New York

Leon Kossoff

THE FIRST THING THAT STRIKES one about Leon Kossoff's paintings is the heaviness and density of the surface; the second is the peculiar insubstantiality of the depicted forms, in spite of all that paint. The figure is reduced to a luminous shape with a few dark, shifting contours. Kossoff applies his medium crudely and thickly, with expressionistic violence and abandon (or is it forced, even labored spontaneity, studied abruptness? There is a kind of weariness to the handling, almost as though Kossoff were overfamiliar with it). The trick of the paintings—it's quite obvious in the figure of Jacinto, 1995, and the head of John I, 1998—is to make the blurry outline function as positive space and to turn flesh into negative space. The indefinite is made starkly definite, the definite precariously indefinite. (It's not unlike what Willem de Kooning did, albeit with less color and drama.)

Something similar occurs in the drawings, although the structure is more intelligible and the aggressively busy charcoal gestures are light and open, never quite dense enough to acquire the abstract power of the painterly forms. The wriggling lines in the drawings emphasize the subjects' pathos, exposing an underlying nervousness, almost making the figures they describe seem incidental and irrelevant.

Indeed, pathos verging on the tragic is Kossoff's overiding theme. Whether clothed and crowded together at an entrance to the London Underground, as in the “King's Cross” series from 1997–98, or naked in the studio like Pilar and Jacinto in 1994–97 and Cathy in 1994–99, the artist's figures seem incurably pathetic, for no reason other than the simple fact of their existence. They are blank faced and largely undifferentiated, appearing dissociated and alone. These subjects may rush about in a crowd or become sexually involved, but emotional connections and intimacy seem to elude them. Whether their melancholy is a cause or an effect of their isolation is not clear.

Kossoff's palette tends to be depressing too, and so is his London, however dynamic its structures, as in the 1997 drawings of the area around St. Pancras tube station. What makes these works solidly modern, then, is not only their flurry of gestural activity but their relentless sense of alienation. Kossoff's
London remains T.S. Eliot's wasteland, however different the terrain. In a sense, Kossoff strives to renew Expressionism's original task, as do other British expressionists—among them Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Frank Auerbach—in their own way, This task is to convey not simply the turbulent dynamics of the self but its social predicament: trying to relate to others and succeeding only in feeling more alone than when one deliberately remained apart, presumably distinctly oneself (The art-historical tale of the migratory transformation of pre–World War I German Expressionism into post-World War II Britain remains to be told.) The “position” of the pseudo-autonomous people Kossoff portrays might be that of the asocial separatist. who mistakes isolation for radical individualism, or, on the other hand, simply that of the tragic, alienated melancholic.

Donald Kuspit