Los Angeles

Leon Kossoff

From the thickly rendered surfaces of Leon Kossoff’s paintings, layered with drips, furrows, and painterly sweeps of oils, arise intensely personal pictures of reclining and seated female models; images of works by Poussin, Rembrandt, and Rubens; Kossoff’s own face, and scenes of Londoners trudging through the Kilburn Underground or the Willesden district of the city. While this list of subjects is varied, it also possesses an underlying consistency: Kossoff returns to the same subjects again and again because these are the people and places that move him. They are his objective correlatives for states of emotion.

Yet Kossoff’s paintings aren’t spontaneous outpourings of feeling. Like his contemporary Frank Auerbach, with whom he shares stylistic affinities, Kossoff is an artist deeply aware of history. His passion for Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora, ca. 1630, and Rubens’ Minerva Protects Pax from Mars, 1629, is explicitly and passionately asserted by a clear desire to subsume their grand iconography into his own expressionistic mode of figuration. Moreover, much of his work—drawings as well as paintings—is firmly grounded in traditional genres: the figure study, the portrait, the self-portrait, the urban street scene.

By the time Kossoff began exhibiting, in the late ‘50s, expressionist figuration had itself, of course, become part of art history. His paintings, like the contemporaneous figurative work of Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Parks, were peripheral to an art world focusing on action painting and Abstract Expressionism. But in retrospect it is clear that Kossoff’s art finds a parallel in the figurative work of the New York School, such as Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series. And his implicit reliance on the creative powers of the unconscious evokes the specter of Jackson Pollock. “Although I have drawn and painted from landscapes and people constantly,” Kossoff once wrote, “I have never finished a picture without first experiencing a huge emptying of all factual and topographical knowledge.” In its place, he concluded, arises “an image which makes itself.”

This statement may illuminate Kossoff’s composing process, but it is too self-deprecating. Ultimately, he achieves a great measure of control over the effects of his paintings; they strike a delicate and resonant balance between gesture and structure, feeling and intellect, historical knowledge and original vision. If naturalistic visual fact dissipates in, say, Fidelma, 1981, or Fidelma Lying on the Bed, 1984, what takes its place is an intriguingly unstable image of the female figure. The fluid contour of her body appears to merge with the ground, leaving the lighter tones of her flesh floating in pictorial space, yet an underlying structure is always present in Kossoff’s use of traditional poses. It is the push and pull between the historicist and the (late) Modernist in him that animates his painting, giving it authentic power and visual eloquence—no small accomplishment at a time when so much work is being done in an expressionist style.

Robert L. Pincus