The Painter and His Process
De Kooning at the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1953, a young Robert Rauschenberg arrived at the studio of Willem de Kooning with a bottle of liquor and a proposition. Rauschenberg was daunted by the task of asking one of New York’s most innovative painters for one of his works. After some conversation and a shared drink, the boyish Rauschenberg finally reached his question for the middle-aged artist: Could he have a drawing by de Kooning so that he could erase it?
In their biography De Kooning: An American Master, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan recount this now famous story:
After slowly searching through portfolios in the corners of the studio, de Kooning offered a complicated and dense mixed-media drawing, a drawing that he said he liked very much. A drawing he probably worked on for weeks or more. Rauschenberg took it with relief and excitement. Years later he would recount the effort and time to create “Erased de Kooning”: “It took me two months and even then it wasn’t completely erased. I wore out a lot of erasers.”
There was a moment of silence. The younger man wanted de Kooning to hurry up and just give him a minor drawing so he could quickly leave. But de Kooning instead chose to take his time. He went to the door leaned a painting again it, in order to ensure that the two artists would not be disturbed. He told Rauschenberg, "I know what you are doing."
This process echoed in my mind as I viewed the huge de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Critics have been effusive about the show, describing the work as “inventive” and full of “creative exuberance” and the experience as “relentlessly intense.” With nearly 200 works from over eight decades, the show is exhaustive and exhausting. I thought it was strange that the show had so few places to sit, forcing visitors to stand and confront the beautiful complexities of de Kooning’s obsessive and intricate canvases.
The show manages to present a chronological sweep without making generalities of the work to fit dates or periods. The first gallery takes you from de Kooning’s early classical still lifes, made when he was studying art in his native Rotterdam just after the first World War, to his early experimental merging of abstraction and figuration in the 1940s. De Kooning arrived in New York as a stowaway in 1926, and his works in the 1930s recall Cubist experiments and Matisse compositions.
"Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon)" (1937-38)
But in “Seated Woman” and “Seated Man,” done in the early 1940s, one sees a new experimentation with form that slowly disperses into fragments and lines. The bodies in both paintings recall broken Greek statues; their limbs blend into the shapes and colors around them.
"Seated Woman" (c. 1940)
The first gallery ends with “Pink Angels” (c. 1945), with its lava lamp forms ebbing and flowing around the canvas, the charcoal lines blurring from beneath the paint or sometimes cutting on top of it. The canvas asks us to sit there and make sense of its pleasant colors and layers of mangled lines and flowing pink forms. With this work, much of the talk of influence evaporates in the show text panels. Now it is all about the process.
"Pink Angels" (c. 1945)
With its emphasis on his artistic process, the show asks us to consider how so much of de Kooning’s many decades of work is a seemingly endless experiment. While his art has a recursive quality — the flat white canvases with sharp bright rings of color made in the ’90s recall elements from the ’50s and ’60s — I was struck by how much of what we talk about when we talk about de Kooning rests on the process. Walking through this retrospective, you are constantly reminded of the variety and uniqueness of the techniques he used, the time it took, and the effort and labor that lurk behind each work.
Consider his famous second series of woman paintings from 1949. The large canvases present abstract and contorted bodies, the faces looking upward and outward, the thickly layered paint covering and revealing the outlines of earlier drawings, abandoned at some point, but used all the same. These paintings, like many of the period, were constructed through a series of drawing and painting, scraping paint off, drawing again and repainting. The wall text informs us “de Kooning drew pins around his subject’s head resembling a crown of thorns but also calling attention to his technique of pinning drawings and tracing paper to his canvas in order to test compositional changes.” We learn about such techniques again and again in this show. We are told that his painting “Excavation” (1950) was first a series of letters that de Kooning drew on the canvas; the intricate shapes of geometrical forms and organic and architectural fragments took shape slowly several months of work.
Often, de Kooning’s process is accidental. “Easter Monday” (1956-7) presents a cacophony of thickly layered paint, its azure and ochre hues bleeding into the white and gray patches.
"Easter Monday" (1955-56)
On top of the white paint, near the bottom of the work, is the imprint of a newspaper, reversed and caught in the paint. The wall text quotes de Kooning’s explanation that this was the unexpected result of using the newspaper to prevent the paint from drying overnight: “I saw the black print in the paint and I thought it was nice. It has no social significance.” But the newsprint shows up in later works as well, leaving me to believe the accident turned into a component of de Kooning’s ongoing experimental process, adding this found media to works that are already steeped with revisions and reimagings of the artist’s hand. I want to call them collages but that won’t work. His canvases more often feel like palimpsests, where the earlier efforts and experiments seep through, revealing themselves in shadowy fragments, undecipherable shapes, and heavy lines. You eventually begin to look closely not at the image itself, but at all that is underneath the image, as if the final image is caught by what is behind.
