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The Abstract Imperfect

MoMA's retrospective of Willem de Kooning may be more certain about him than he ever was.

de Kooning: A Retrospective
Museum of Modern Art

Willem de Kooning emerges, in the panoramic retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art, as the archetypal modern urban man. He is by turns swaggering and sensitive. He is neurotic, self-assured, vehement, mercurial. He is a seeker, a striver, a comedian, a seducer, a dreamer. This quick-change personality comes through first of all in the splendid variety of de Kooning’s brushwork, which in a single painting can range from the elegant to the offhand, from delicate traceries to slashing strokes. You feel the artist’s variety in the conundrums that are his compositions: sometimes oppressively maze-like, sometimes disorientingly open-ended, often designed to deny any resolution. And you see constant change in the way his work shifts, even within a brief period, from a focus on the figure to a more strenuously abstracted figure or a suggestion of a landscape. De Kooning is a man who makes up his mind and then unmakes it, over and over again.

To sum up the work of such an artist is not an easy task. It may be an impossible task. John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, navigates a daunting project gracefully. De Kooning died fourteen years ago, and in arranging this grand summing-up, Elderfield proceeds with admirable steadiness of purpose. In the first three rooms of the show, he moves rapidly to the work of the 1940s and then lingers there, giving museumgoers a long, loving look at what is by many estimates the richest and most complex period in de Kooning’s career. At the other end of the story, Elderfield edits and streamlines the presentation of the more questionable achievements of the 1970s and 1980s in such a way as to keep the focus tight. In the past Elderfield has not always seemed equipped to handle the challenges involved in presenting paintings and sculptures, but with last year’s “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917” and now this de Kooning show he has proved himself a master of the art of installation. Working with the full suite of temporary exhibition galleries on the sixth floor of the museum, he has arrived at an exhibition design that is smooth as silk. This is the kind of suave and scrupulous installation that was pioneered at the Museum of Modern Art three quarters of a century ago and has long been the gold standard for museums around the world.

Yet there is something very strange about this supremely confident show. The seamlessness of Elderfield’s presentation is at war with the heart and soul of de Kooning’s art. I cannot remember ever before feeling so strongly pulled in opposite directions at a museum retrospective. The exhibition presents the case for de Kooning as an essential, exemplary master of modern art. And the work, at least the best of the work, rebels against such categorical pronouncements. In his catalogue essay, Elderfield struggles mightily to situate de Kooning among the formalists, arguing that he is one of the great originals when it comes to figuring out how to construct a painting. But for all the subtleties of Elderfield’s thinking—and he certainly knows how hard it is to pin down this artist—the exhibition may ultimately force de Kooning into a position of authority that he consciously rejected. I believe that de Kooning was entirely serious when he announced, in 1949, in a brief lecture titled “A Desperate View,” that “in art, one idea is as good as another” and that “order, to me, is to be ordered about and that is a limitation.” In a statement prepared for a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, de Kooning mocked the very idea of purity and formal values, speaking sardonically of “the comfort of pure form,” and accusing at least some unidentified formalists or purists of having “book-keeping minds.” Perhaps de Kooning was trying to tell us that his best work is a kind of painterly guerrilla theater. 

DE KOONING was twenty-two when he arrived in the United States in 1926, a stowaway on a freighter from his native Holland. He had studied fine art and commercial art in Rotterdam, and for many years in New York he lived a modest and marginal existence, at one point working for half a decade as a window display designer. Gradually, painstakingly, through much of the 1930s and 1940s, he assimilated the dramas of modernism and the new realities of Cézanne, Picasso, and Kandinsky. Among the friends who shared his interests in the 1930s were Arshile Gorky and David Smith, also living in obscurity, and Stuart Davis, already rather well-known, and John Graham, the painter whose treatise System and Dialectics of Art, from 1937, a remarkable and idiosyncratic exploration of the visual arts, includes a first fleeting mention of de Kooning.

As the bounty of European art appeared with increasing frequency in New York’s galleries and museums, de Kooning absorbed not only the achievements of Picasso, Miró, and de Chirico, but also the work of earlier artists who were of special interest to the moderns, such as Ingres and El Greco. Already in some of de Kooning’s portraits from the late 1930s and early 1940s we encounter a characteristic quality of grand schemes exquisitely shredded or beautifully battle-scarred. De Kooning’s admiration for the realism and formality of traditional portraiture precipitated an art of pentimenti and palimpsests, of bodies and faces that have been invoked, rubbed out, redrawn, discarded. After a brief period of experimentation with geometric abstraction in the 1930s, he was already by the end of that decade gravitating toward what would eventually amount to a cult of impurity.

