Willem de Kooning, Untitled XII (1985), oil on canvas, 79-9/10″ x 70-1/10″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art
* * *
“Jasper Johns,” I once heard an art dealer declare, “is the Rembrandt of our time.” It speaks to the pressures of the marketplace and the hyperbole it can generate that such an opinion is shared by not a few members of the art world. Yet if Johns, that dour dauber of flags and targets, has been accorded the status of an old master, what are we to make of Willem de Kooning? De Kooning is, after all, one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, the artist for whom the label “action painting” was all but tailor-made. He has long been a figure of mythic dimensions, as are many of the artists associated with the New York School, and it’s easy to ascertain why. As the contemporary art scene is characterized more and more by triviality, the era of Abstract Expressionism acquires an almost magical ambiance. Whatever its merits as art—and with hindsight, they are less monolithic than was once supposed—Abstract Expressionism was the last identifiable movement defined by a seriousness of pursuit, and one of its key figures was Willem de Kooning.
De Kooning, more so than Gorky or Pollock, is a towering figure in American art, and the adulation extended toward him has often reached hysterical levels. Tales of de Kooning imitators during the halcyon days of the New York School are both legion and true; some artists even went so far as to affect de Kooning’s Dutch accent. It would not be preposterous to state that, for some at least, he approaches the status of deity. If this sounds goofy, consider Peter Schjeldahl’s article on de Kooning’s late paintings, currently the focus of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in the January 1997 issue of Artforum. Schjeldahl informs us that “what’s there may approach perfection as closely as human performance can.” Anyone familiar with Schjeldahl’s writing will recognize this as a typical Schjeldahlism: giddy and memorable. Schjeldahl is, however, a handy gauge as to what is fashionable in the art world. So when he, along with Robert Storr in his catalogue essay for Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, compares the artist’s paintings to those of Rembrandt and Mondrian, one has a pretty good hunch of what the status quo in the art world is.
Such comparisons are piffle, of course; to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a Dutchman is only a Dutchman. The only Dutch master whose work bears scrutiny as a measure of de Kooning’s art is de Kooning himself. And this is where myth has its basis in fact. For, at his best, he was a painter of brilliance. His work of the 1940s, in particular the black and white paintings, are those of an artist reformulating tradition—in this case, Cubist tradition—while honoring it. The strict, not to say limiting, structure of Cubism gave de Kooning’s indomitable line and precarious paint-handling a classical armature without which they would have collapsed. Like his hero, Picasso, de Kooning was a draftsman of immense subtlety, and it is no coincidence that both achieved their greatest work with a minimum of color. What dominates de Kooning’s paintings of this time is his line: an electric yet lithe force that swerves, swoops, dodges, and shimmies at breakneck speed. It is also one whose definition of mass, contour, shape, and space is unerring. Clement Greenberg wrote that de Kooning’s abstractions were “haunted” by the “disembodied contours of Michelangelo’s and Rubens’s nude figure compositions.” The human form has been a constant, if sometimes clouded, motif throughout de Kooning’s oeuvre. This physicality is manifested in the tense bump-and-grind of Attic (1949). Standing in front of it, one is pleasurably boggled by de Kooning’s mastery.
Paintings like Attic and Excavation (1950) are classics of American art and the apogee of de Kooning’s career. He created many paintings in the forty years since then, but never matched the artistry of the black and white works. Given their ferocity, it’s hard to see how he could have pulled off such contradictory and thrilling paintings for too long. And, of course, he didn’t. Which isn’t to say that his subsequent paintings—forget his lumpish, ill-conceived sculpture—lacked artistic acumen. The bravado found in passages of the infamous “Woman” paintings, for instance, has swayed even some feminists. But passages, as opposed to unified works of art, is what they remain. And even de Kooning’s defenders have a tough time stomaching his later woman-as-landscape paintings, wherein the artist seemingly forsook oils for pudding. While de Kooning’s imitators became an art-world joke, that the artist himself became his own worst imitator is no joke at all.
The decline of de Kooning’s talent is as frustrating as the decline of his mental health is lamentable. Beginning in the 1980s, de Kooning suffered pronounced memory loss, an affliction apparent in the 1970s and attributed both to Alzheimer’s disease and senility. He stopped painting in 1990 and is now in the full-time care of medical personnel. What has been a matter of contention is the effect de Kooning’s health had on his art and the extent to which he had an active hand in creating it. Schjeldahl pooh-poohs the rumors that the late paintings were done by studio assistants, but acknowledges that “they took an increasing hand in helping him start each work … [and] decided that a painting was done when de Kooning ceased work on it for a time judged long enough.” For an artist obsessed with the difficulties of finishing a painting, this process must have been liberating—or demeaning. Is it callous to wonder if, at the time, de Kooning knew the difference?