This is how I felt standing in front of his famous third series of woman paintings completed in the early 1950s. These works are often noted for their ferociousness, for their haunting faces with aggressive expressions. These canvases are loud and harsh and violent. “It’s so cool. She looks demented,” I overhear a young man say to his companion in front of “Woman, I” (1950-52). But the figures in each look more trapped than threatening or insane. They look as if they wish to rise out of the heavy paint and charcoal, to throw off the weight de Kooning has heaped upon them over the months and years it took to complete them — if we can even call them complete. These women look half buried, really.
Turn the corner from this series and you encounter a wall of small delicate drawings from the 1960s, presenting figures and abstract shapes, cut and carved and floating in the space of the paper, some half removed by erasure, their lines still faintly visible.
“He tried unorthodox techniques” the wall text tells us, “such as drawing with his eyes closed, while watching television, with his left hand rather than his right or with both hands simultaneously.” After a while, you start noticing only technique as you become more and more convinced that little else matters. These reminders throughout the show echo one of the first quotes from de Kooning that you encounter: “I was never interested in how to make a good painting…but to see how far I could go.”
This focus on process reminded me of another retrospective a few years ago at the Centre de Pompidou in Paris, that of the French painter Yves Klein, a contemporary of de Kooning. In that show, I watched black-and-white films of Klein’s activities in the studio, to which he would sometimes invite spectators. In one film, he coats a naked female model in paint and has her lay upon a canvas fixed to the floor. Kline then drags her body by her arms across the canvas, creating an impression that blurs from figure to abstraction. In another film, he uses a specially designed torch to sear his canvases, making visually compelling shapes that look more like aged paper than burnt canvas. In each of these films, artistic work is pure performance, turning the craft of composing and creating into its own concern.
With de Kooning as well, the labor of art becomes central to our encounter with and understanding of his work. MoMA frames the show with two large, black-and-white photographs of de Kooning in his studio. You first encounter de Kooning sitting in front of his canvas with brush in hand, the artist intently focused on his work. As you leave, an even larger wall-sized photo, taken from above and looking down on the artist, shows de Kooning standing a few feet away from a large canvas, the studio floor expanding around him, an organized mangle of tools and rags. These images echo with the MoMA website, where you can find a series of images of the artist in his studio, sometimes working but often posing next to his works. The images concisely connote that this is an artist tirelessly at work. Not unlike other Abstract Expressionists (images of Pollock’s great gestures of body and paint come to mind), these images of de Kooning engage us to consider how laborious art can be, and seem a particularly important record of our idea of the Abstract Expressionist.
In 1960, noted art historian Albert Elsen made a case for the artist in a post-war culture in his essay “Lively Art from a Dying Profession, the Role of the Modern Artist.” Partly a defense of Abstract Expressionism, Elsen drew on William H. Whyte’s now classic book of the period, 1954’s Organization Man, which illuminated a defining characteristic of the post-war period: the disintegration of individualism toward a shared collective identity and loyalty to the demands of bureaucratic institutions of corporations and government, as well as community. To this Elsen contended:
The artist today represents to the public an ideal of liberty that involves doing what one wants to do, rather than what we ought to do. The artist is one of the few ‘inner-directed’ men remaining in our society. It might be said that he provides society with an ethic, not as in the past, by what he creates, but by how he lives and works.
In this sense, the artist is the antithesis of the Organization Man, an icon of individuality and free expression in a culture increasingly anchored to institutional and social conformities. Pointing to the work of de Kooning and Klein, among others, Elsen argues that their works create “aesthetic experiences that permit the viewer an irrational, sensual release unavailable in his daily life.” But it is what Elsen wrote next that intrigued me the most:
In our production society it is a rare event to achieve a sustained intellectual and emotional fulfillment in one’s vocation…painting, graphics, and sculpture are the last hand-made objects of value created in our time. In a period of frequent political disappointments, art is a reminder of the positive things that a single gifted human being can do with mind, eye, and hand.
There are echoes of Elsen’s words in the critics’ and curator’s celebratory remarks about de Kooning’s work today. The canvases and the photographs imply that this work — with all the meanings the word “work” can convey — comes from the tireless and compulsive efforts of de Kooning’s body as much as from his vision. In this, de Kooning’s labor contrasts against our mundane work lives. As the introduction wall text to this show tells us, “de Kooning never followed any single, narrowly defined path.” In the end, we can admire his independence, and we can wonder at the breadth of a career that spans nearly the whole of the 20th century. But it is the days and months and sometimes years of work, done by the hands of de Kooning, that matter most in this show. You leave with an uncomfortable nostalgia that evokes an era when New York simmered with artists and admen, when the city was taking its place as the arbiter of art and style. De Kooning and his fellow Abstract Expressionists offered an alluring sense of labor in the post-war era, when consumerism and mass-market dreams shaped some version of American life that now glimmers in our hazy memories. “All painting is an illusion,” de Kooning famously declared, but underneath this illusion rests layers of creative and inspired work, enticing us with envy and escape. • 8 December 2011
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.