Abstract Critical

Between Sense and de Kooning

A conversation between Robert Linsley and Richard Shiff on the latter’s book Between Sense and de Kooning, published last year by Reaktion Books.

Untitled IV, 1982, oil on canvas, 70″ x 80″ (177.8 cm x 203.2 cm), (PG#52697), © The Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York/ ARS, NY and DACS, London 2012.

Robert Linsley: Richard, reading your new book, Between Sense and de Kooning, I have the strong feeling that it means a lot to you. Can you tell me what is at stake for you in the work of de Kooning, that you need to write this book, with respect to both art and art history?

Richard Shiff: Yes, part of it is personal. The de Kooning paintings of the 1960s, which have never been favorites with the public, although certain collectors were very taken by them, may have been the first truly contemporary paintings that affected me in a lasting way. In other words, I saw them when they were first exhibited, which was soon after they were made, and they were very meaningful. This would be true also of some of Jasper Johns’s work from around the same time, also some of Ellsworth Kelly’s. I had been affected by a lot of modern art previously, but not necessarily by work that had been made only just before my seeing it, work coming right out of the studio. So, trying to say something meaningful about this work years later, is like trying to explain one’s own aesthetic and cultural formation.  De Kooning’s art has never been popular with art historians. Artists like it—most art historians do not. Part of that avoidance of de Kooning is the fear that discussing him in a positive way may put the writer/historian on the politically incorrect side of some strangely abstract arguments about gender. One wants to “correct” such silliness as one can, but I think only those readers who already have an open mind will pay attention, so the potential to correct the drift of the academic culture is limited. It will keep drifting until perhaps world events shake it up a bit. If it isn’t shaken now, when will it be? De Kooning’s art is both an aesthetic and an intellectual challenge—perhaps that’s the best reason to try to write about it. He himself was extremely talented (whatever that might mean), very smart, very adventurous, and pretty fearless when it came to working against the cultural tide. I certainly don’t want to create a de Kooning myth, nor did he, yet it’s probably fair to say that his independence and contrary attitude make him a certain kind of heroic figure for our culture (even for the part of our culture that rejects him). His art raises issues that have always been central to my analytical work: the relation of touch to vision, the relation of sensing to reasoning, the relation of doubt to belief, the relation of individual achievement to social history. There are many other things. For instance, his profound sense of comic irony, built deeply into his art. In any event, the fact that de Kooning’s art stands very well on its own (it doesn’t need a movement) meant that it would lend itself to my own inclinations as a writer. This is to say, I didn’t want to write a history of sources, influences, marketing, social successes and social failures. I wanted to write about the art and what kinds of feelings it generates. De Kooning is a good subject if you want to write about the multiple senses of “feeling”—or, for that matter, the multiple senses of “sense” (hence, the title of the book). 

RL: Just to pick up on your final point, certainly your book does not have a clear “narrative,” meaning the kind of dramatic movement from event to event that is the normal way to capture a reader’s interest. It’s more a series of attempts to grasp the work, so it moves in and out of close reading of particular works. In this respect it might be described as mimetic of the artist’s own practice, coming back day after day to the canvas, or to a different canvas but with the same feeling. Is this fair?  

RS: Yes, it’s fair. The book is mimetic in several different ways, maybe many different ways. It imitates de Kooning’s many shifts and turns in thinking and making. It imitates his conceptual doubt. It imitates his avoidance of standard forms and protocols. It imitates his sense of transition. It avoids allegiances. And on and on. 

RL: But I find this enormously interesting because it seems that you are performing your response to de Kooning’s work rather than just thinking about it. This seems different from the usual academic procedure, yet it doesn’t lose distance or objectivity because distance is also present in the artist’s approach to his work.

RS: Yes, it is a performance. I suppose that one could say that I’m imitating his form of self-doubt, self-questioning as well. As for the general practice of imitation, this is how human beings learn things that are not already part of their skill set, or their personality, or their belief system, and so forth. It becomes an expansive process rather than one with a predetermined goal and end. The text does have a certain sense of chronology built into it—after all, even de Kooning learned cumulatively from experience—but this or some other bow to some level of narrative and conceptual order is necessary to keep the text from degenerating into random thoughts (or the appearance of random thoughts, which isn’t particularly interesting).   

RL: I know that we want to talk about the artist, but I would like to dwell on the book itself, because it raises interesting questions about the “art” of criticism, and perhaps of art history. I can see that you have thought this through. The truth the book pursues is found by following the artist’s moves, by sticking close to the shape of his activity. The risk is that the book could become a one-to-one record of the artist’s career and hence useless for any understanding. So, because it has to be smaller than its object, it has to have a form of its own. It sounds so much like art itself, and particularly abstraction, which, among other things, is a proposal about how much form is enough. But what really interests me here is what you just said, that you learn things you don’t even know you’re learning. But this is why art has criticism, to make the implicit explicit. Does criticism need criticism for the same reason? Only the best kind does, I suppose. I can’t help but see your book as a demonstration of what criticism generally lacks. Any thoughts about that?

