New York

Willem de Kooning

Xavier Fourcade, Inc.

Until now, one of the dilemmas expressionist painters had not resolved was how to make their painterly brushstrokes glide across the canvas with a balletic, airy grace. Until now, it seemed impossible to maintain a balance between being un-self-conscious and remaining in control. (Jackson Pollock did it, but only after he found another way to put down the paint.) Typically, the expressionist’s response to the despairing, disfiguring world has been a discordant barrage of paint. One could say that expressionists have continued to display a theatrical side more in tune with Wagner’s top-heavy materialism than with the pristine sensuality of Beethoven’s late sonatas. However, Willem de Kooning’s recent paintings force us to reevaluate the critical framework by which we have defined both his work and that of the Abstract Expressionists. The reason: he is the first artist to jettison the rhetoric clinging to expressionist brushwork, dislodging the mark not only from the role it played in his earlier work but also from the historical connotations it has accumulated since Vincent van Gogh and Chaïm Soutine. The result has been a series of paintings that are as surprising, lyrical, and exuberant as Pollock’s groundbreaking cosmic webs.

Instead of filling up the canvas with slashing strokes that both chum up and obliterate the subject, as he did in the first “Woman” series (1950–52), or laying down broad swaths of paint, as he did in his ’60s landscapes, de Kooning has emptied his compositions of everything but distinct voluptuous lines and a radiant milky-white ground. The lines at first seem familiar in the way they evoke the female anatomy with their caressing curves and sudden twists. It would be a mistake, however, to think that these paintings are a reprise: they aren’t. Rather than being representational fragments, each linear mark is a self-contained abstract presence.

The sinuous lines are made to do almost everything. Like dervishes in an ecstatic trance, they swirl past, over, and around each other, suggesting space in one area and hinting at form in another. Revisions and elisions are quickly decided upon. Color is pushed and pulled aside, leaving the faintest echo to glow from within the pale, sensual ground. In these paintings, there are no distortions, nothing extraneous; even the palette has been reduced to primary colors, often with a lot of white mixed in. It’s as if de Kooning’s entire career has been a rehearsal for these works.

In jettisoning all the things we have come to associate with him (landscape, the figure, a broad spectrum of color, gritty cascades of paint, and caricature), de Kooning has left himself with the expressionist fundamentals: line, primary colors, surface, and light. For the first time in his career he has made the means the ends. Coming from this most sensuous and unpretentious of painters, the dancelike movement of the lines bids the observable world goodbye. Alone in his studio, de Kooning celebrates the act of painting; in doing so, he combines his love of the European masters and the Modern abstractionist’s desire for purity.

John Yau