It’s difficult not to think of de Kooning’s fading health as one traces the chronology of The Late Paintings. Such a tactic seems more appropriate for those who attend to the pathologies of daytime television than to art criticism. So why does the exhibition become so much less as it progresses? Having seen a few late paintings scattered in museum and gallery exhibitions, I wasn’t prepared for much of substance here. Yet I found myself taken by how respectable some of them are, particularly those paintings from the early Eighties. True, Untitled XII (1982) and Untitled II (1983) don’t have the wallop of, say, Valentine (1947), a staple of MOMA’s permanent collection and a minor effort. But they do get by. The game of peek-a-boo played in Untitled II , between the red and blue underpainting and the white overlays, creates the requisite tension, and the candylike ribbons of color in Untitled III (1982) have body to them. In fact, all of the works here exhibit some flair. But that doesn’t mean they can withstand analogies to Matisse, Titian, or Cézanne. Make no mistake about it: were these paintings not by Willem de Kooning they would be dismissed, by the same people now showering them with kudos, as third-rate Ab-Ex derivations.
With the exception of the above works and a few others, the paintings in the first couple of galleries only occasionally rise above self-parody—rarely have brushstrokes struggled so mightily for motivation. Yet with their blurred surfaces and looping gestures, they are identifiably de Koonings. As one follows the course of the exhibition, the paintings become increasingly dry, cartoonish, and less fraught with (as Greenberg had it) terribilità. They become, in essence, de Kooning-esque. The return of a Cubist armature is curious and noteworthy, yet the resulting linear network never snaps the paintings into place. Their biomorphism hints at a rhythmic cadence, but doesn’t build to anything coherent. Instead, the paintings maunder. The artist’s famed line loops, turns back on itself, and squiggles just like we expect it to. But it has no place to go and no reason for being; it is less a pictorial force than a slack notational rendering. The word I have heard bandied about in describing these paintings is “lyrical.” Yet I suspect that this is an expedient way of avoiding the fact that the paintings are not very good.
In some cases, as in the scraped down Untitled XV (1983), the paintings can hardly be said to be there at all. The one feature that characterizes de Kooning’s late work is the overlays of white paint, a device used to cut into forms or as a means of erasing. Here white obliterates not only previous states of the painting, but any oomph they may have had as color. Admittedly, color has always been of secondary importance to de Kooning, and here it becomes bleached and chalky, especially his reds and pinks. Despite the recurrent use of blue, red, and yellow—the supposed Mondrian influence —de Kooning’s color sense is anemic and faceless. While the paintings are mildly pleasant in a diminished way, the best they can aspire to is a kind of furniture showroom decoration. (Do I recall correctly that a late de Kooning is the first painting by a living artist to be hung in the White House?) But even as decoration, they are flaccid—Morris Louis is musclebound in comparison. By the time one reaches a painting with no title from 1987, with its inert oranges, purples, and creams, it is clear that de Kooning has become oblivious to the nuances of color and the rigors of painting.
The Late Paintings is a major exhibition. It is intended to be the apotheosis of one painter’s life and of Abstract Expressionism. Rarely have works of art been accorded as luxuriant an amount of space as they have been here, and one can almost hear the myth-making machine chugging away. “One would not have predicted for Willem de Kooning a great old age,” writes Storr and The Late Paintings is meant, in part, to be a celebration of artistic fruition commensurate with the wisdom of age. It is, in actuality, something very different. If Storr really wanted to recognize an “old” master, he should curate an exhibition of paintings by George McNeil, an artist who realized himself late in life and made something grand, energetic, and funny from the verities of the New York School. McNeil doesn’t have half of de Kooning’s cachet, and such an exhibition would require more bravery (and independence) than most curators can muster. What we have instead is a painful reminder of how the frailties of mortals can outweigh the claims of myth. Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings is an affront to the masterpieces that constitute de Kooning’s true legacy and an unsavory artifact of the art world’s own bad faith.
© 2007 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 2007 edition of The New Criterion.