the original and indisputable.

The “chaotic stimulation” described by Kohut and Levarie also seems to articulate the anxiety Modern art is so hungry for as proof of its authenticity. Now “stimuli which cannot be mastered through translation into words . . . mobilize much greater forces, and perhaps also forces of a different distribution corresponding to a very early ego organization.” De Kooning evokes this sense of unstable forces erratically organized to meet the challenge of chaotic stimuli. Stimuli and forces merge in a plenitude of untranslatability, and art justifies itself as the realm of this merging, the alembic in which the untranslatable state of infantile stimulation is approachable, if not possessable. So-called “process painting” such as de Kooning’s is really about the rapid processing of stimuli so as to avoid the overstimulation in which one not only experiences the world as chaotic, but grows chaotic in one’s own ego. Paradoxically, de Kooning’s cooler, more “masterful,” less destabilized paintings make the process more emphatic. The strokes or stimuli are more focused; they seem to be moving so rapidly as to move in place, suspended and clarified. The tone of deliberateness that results is a sign of the increasing strength of de Kooning’s ego, but the problem with having a strong ego is that one can no longer convey the full primordiality of the chaos of stimuli, the directness of the anxiety that comes from overstimulation. Only in his drawings of women, which I prefer to the grand, self-possessed paintings, does de Kooning reexperience the depths of anxiety. Woman still disorganizes his ego—shakes it up. For him, woman is “nature.”

The use of de Kooning’s paintings is very simple: to remind us that Modern art at its best has been an attempt to broaden the field of stimuli until it seems universal, overwhelming (and thus a cause of anxiety), and then to avoid being swallowed up by it, to organize it—but without eliminating all its traces of chaos. This romantic definition of Modern art permeates our understanding of even such “classical” art as Mondrian’s, which attempts to reduce visual stimuli to a precious few. If Mondrian can be said to have overcontrolled the visual field through the use of an a priori, nondialectical, geometrical logic, de Kooning’s enormous courage in refusing the geometrical comes clear. De Kooning has the courage of his conviction of stylelessness—of egolessness, or at least of a very anxious ego.

Donald Kuspit