May 10, 2004

Willem de Kooning at 100

The painter Willem de Kooning is known to have drawn visual sustenance from late night jaunts through the city. For an immigrant from Holland - he arrived as a stowaway in 1926 - the streets of New York, even during the Depression, were a fertile riot of billboards, pinups and errant papers underfoot.

On a recent evening, I was in a similar mindset of heightened visual receptivity. Walking across the breadth of Manhattan, I was heading to the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea for the opening of a retrospective of de Kooning’s work organized in celebration of what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday.

The proliferation of concocted imagery that confronts a pedestrian today is multiplied many fold from the days de Kooning scoped this cityscape. From decals on fruit to video monitors in restroom stalls, advertising continues to breach new bulkheads of both visual and mind space.

In the interstices of this mediated visual field persists the resilient efflorescence of graffiti. Like antimatter to advertising's charge, graffiti innovates counterstrategies designed to frustrate attempts at its eradication.

In moving through the city, graffiti and sanctioned media operate in conjunction as the equivalent of figure and ground. Depending on one’s perspective, the city and all its mediated imagery might read as the backdrop or “ground” upon which the populace expresses itself in the idiom known as graffiti.

Alternatively, instead of being the “figure,” the city’s graffiti might recede from visual awareness into the background as simply part of the environment. The equal valuing of figure and ground might be called the unified field theory.

De Kooning’s work of the late 1940s pursued precisely this endeavor. His black and white abstractions - jostling interplays of figure and ground where shapes and lines share duties in each role - would long ago have been stilled as icons representing the attainment of this quest if they weren’t so successfully protean. This, of course, is the point.

Save for a gem of a small gallery packed with these historical benchmark paintings, the Gagosian show focuses on the work de Kooning made following his move from the city to the far reaches of Long Island. (This means the installation does not contain examples of the very early abstractions or figure paintings, nor any of the one-time infamous Woman paintings upon which much of his reputation was forged).

In the early 1960s, de Kooning made the transition from being an inveterate urbanite to living in the rural setting of The Springs, East Hampton. There, in a landscape not dissimilar to his native Holland, he designed for himself a studio. Close to the ocean and set amongst the scrub oaks, the building has become famous the world over as a sort of ideal, an example of architecture flowing from the nature of an artist’s discipline.

Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery, with its open space, generous proportions, exposed ceiling trusses and bright, diffused natural light is not a far aesthetic remove from de Kooning’s Hampton studio. As such, this exhibition allows the paintings to be seen in an environment comparable to that in which they were created - with the paintings standing in as the views out the studio windows.

Many institutions have come together to create this show. There are masterpieces aplenty documenting the consistent high points of de Kooning’s painting evolution through the 1960s and 70s. But it is the room of paintings from the 1980s that is the irresistible draw. Especially, it is the inclusion of four paintings (only one of which has been previously exhibited} from 1988 that reward any viewer’s sojourn - no matter how arduous.

For a painter who resided within and propelled the vanguard of artistic practice for over 50 years, the capstone to his expression turns out to be paintings comprised of expansive, looping lines floating in space that are close to indistinguishable in look and purpose from the graffiti “tags,” “burners” and “throw-ups” that adorn the surfaces of the city - indeed probably even the outside walls of the very gallery within which these paintings now hang.

From the cusp of the 1980s, de Kooning’s work underwent a significant transformation. Gone were the knotted whorls of thick, sensual paint that had been a hallmark of his work since at least the mid-1940s. Prior to 1980, the preponderance of de Kooning’s work offers a tactile world across its surface. In some of its extremes, this sensual tangibility can be as familiar as your own body and as consuming as quicksand.

The space embodied in all of his works is experienced as a vast, internally coherent landscape that is awash in light - great, bright, sharp light. The paintings of the late 1970s represent the apogee of these tendencies. With their clotted, curdled, dripping surfaces, these works form a topographical tour de force.

It was in the wake of this period’s baroque, sensual verisimilitude that de Kooning shifted gears and began creating painted surfaces as smooth and wet as the surface of your eye. The change shifts his work from a depictive and literal texture to an optical tactility.

Hued lines in high-keys skim and wend across the white space and surface. The contrast packs an ocular supercharge. A phantom image burns, to varying degrees, into the retina and joins the eye’s gaze as it moves across the painting’s surface. In these works, de Kooning wields memory as a vital tool alongside his brushes - both long term and fleetingly short, both his and that of the viewer.

The movement of the painter’s hand bears tracings of the material world. The lines are armatures of perceptual experience, a mark scattering into a multitude of readings, all of which are unassailable in their veracity.

Present through a lifetime of painting remains the specificity of flesh, beach and studio accouterments. Even things that would seem immune to graphic representation - save for the evidence before one’s eyes - find their place: a precise light or time of day, an experience of a particular bodily orientation in the landscape, even vulnerability and the unquestioning quest. Present, too, is the view from before the canvas, within the glass and steel, light-filled studio of its origin.

