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Abstract Expressionism's Most Traditional Artist

For a moment, the crowd that was constantly amassing around the painting singled out by the organizers of the MOMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective as the masterpiece of his early period—Excavation (1950)—had dispersed. So my husband and I positioned ourselves in front of it to take advantage of what we knew was a rare moment of unobstructed viewing. Excavation is strategically located to be the climactic experience in the room devoted to de Kooning’s “breakthrough” black-on-white enamel and oil paintings, which took letters from the alphabet as their starting point but through acts of concentrated painterly energy became something else—organic shapes, anthropomorphized figures, ambiguous forms, increasingly vibrant, rhythmical, and abstract, which I found thrilling to look at. Excavation, more pale yellowish-white than the black of the other paintings in the room, was de Kooning’s largest work yet—6’9” by 8’4”—and my husband pointed out that he no doubt felt compelled to work on this larger scale, given that it was the moment of the mural-scale paintings of Jackson Pollock et al. Nevertheless, it was still an “easel” painting—the distinction was Clement Greenberg’s—and if de Kooning was after the more experimental overall look and feel of a Pollock, my husband thought this painting fell short. He appreciated the psychic battle apparent in all the strenuous marks of doing and undoing that de Kooning was trying to orchestrate into a unity during the many months he worked on the painting, but the more time we spent looking, the more my husband questioned whether de Kooning’s “talent” was getting in his way: the tasteful dabs of bright color, no matter how many subversive techniques he invented in their application; his masterful line and contour, no matter how violently he worked to dislodge the figure from its own pictorial space; and most telling, his unconscious return to the center of the painting with an “x” to mark the spot, even as he tried to allow for more spontaneous composition. Such was de Kooning’s “talent” that no matter how radically he tried to break with line-bounding shapes, in Excavation, it feels like there is always a ghost of the figure about to reappear.

Pointing to a particularly elegant equivocal line, oscillating between two- and three-dimensional pictorial space, my husband reminded me of how much it shared with the small still life from de Kooning’s student days in Rotterdam that we admired in the first room of the exhibition, Bowl, Pitcher, and Jug (1921). We spent almost as much time before it as we did before Excavation. It was a deceptively simple, elegant drawing, conté crayon and charcoal on paper: I was completely taken with the certitude of the line, the perfection of the volumes, the articulation of the dry, cracking surface of the terra-cotta pitcher, the subtlety of the highlight on the dark, smooth jug. What an eye … Already in his youth, my husband observed, de Kooning was approaching the almost pointillist optics of his great countryman Vermeer. Everything, in retrospect, seemed to be contained in this beautiful little drawing. The simultaneous edge and profile of the jar and pitcher that had made such an impression on us had become the elegant equivocal line that my husband was now pointing out to me in Excavation.

Just as I was asking him if he thought that it was the same line that we saw in the black-on-white enamel paintings where de Kooning had managed to escape the seductions of color, an excited stranger interrupted us: “Brilliant, amazing, he’s incredible!” He told us that he was a painter, that long ago he had been an art student in Chicago, that he stopped and looked at Excavation every day when he walked through the Art Institute of Chicago to get to class. As he looked again at the painting he knew so intimately, he seemed on the verge of transport and wanted us to know what he was seeing. He said it was like looking at ten paintings in one and began pointing to one section of the canvas after another, directing our attention to that little patch of scraped-back orange over there, the blue and red marks at the center, the way the paint stacked up at the bottom edge of the canvas. His enthusiastic desire (bordering on exhortation) for our enthusiastic assent, I immediately gave to him. It reminded me of the time we were at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on a lovely spring day and a lone garden-lover noticed that we were admiring wisteria in bloom and exclaimed, almost demanded of us, “It’s beautiful!” And also of the same experience with an enthusiastic stranger at the Morandi retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago and more recently in front of Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio at the Musée d’Orsay.

