Five of the most famous, or infamous, paintings of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)---the Woman series from 1950-1953 ---were at a large-scale retrospective exhibition which concluded last month. From 18 September 2011 to 9 January 2012 de Kooning: A Retrospective could be viewed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That Dutch-American abstract-expressionist painted what people found, and still find, shocking, truly wild canvasses.
Woman I which had pride of place at the centre of one wall in the MoMA was flanked by two equally riotous canvases on either side. It had taken de Kooning over two years to complete Woman I. He kept putting it aside. It was only the urgings of American art historian Meyer Schapiro that kept him from destroying it. By the early 1950s de Kooning, some argue, was onto something so new even to himself that he had to make a number of similar paintings before he knew enough to know when Woman I qualified as a finished painting. This meant as much scratching into, rubbing out, scraping back, and starting over as it did applying oil paint in every conceivable manner and viscosity.
Woman with Bicycle (1952-1953), another painting at the retrospective is a monster of a painting with a formless piece of pure red pigment at the centre of the canvas. That mark gives the impression, say some critics, as if de Kooning had just about given-up on this new art form. Perhaps in the green square-shaped smudges and scrapes at the bottom of the painting de Kooning found himself, momentarily redeemed by the dialectic between form and anti-form, the simultaneous contrast between red and green.
Perhaps the paint became, for de Kooning, a way of pinning down this figure to the picture-plane, literally a base on which to anchor the figure. Perhaps, too, the doubling of the teeth, lined-up above the formless piece of pure red pigment, and the resulting alignment along the central axis of the painting, was de Kooning mocking the seemingly irrational results of his enterprise. Form and anti-form may just be, in the end, a prison-house for de Kooning’s pictorial logic.
“Talent is a crushing burden, a curse, to the artist who would be modern, experimental, original, free,” wrote Rochelle Gurstein who reviewed this retrospective for The New Republic this month. “I couldn’t help feeling there was something tragic in the historical development that de Kooning represented”1 Gurstein wrote. What pressure was de Kooning under, with episodes of redemption, only to return to what must have felt to him like some kind of torture? Gurstein asked rhetorically.
I had just started primary school at the time de Kooning did this work. My mother had just joined a new religion that had come into town, the Baha’i Faith; my father had got a job closer to the centre of town, a town in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. I knew nothing of de Kooning and abstract impressionism immersed as I was in the years of middle childhood according to human development psychologists.-Ron Price with thanks to 1Rochelle Gurstein, “Abstract Expressionism's Most Traditional Artist,” The New Republic, 2 February 2012---for much of the above.
What was his inspiration, his creativity,
his intensity, capacity-extraordinaire as
an action painter to make psychic event
happen apparently spontaneously on his
canvases just after history’s worst war?
Was de Kooning’s apparent aim synthesis
of tradition and modernism? Did that aim
grant him more flexibility within the Late
Cubist confines of its canon of design???
The dream of a grand style hovers over all
this: the dream of a clearly grand & heroic
mix. He went so far as to draw with his left
hand, with his eyes closed, watching TV &
trying to get away, so I’m told, from talent.
Is this the pathos of what it meant to be a
modern artist of the ‘50s generation, a time
when a new and thrilling motion seemed to
be permeating the world of existence little
did he or virtually anyone else even know
back then in days when rock-‘n-roll was
about to wake people up from the dream
of Mr. Clean & Doris Day, General Ike &
luxury without stress, & no Negroes, & no
genitalia: please, not at all, pretty please!!2
1 From essays on de Kooning by Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg.
2 The Fifties: The Way We Really Were, D.T. Miller & M. Nowak, Doubleday & Co., NY, 1977, p.302.