With the equivocal abstraction called Pink Angels, probably completed in 1945, the entire repertory of de Kooning’s mature work is in place. Here are the body parts crushed and remade into disquieting, beguiling abstract shapes. Here is the sense of space not as a totality but as an accretion of fragments and glimpses. The painting is a sum of independent, discrete decisions, a flouting of all the old ideas of logical consistency in favor of a magisterial intuition that is not entirely divorced from an elegant nihilism. As for the dirtied pinks and yellows that dominate in Pink Angels, de Kooning is declaring himself a painter for whom color is not a chromatic orchestration engineered for architectonic lucidity but a symbolist mood-poem, as ominous as it is seductive.

By the time de Kooning had his first one-man show—which opened at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, only days before his forty-fourth birthday—he was widely admired by his contemporaries as a quixotic, impassioned experimentalist. Whatever one’s view of his work of later decades, I believe everyone can agree that de Kooning never painted with more subtlety than in the abstractions of the late 1940s, which culminated with Excavation in 1950. Blacks and whites dominate in these works, although the whites are often more precisely off-whites and tans and there is frequently a good deal of color mixed into the chiaroscuro. De Kooning achieves a down-and-dirty urban poetry that is entirely his own, with paint smeared and dripped, and imagery ranging from suggestions of human limbs, eyes, and teeth to letters of the alphabet and fantastical calligraphies. Its scrambled geometries and swaggering arabesques transfigure the adventures of city life, abstracting the overload of human interactions and the constantly shifting visual spectacle. We know that at the time de Kooning took an interest in the dark allegorical visions of Northern European artists such as Bosch and Bruegel: in the perfervid works done in the years immediately after World War II, he was painting his own Age of Anxiety. Here the gloriously idealized black-and-white geometries of Malevich and Mondrian are shattered, all hope is abandoned, and we are face to face with a new declension in art: the abstract imperfect.

De Kooning’s extraordinary independence of mind is said by some to be underscored by his eagerness to experiment with the figure even as he was immersed in his black-and-white abstractions. But it takes little away from his zigzagging interests to point out that here, as so frequently in his career, he was responding to broader movements in contemporary art. Giacometti, an abstract surrealist sculptor in the 1930s, had astonished artists in New York in 1948 when he exhibited, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, a series of figurative sculptures that re-imagined classical pictorial values in the wake of the philosophies of Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty. And New York friends of de Kooning’s, among them the painters Fairfield Porter and Edwin Dickinson, were doing landscapes and figures that may well have had a deeper impact on de Kooning’s work than anybody has yet acknowledged. Indeed, there is a moment at the end of the 1940s, with the exquisitely worked Figure now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, that de Kooning seems on the verge of accepting the hard discipline involved in resurrecting the figure in all its anatomical and spatial complexity. This small seated female nude, with its delicate, vanilla-egg-cream tonalities, is in my view the last creditable figure that de Kooning would paint. Here de Kooning approaches the marmoreal calm of Picasso’s neoclassicism of the 1920s. But the concentrated modesty of such an image was not something that he could sustain as he plunged into the pumped-up mood of the 1950s.

Melodrama had always been an element in de Kooning’s art. After all, this is an aspect of the experience of the modern urban man, who cannot resist the temptation to italicize certain aspects of his personality. Gotham News, from 1955, a feverish homage to the streets of New York, marshals a melodrama of slashing strokes and shapes and colors to create a precise portrait of the city’s hyperactive postwar ambience. And some of the landscapes of the 1950s, such as Merritt Parkway and Bolton Landing, with their sparse but enormous swathes of paint, have a decisive rhetorical power. They evoke the thumping impact of spare, light-filled rural spaces.

As for Woman I and the other figures from the beginning of the 1950s, I can still remember being fascinated by their dissonant juxtaposition of figure and environment when I first saw them in reproduction—they were eleven or twelve years old, and so was I—and with each passing decade I have found them less and less satisfying. De Kooning has little grasp of the figure as a confoundingly complex three-dimensional organism, so that what we are left with is no more than a sign or a symbol, to be consecrated and desecrated, sometimes simultaneously. While Picasso can twist an arm into a thousand different attitudes, all de Kooning can do is rip the arm apart. Most of the figure paintings and all of the sculpture done in the 1960s and 1970s strike me as perfectly dreadful, out-and-out junk—mock melodramas that even de Kooning himself scarcely believes in.

The last works by de Kooning that really matter, I think, are some abstract landscapes from the early 1960s, fierce arcadias with light-drenched pinks and yellows titled Door to the River, Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, and Pastorale (the last not included in this retrospective). After that, in the 1970s and 1980s, as he battled with booze and then began to sink beneath the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, de Kooning became an increasingly conventional painter. With his mind failing, he no longer had the strength to thwart his own virtuosity. The work began to evince a craftsman-like panache in the handling of corners, edges, and intervals that is precisely what he had been fighting against for much of his life, and certainly when he was at his most engaging as an artist. Widely praised paintings such as ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Screams of Children Come from Seagulls, both from 1975, are perfectly pleasant abstract landscapes, utterly lacking in the sting of angst or the perverse that is the essence of de Kooning’s art. Despite the crisp finish that Elderfield gives this retrospective, I find it difficult to believe that what we see in the last rooms are anything more than imitation de Koonings that happen to have come from the easel of the artist himself.