After we parted ways with the ecstatic admirer of de Kooning, I reminded my husband of what Kant had said about beauty—that when people say an object is beautiful, they mean that it pleases them personally but also something more binding and objective; that the object that pleases them would also command the same response from anyone who viewed it. And that a part of this pleasure comes from being in the company of others. That is why total strangers want you to say, yes, it is beautiful or, in the case of de Kooning, yes, it is brilliant, amazing, incredible. My husband replied that of course de Kooning was brilliant, inventive. Nevertheless, he kept seeing Picasso or Gorky in de Kooning’s paintings; he thought there was too much composition, too much Cubist space, in comparison with Pollock or Rothko or Newman or Still. Then I remembered from reading Harold Rosenberg a number of years ago that the situation of artists of Rosenberg’s generation was daunting in the extreme, that after the catastrophes following from the two world wars they were convinced that all inherited forms of Western culture had permanently collapsed, that in order to go on, they would have to start from scratch (“start from scratch” was Rosenberg’s expression).

Just as we were about to enter the next room of the exhibition, we ran into an acquaintance of ours, who was writing down his thoughts in a notebook. He told us that going through the show made him wonder whether artists have more freedom, more possibilities for innovation, for experiment, than novelists, that novelists can never fully escape from grammar, from built-in conventions of representation. This surprised me coming from this man, as he is one of the last of our novelists who continues to press the limits of representation in the modernist experimental vein. That is what I told him, and then I expressed my admiration for how far he had gone in one of his novels where we are made to experience what it would feel like for a disembodied being, with vague, phantom memories, to come into consciousness. He said he was glad to hear that and then asked if we had seen the whole exhibition yet; he was making his way through the rooms he liked best for a second time and said that he was astounded by de Kooning’s inventiveness, how he never stood still. We then spoke about how best to make sense of such an enormous oeuvre: chronologically within his own development? In relation to his artistic predecessors and contemporaries? Or in relation to the writing of his contemporary viewers? At that point, my mind went back to something I had read in Rosenberg, that in the late 1940s de Kooning said he and his fellow artists were working on the basis of formal ideas in which they no longer believed.

With that thought in mind, we entered the room that held on one long wall five of what are surely de Kooning’s most famous, or infamous, paintings—the Woman series from 1950-1953. Over a half century had passed but I still found these canvases shocking, truly wild, and could only imagine how difficult they must have been for their first viewers. I remembered reading somewhere that Woman I—which had pride of place on the center of the wall, flanked by two equally riotous canvases on either side—had taken de Kooning over two years to complete, that he kept putting it aside, that it was only the urgings of Meyer Schapiro that kept him from destroying it. Apparently de Kooning was onto something so new even to himself that he had to make—which meant as much scratching into, rubbing out, scraping back, and starting over as it did applying oil paint in every conceivable manner and viscosity—a number of like-paintings before he knew enough to know when Woman I qualified as a finished painting.

My husband was standing before Woman with Bicycle (1952-1953). He thought it was a monster of a painting, gesturing to the formless piece of pure red pigment at the center of the canvas: “In that mark it was as if de Kooning had just about given up.” He then pointed to the green square-shaped smudges and scrapes at the bottom: “But then he finds himself, momentarily redeemed by the dialectic between form and anti-form, the simultaneous contrast between red and green, as the paint becomes a way of pinning down this figure to the picture plane, literally a base on which to anchor the figure.” He directed my attention to the doubling of the teeth, lined up above the formless piece of pure red pigment, and wondered if the resulting alignment along the central axis of the painting wasn’t de Kooning mocking the seemingly irrational results of his enterprise. “Form and anti-form,” he told me, “is in the end a prison-house of de Kooning’s pictorial logic.” We both began to imagine what pressure de Kooning had been under, with episodes of redemption—that was what we were seeing when we found momentary resolutions between opposites in the painting—only to return to what must have felt to him like some kind of torture.

I had heard from two friends who had been to the show separately that the Woman paintings struck each of them as misogynist, but standing there with my husband and seeing them through his eyes, I saw in their force, their violence, that de Kooning was attacking himself, his prodigious gifts, the “talent” that my husband had thought was the center of his drama in Excavation and that I had so admired in his beautiful early still life, Bowl, Pitcher, and Jug. Talent as a crushing burden, a curse, to the artist who would be modern, experimental, original, free—I couldn’t help feeling there was something tragic in this historical development.