RS: You’re definitely reading the book the right way. For now, let me say this: the book is certainly an implicit, if not explicit, critique of pretentious critical practices (over-interpretation, motivating the artist, over-contextualizing, ignoring the evidence of the work, dealing with the critic’s issues whether or not they fit the artist’s issues, etc.—in short, failing to respect the work of the artist as something that you [as critic] will learn from as opposed to something you will teach a lesson to). 

RL: So you submit to the work, and that is something like an artist’s relation to his or her material or medium or practice. For you, bad criticism is characterized by a kind of conceptual blindness (or maybe concepts are always blinding), such that the critic sees their own ideas or standards or prejudices or some prevailing intellectual system in the work instead of the work itself.  Let’s try an analogy. A classical musician has the score as written, and the decorum and ethics of their profession is to stick to the given notes, but they have a lot of scope for emphasis. Knowing you I’m sure that you don’t believe you have the only right interpretation. It seems like an ethic of openness rather than a consistent method, and certainly that has implications beyond art history. Perhaps it’s asking too much of people that they be always willing to take on another perspective. But we see art running aground on fixed interpretations and staying there for decades—some artists can’t be seen anymore. Thoughts like these must have something to do with your interest in de Kooning.  

RS: In addition to seeing interpretations solidify and fail to grow in the way that the course of art grows—even the course of the work of a single artist—we encounter critics who can’t break out of their generational blinders. So every artist gets interpreted in the same way, in terms of the same issues and critical vocabulary, regardless of the generation to which the artist belonged. We end up with, say, a 1980s style of criticism that is even more rigid than a 1980s style of art. De Kooning was unusually flexible in both his thinking and his practice. 

RL: So let’s be less general and get down to particulars. How has de Kooning’s work been failed by criticism?

RS: The early critical responses to de Kooning, even some of the negative things, were at least attentive to the qualities of the work. Some of the writing, like Hess’s, was deeply informed by talking to de Kooning and observing him; of course, this writing was advocacy and not entirely “objective,” if anything can be objective anyway. But the later instances of critical review, probably beginning sometime in the 1960s, were dominated by gossip and prurient concerns, and then eventually, by all the talk about Alzheimer’s, mental decline, assistants doing the work, and on and on. Most of it was only loosely linked to reality, and some of it was just groundless. The level of the discourse—its relation to material and even psychological realities—was only slightly higher than that of an American election campaign. Once the discourse shifted to gender politics, market manipulation, and family drama, it had little to do with de Kooning’s art and not even that much to do with de Kooning himself. It only reflected badly on the psychology of the critics who were in effect taking advantage of a prevailing philistine attitude toward art like de Kooning’s (art in which you could detect references to the body that seemed distorted and peculiar, as if, to the philistine eye, some ill will was being directed by the artist toward his subject). Critics who should have known better were attributing motivations to de Kooning that might apply to a Rorschach test but not to his kind of insistently experimental art, much of it based in a very intelligent play with traditional forms. I’ve always been impressed by one of de Kooning’s funny defenses, where he said (maybe not in these precise words—I would have to look it up), “If I were really a misogynist, I wouldn’t show it in my paintings.” There are at least three or four ironies built into that remark.



RL: We know about Greenberg’s criticism of de Kooning, and that it was entangled with his rivalry with Harold Rosenberg. I’ve noticed that many sophisticated contemporary critics, who otherwise have little resemblance to each other, TJClark and Rosalind Krauss to mention two, seem to feel the need to carry this on way past its expiration date, as if their admiration for Greenberg requires them to do it. So there is a kind of orthodoxy that places de Kooning badly. The recent show was well received, but I don’t know if there has been any serious reassessment.   

RS: I think the show was well received by those who appreciate de Kooning and it was appreciated as a great selection of work assembled by John Elderfield and his team. I don’t know that there were converts. Clark and others have said some pretty obtuse things about de Kooning, as if, as you say, they were still engaged with the issues of 1970, which weren’t de Kooning’s own issues anyway. His independence was what allowed him to see the merit in Guston’s late work when few others did (at least not among the older artists and critics). 

RL: Your book coincided with the show, so I would have thought that there would have been some discussion and certainly attention paid to it. The relative silence is very surprising to me. But if we go back to Greenberg’s critique, which remains central, how do you feel about that? He essentially said that de Kooning was too much of a late cubist, which meant that he fiddled about too much with fitting the image at the edges and corners. Was Greenberg being too theoretical, or too historicist? Were the real stakes invisible to him or did he have a point? What does “late cubist” really mean in the heyday of American art? Or is that question too contextualizing? Or does the art audience divide at some point around those who want the trace of the hand and the mark of the brush and those who want a clear concept to dominate?  