THE ARGUMENT can surely be made that de Kooning knew how to wield a paint brush to considerable effect right through to the end, and if people choose to be deeply moved by certain passages in the very latest works, I say good luck to them. What began to go missing in the 1950s, and vanishes entirely well before the conclusion of the show, is not technical prowess but largeness of intention. While the middle-aged critics who hold most of the top journalistic positions in our aging society may want to believe that de Kooning at eighty was still the razor-sharp nihilist that he was at forty-five, I cannot avoid the suspicion that what had once been a hard-won intellectual position had at last (and sooner rather than later) become a conventional and largely unexamined assumption.

Why this should have been so is not easy to say, although there are many greatly gifted artists who lose steam or focus or concentration—what used to be called inspiration—as they go on. In de Kooning’s case, one factor that cannot be overemphasized is the loss, during the 1960s and after, of the intense intellectual and cultural community in which he had thrived since the 1930s. This is not to say that de Kooning was ever an intellectual in any normal sense of the term, or a person who closely followed cultural developments aside from those in the visual arts. But from the 1930s, when he became friends with the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, one of the finest critical imaginations in mid-twentieth century America, de Kooning was a part of New York’s intellectual avant-garde, with a more than glancing acquaintance with the great arguments about art and culture—and the philosophical and moral implications of those arguments. This is, after all, a man who was advised by no less an authority than Meyer Schapiro as to whether Woman I was finished.

For de Kooning, the play of ideas was integral to his identity—to being that archetypal urban modern man. And like many New Yorkers of his generation, he regarded negativity, denial, abnegation, and rejection as among the grandest ideas, a transposition of the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic into a mode of personal search and investigation. When he was in command of his powers, the poignancy of de Kooning’s painterly gifts had everything to do with his insistence on doubting them, negating them, reversing them—and then allowing them to fight through nonetheless. At some point, though, his mockery became a little too easy-after which he was rudderless, a man without an idea to embrace or to despise.

That de Kooning’s genial latter-day salutes to his own once ferocious angst should now be widely mistaken for the real thing is not surprising, given the generally confused state of taste in our postmodern times. What is more interesting is how Elderfield’s spirited efforts to establish de Kooning once and for all among the old masters of modern art only underscore how problematical a relationship de Kooning always had with the strenuous formal investigations of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrian. True enough, de Kooning’s mockery is in part an autobiographical matter, a street-smart New York City mockery—the comedy of the tough-talking city man. But his mockery is also an artistic mannerism, and in the end we may find that de Kooning’s relationship with Cézanne and Picasso is as vexed as the relationship that the sixteenth-century artists who came to be known as the mannerists—Pontormo, Bronzino, Rosso—had to the earlier revolutions of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Just as the sixteenth-century mannerists reduced High Renaissance ideas about form, space, and finish to seductive matters of surface and style, so de Kooning took Cézanne’s and Picasso’s epochal shattering of Renaissance space and reconceived it as hedonistic calligraphy. By the end of the de Kooning retrospective, I felt that modernism had degenerated into mannerism: a magnificent cul-de-sac, an art entranced with its own devices.  

What de Kooning thought of his own situation will always remain something of a mystery. Despite a lifetime spent talking with friends and giving more than a few interviews and even publishing occasional statements, he very much kept his own counsel. Since his death in 1997, at the age of ninety-two, much more has been written about him, but he seems no easier to understand. On the one hand, de Kooning expressed deep sympathy for Duchamp, who had turned his back on painting and who, according to de Kooning, demonstrated that each artist could be a "one-man movement.” On the other hand, according to his friend Thomas Hess, de Kooning spoke of “re-inventing the harpsichord,” which would involve a radical reconsideration of older traditions and, as Hess explained, “canceling out the whole idea of an avant-garde.”

My own suspicion is that ultimately de Kooning did not know what he thought about the trajectory of art in the twentieth century. And in the face of such confusion, the only solution he could see was to regard painting itself as a kind of idol, the brushstroke so powerful as to require no justification or explanation. What I hear in de Kooning’s famous remark about the origins of the Venetian painterly tradition—“flesh was the reason oil paint was invented”—is a tremendous diminishment of the possibilities of painting, a denial of the intellectual and imaginative range with which Titian, the supreme master of painterly painting, confronted the possibilities of the medium. In any event, when de Kooning painted flesh what he generally ended up with was little more than strokes of paint. The seamlessness of the retrospective that John Elderfield has organized for the Museum of Modern Art only serves to emphasize the extent to which Willem de Kooning’s art was always, whether in his magnificent abstractions of the 1940s or his weakest compositions of the 1980s, coming apart at the seams.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.