Our novelist-friend was right. As we made our way through the many, many rooms of the exhibition—the Museum of Modern Art had devoted an entire floor to it—we saw that de Kooning never did stand still; he kept breaking with whatever he perfected just as it was on the verge of becoming a style. After “the breakthrough” of the black-and-white paintings that won him repute as an abstract painter, he pushed himself into color and figuration, and after “the breakthrough” of the Woman paintings, he pushed himself into larger expressionistic, abstract landscapes, with vibrant swaths of local color. And this was only the end of the 1950s; four more decades still remained to him. In a room that displayed a number of bronze sculptures from the late ‘60s—work that I had never seen before—I ran into a friend who is an artist. (No doubt we kept meeting people we knew because we had all waited to the last minute to see the show before it closed.) By this time, my attention and, with it, my enthusiasm were flagging and I told my friend that the paintings after the Woman series did not speak as strongly to me, but I was not sure if it was a falling in de Kooning or a shortcoming in my own taste or perhaps that I was just tired. He said he felt the same thing, that de Kooning’s earlier work was the most compelling. I asked him if it was because the paintings that came after the women didn’t seem as wild, that perhaps de Kooning’s battle with his talent had reached a climax with them, and if that were the case, artists like de Kooning don’t have a chance against their own reputations. He told me he never thought of de Kooning as wild but rather he found him traditional.

Over coffee, I told my husband what our friend had said about de Kooning being traditional and how it surprised me. My husband agreed with our friend, noting how even in the Woman paintings—which I had found so difficult—you could see that de Kooning was still composing a recognizable painting, working within the conventions of genre and Cubist space, never completely leaving behind the European tradition of Painting (with a capital P) as compared to Pollock or Newman or Rothko or Still, whose subject matter pushed them beyond all boundaries and definitions of what a painting is. Again he was trying to explain to me what he sees as a kind of mysterious virtuosity in pushing the means of representation—the physical, inert materials of paint, chalk, pastel, charcoal, lead—beyond their conventional limits, that there is something at once human and miraculous in seeing the hand shape matter into spirit, and then into sublime appearance that we call art; that one need only think of the late landscapes of Cezanne. “Still,” I told him, “when we were standing before a number of de Koonings, you seemed absorbed.” He said he did not want to take anything away from de Kooning but, in the end, his work has never meant that much to him, that he never experienced the kind of mystery, a kind of world mystery—it was hard to express—that he has experienced in the presence of Newman or Cezanne. At this point in our conversation we were entering familiar terrain: On a number of occasions we have noticed that the deeper one’s sense of what great art can do—and the intensity of experience that accrues with it—the more narrow one’s range of appreciation seems to become. But it has never stopped troubling me that high expectations—refined taste—have the bad effect of making it difficult to appreciate worthy, if lesser, artists or genres; that this kind of sophistication can even make one miss out on altogether worthy, if lesser, aesthetic experiences.

The next day de Kooning’s paintings were still very much with me so I decided to re-read a number of essays by the critics who were closest to him: Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Rosenberg repeatedly emphasized his inspiration, his creativity, his intensity, his extraordinary capacity to make a psychic event happen spontaneously on the canvas. It was clear that De Kooning was the “action painter” Rosenberg loved most. When I turned to Greenberg’s famous essay, “American-Type Painting,” I was surprised to read that “de Kooning’s apparent aim is a synthesis of tradition and modernism that would grant him more flexibility within the confines of the Late Cubist canon of design. The dream of a grand style hovers over all this—the dream of an obviously grand and an obviously heroic style.” So Greenberg, too, was put off by what was “traditional” in de Kooning. When I later read that de Kooning went so far as to draw with his left hand, with his eyes closed, while watching television, in an attempt to get away from his “talent,” again I felt the pathos of what it meant to be a modern artist for that generation. So it was something of a consolation that when we were having dinner the following night with a friend of ours who has written extensively on the New York School, had known many of the artists personally, and lives with a number of their works on her walls, and I asked her whose work in this group she preferred above all, she did not hesitate to respond, de Kooning, and when I asked her why, she said that he was the most traditional and the most accomplished.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.