RS: At some point, Greenberg decided he just didn’t like de Kooning. I think he never liked him very much personally, perhaps because he was too independent. Greenberg had a theoretical reason to dislike de Kooning’s art—he felt that it betrayed the historical imperative of abstraction that had—for Greenberg—been indicated empirically (not theoretically) by the evidence of the successes of the previous generations in abstract art and the relative failures of those who stuck with representational art. Greenberg preferred representational art, but, like Donald Judd, didn’t like the contemporary version of it (Judd didn’t care for most of the contemporary version of abstract art either). The older versions of figure painting were fine, but not the postwar versions (for the most part). To say that Greenberg was either theoretical or historicist is a bit of an exaggeration, although his opinions ended up following a kind of historicist line, after the fact. It was the next generation of critics who became fixed on historicist issues, even when they attempted to revise the given “history.” They ended up being even more negative and uncompromising (that is, unwilling to learn from the art, unwilling to make exceptions to the prevailing rules) about de Kooning than Greenberg had been. I think that books that don’t belong to any particular school of criticism are regarded as either wrong-headed or too hard to understand by the relatively sophisticated people who would be their natural audience. My Cézanne book from the 1980s, which is much more of an “art history” book than the de Kooning book is, received reviews, but relatively few given the type of book that it was and what it had to say. Yet the book has been used a lot and is cited a lot. It took maybe ten to fifteen years or so before it began to be cited with some regularity. There are parts of it that still haven’t been used and a lot more on Cezanne in my subsequent essays. I’ve neglected the “late cubism” business. There’s a bit in my book about this judgment of Greenberg’s. He was a great critic, but this was not a smart notion, any more than “high modernism” is a smart notion. You even see “high minimalism” now. I didn’t realize it had a “low” version. De Kooning’s version of cubist devices is a travesty. To call it “late cubism” does a disservice to any “early” cubist practice. The resemblances to cubism of a serious sort are pretty superficial. De Kooning was abusing the look of cubism, playing with it, basically just manipulating representational painting, as he did in the 1940s and as he did even in the 1980s. Virtually everything goes back to the human form for him, and to human scale, whether he works small on a drawing sheet or large at the easel. I’d be tempted to argue that he was no more of a cubist than Newman was. This designation makes him either too conceptual or too derivative. He wasn’t really either, but of the two, he’d probably be happier being called derivative than being called conceptual—as long he was being regarded as derived from good people. The good people could be Rubens but they could also be Walt Disney’s animators. 

RL: This might be a spot where the imperfectly empirical gets entangled with the unnecessarily theoretical, but you are challenging my own understanding of the artist. I know there are many ways to treat the figure in art, some freer and more distorted than others, but if the body is broken down and rebuilt on a new framework in order to be integrated more completely with the picture as a whole I have to see that as cubist. You might say that cubism did not have such a strict program, that it was more personal and arbitrary, and I would agree completely, but it’s still, to my eyes, evident in de Kooning—the source of his celebrated failure (failure not a bad thing at all) and lack of finish, namely the difficulty of integrating figure and ground, or the figure and the whole of the picture. It may be a conceptual problem initially but in de Kooning it is a tangible, concrete pictorial struggle. And that is cubism, as I see it. Am I wrong?  

RS: I may have to get back to this in more detail, but I see de Kooning as physically manipulating the model in ways that would be unusual for a cubist, even for Picasso, although Picasso comes close. The sections of my book that deal with the “Twist” factor in de Kooning are probably the most directly related to this issue. It is only in comparison with de Kooning that Picasso begins to look pictorial, as opposed to physical. But this difference needs more on my part to flesh it out. Anyway, de Kooning is too physical to be a cubist, even though cubism is itself very physical. 

RL: I think that my characterization of cubism as a radical re-building of the figure, rather than a mere distortion, is correct, but even as I formulated the last question I was beginning to tire of the rigourous art history it entails. Your answer opens some new doors worth going through, but isn’t it true to say that de Kooning’s art is characterized by a kind of struggle, at least early on? If he draws the contour of a figure—well then we have a figure. If then he breaks it through with a swash of paint, isn’t it because the “background” is coming forward, and that it has a claim—that the over-all pattern of the picture is interrupted by that figure and so it has to go? And then if he brings the figure back again doesn’t that mean that he can’t make a believable picture without it? I know you want to make a virtue out of this indecision, but I used to find it very annoying. Picasso solved the problem in each particular case by settling on a decisive form. De Kooning’s women of the 50s don’t have much form, they are just boxes, echoing the shape of the canvas, and, as such, testaments to a drive toward “abstraction” (the field or monochrome) that seems to be driving him. De Kooning’s art appears to be completely burdened with historical demands, teleologies, necessities, programs, etc., although those are exactly what you claim he is free from. In your “Twist” chapter you try to free yourself from the determinisms of art history, just as you clam that de Kooning won freedom from the categories of the “optical” and the “tactile.” But in the end the picture is to be looked at.  

