New York

Willem de Kooning

C&M Arts

Willem de Kooning’s art has fallen into a strange twilight since Elaine de Kooning’s death and the subsequent legal battle over his guardianship. No new paintings of de Kooning’s have been exhibited since 1987, but those were of a breathtaking incisiveness and allusive economy—among the artist’s greatest works. As some of us continue to wonder just what his extraordinary work of the mid ’80s might have led to—and anticipate the de Kooning painting retrospective at the National Gallery—we can be grateful for having had the opportunity to reconsider another of the most vibrant parts of his career, the paintings of the late ’70s.

The supple, protean volatility of the pictorial events that crowd these paintings makes it difficult to fasten on any given aspect as the key to de Kooning’s thinking in them. The variety and virtuosity of paint application here is paralleled only by the unpredictability with which such particulars resolve themselves into distinctive structures from painting to painting. Straining to generalize, one can point to the predominance of gestures that are large yet seemingly cut short, like impulses spent with speed or intensity; or appreciate the sometimes shocking lability of discrete gestures as they invade and contaminate each other in such unexpected ways; or note how a kind of shuddering or quaking movement seems to run through many of the paintings, registered not so much through the individual brushstrokes of which they are constructed as through the implicit patterns of energy mapped out by their collisions. If a typical Clyfford Still or Barnett Newman painting is about the nature of the sublime, these may be about what it feels like to experience it.

In their overall design, these are among de Kooning’s most rigorously abstract works. Some two decades after Jackson Pollock’s death, but without ever emulating his actual procedures, de Kooning was assimilating more of the implications of his friend’s diffused and decentered “drip” paintings than he ever had before. Yet so many passages, one feels, might have transmuted into description, given a change in context. Jill Weinberg Adams’ accompanying catalogue essay informs us that many of the paintings began with cut-up figure drawings, which would explain the combination of allusive detail with overall abstraction. Whatever suggestions of imagery may reside in these works, the resulting experience is the opposite of, say, trying to puzzle out the latest hidden image Jasper Johns has decided to toss his explicators. Here, “content is a glimpse,” as de Kooning himself once put it. The lesson of these paintings could be that nothing is to be identified, that reality is located in transition and not in definition. When painting becomes this mercurial, language takes refuge in oxymoron: one calls it casual but impassioned, speaks of rigorous self-indulgence or imagines decorum in a hurricane. But it’s significant that the period covered by this show was the one in which de Kooning definitively abandoned the practice of tilting his paintings, not, luckily, before inventing the astonishing one-line poem Screams of Children Come from Seagulls, 1975.

Barry Schwabsky