In the ‘80s, it is as if de Kooning wanted to make it harder on himself by making it easier on himself. Surrendering to the tender impulse at the heart of his image-making pursuit, the late paintings feel like the works of a painter who - absent of artifice and unwarranted labor - is engaged in laying bare the genetic blueprint of the mysterious painting of his imagining that long ago compelled him to take up a brush and embark.

Perhaps entangled in this tender impulse are the seeds of commonality between de Kooning and the graffiti artists whose work his own came to resemble.

The eye of the painting master sees the world with a studied eclipse of preconception that mirrors the inherently inclusive, uncensoring eye of youth. As a young man de Kooning worked as a sign painter. It was the sign painter’s thin brush with its extra-long bristles that enabled him to draw whip-like strokes that flayed and narrowed in a way not far removed from how a “writer” employs a spray can.

De Kooning, working on Long Island in a sort of palace of the artistic ideal - a workplace where the valuing of art built unto itself a shrine for its own furtherance - shares sympathy with an inner-city youth art tradition so condemned that it is circumscribed with issues of legality. Despite differences of age, access and environment, de Kooning and an urban graffiti practitioner meet in a comparable visual milieu. Television, advertising, signage, photography and the line or letter that issues forth from a gesture comprise a pervasive visual fact. If you really are reflective of the environment, then mass-media distillation is going to occur.

Throughout his career, de Kooning used the complexities and difficulties of his life to formulate strategies to frustrate his facility and, in so doing, break new ground. Representative of this practice might be the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when - as viewed through the lens of biography - his work is often discounted as arising from a haze of alcohol.

This work could just as easily be seen as finding a frisson in the making and using of incoherence as an organizing principle or goal. The irony, of course, is that the eye can’t perceive incoherence. That’s a function of a certain quarter of the mind and is easily trumped by the reality pouring in through the eyes. It’s a challenge that asks: Is there such a thing as a bad painting? The answer might be “yes,” but only if one set out to make a “good” painting.

De Kooning in the 1980s certainly faced an unusual complexity and difficulty: he was succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Diagnosed in 1989, he continued to paint until early 1990. It remains an ongoing debate as to which works can confidently be regarded as reflecting his conscious intent. The first great survey of this work - organized jointly by SFMOMA and the Walker Art Center in 1995 - included works up to 1987. With this current show the canon is being stretched to embrace works from 1988.

For all the variety, the numerous series, pursuits and periods, that comprise de Kooning’s work of the 1980s, no leap is as dramatic as that of 1988. Indeed, it appears that - true to form - de Kooning was using his last imaginative energies to venture forth into yet another uncharted mode.

In some analyses this new manner is attributed in large part to the undue influence of new studio assistants who introduced to his palette an array of complementary and pastel colors. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time de Kooning had his palette dictated by external factors. The extreme reduction of his palette in the late 1940s was enforced by poverty. The triumphant black and white abstractions were his response to that particular environmental determinant.

The controversy that swirls around de Kooning’s work during the final years of his productivity highlights the vexing nature of Alzheimer's itself - a disease which seems to cloud not only the mind of the sufferer but also, in this case, the mind of the viewer. The knowledge of Alzheimer's impedes direct perception in a way analogous to how questions of legality muddle the perception of graffiti.

We may well be heading to a place where compassion, rather than some notion of aesthetic valuation, may render the entirety of his production worthy of the canon and our attention and care, regardless of possible neurological impairment. For a master painter of light, a final contribution of his legacy might be the introduction of a different sunshine: that of transparency and full disclosure.

A transparency before our eyes would see in the graffiti on the walls, light poles, delivery trucks, street signs, phone booths, train windows, sidewalks and mailboxes the visual fact of art popping forth through every channel and think, now there’s some painting for ya.

A culture investing in perceiving what’s right before its eyes will acknowledge and revere the most committed visual artists in our midst.

Free of all questions, the paintings de Kooning created under the encroaching darkness stand as inviolable visual facts. His painterly tenacity in the face of peril is an act of advocacy on behalf of self-expression. In the end, de Kooning is in league with the anonymous graffiti writer who by virtue of existence alone assumes his or her own validity. Who can argue with that?

Posted by mark at May 10, 2004 11:13 AM

Good points all, Mark.
A tangent on the graffiti connection:
As much as I am often inspired by graffiti, one difference worth pointing out between DeKooning's practice and graffiti artists is that DeKooning's graphic marks are always open to change where it seems that no matter how great the tag is, once it is settled on, it hews to its iconic format as rigidly as the Coke logo. This may be a pernicious effect of the logo on the art of drawing in general.

The epic scope of the Style Wars era graffiti artists really has led to a kind of feedback loop where corporations aim to monopolize walls, buses, etc. usually without the vim. I would make an exception for the jam session on Houston and Broadway where jeans models' bodies are currently writhing in almost Acropolis marbles like psychosexual poses!

Posted by: Steven at May 11, 2004 02:54 AM