RS: Again, I need to be briefer about this than the issue merits. I do think that de Kooning freed himself from the historical imperatives, perhaps by accepting many of them without question—this made him free. He pretty much says this in his “What Abstract Art Means to Me” statement for MOMA’s symposium in 1951. Basically, de Kooning is an illustrator and is forever fascinated by images appearing from within paint marks or pencil lines. His attitude toward the figure has little to do with constructing it, in the way that Picasso constructed an image.


Picasso, the Body, Paint as a Tool and as Itself 

RL: So that’s definitive—de Kooning is not cubist at all, despite what Greenberg might say. So then there’s two areas to pursue, separately perhaps: what about the work that doesn’t illustrate, that is truly “abstract,” and what about his celebrated doubt or indecision? Instead of invoking a general idea such as cubism, maybe a comparison with a specific individual, such as Picasso, would be better. Picasso was an illustrator, but he was very decisive.  

RS: De Kooning didn’t do much that was thoroughly abstract, maybe just the big brush paintings of around 1959-1960. I thought the comparison with Picasso was always quite revealing, because a lot of things one would be tempted to say about later Picasso (not the Picasso of early Cubism) become less secure if you look at de Kooning, who is doing similar things in a much less restrained way. Maybe it’s just that de Kooning grew up in a different world, when you could be more radical by remaining a painter of bodies, whereas, for Picasso, it seemed to be a sign of relative conservatism (if, for example, you compare Picasso to Mondrian, who was more or less Picasso’s generation). I don’t think any of these artists were conservative in any serious sense, but art historians often make judgments along the figurative/abstract division, regarding early 20th century figure painters as conservative and late 20th century figure painters as radical, which is a little crazy. Neither designation makes much sense. 

RL: I agree strongly with your comparison with late Picasso. In fact that was an important moment for me, parallel to the effect on you of de Kooning in the sixties. The parallel between Picasso from 69-73 and de Kooning of the early 70s always seemed self evident to me, though it’s never been discussed, to my knowledge. I never saw de Kooning as less restrained though, more like less certain about form.  

RS: I’m just about to go to Australia (late August) and will lecture there on de Kooning, beginning the lecture with some Picasso/de Kooning comparisons, stressing similarities more than differences. But the differences were glaring to Picasso. There is the impossible-to-locate remark that Picasso made when he saw de Kooning’s figures: “melted Picasso” (Jasper Johns reports the remark but without stating the source). It makes sense, certainly so from Picasso’s position, because he could probably always explain precisely why a limb twisted this way or that. In de Kooning’s case, I suspect it would be less a matter of the body’s logic and actual appearance and more a matter of a form feeling a certain way at a certain moment. More analytical for Picasso, more wondrous for de Kooning. I think that I mentioned in my book that some of the things I say of Picasso I could only say in the context of de Kooning. 

RL: Isn’t some of the wonderment or fascination that you detect in de Kooning stimulated by the paint itself, by the body of the painting, which he is working on? Doesn’t he make Picasso look more graphic and less involved with the stuff itself? I think that was my sense of the reason why late Picasso was disparaged in the US from the fifties on, because he seemed to care less about the paint, and of course paint was de Kooning’s forte. I can think of reasons to take the opposite position, but a large part of your discussion of de Kooning has to do with this fascination, with a kind of tracking of the artist’s attention during the working process.  

RS: Yes, de Kooning became deeply involved with the materials and tools in a very visceral way. I can imagine Picasso being similarly involved with sculptural materials, especially in making assemblages or toys for his children, but less so with paint itself, which for him perhaps was just something to draw and color with—to make forms and identify them by color. Whereas de Kooning is more interested in effects like blotting, smearing, and the like—getting engaged in these effects whether they aid the representation or not. Again, this kind of thing would lead Picasso to come up with a metaphor like “melted Picasso” (if in fact he ever did come up with it).


Development, Change, Finish 

RL: I’d like to use this topic as a way of veering over to what is in my view one of the most important themes of your book—namely de Kooning’s sense of time. You describe him as involved in a kind of flowing experience of the work, never stopping, always fascinated, but with little distinction, and little need to distinguish, between “better” or “worse,” or maybe more important/less important moments. I may not be getting it exactly right, but doesn’t this fascinated micro-attention work against any sense of development?  

RS: Yes, I think I argued explicitly—and in many places, implicitly—that de Kooning had no development in our usual art-historical sense of this term. He had continuity, not development. This is probably why it was so easy for him to shift direction (at least to us, it looks like a shift in direction, but since he had no direction, it wasn’t necessarily a shift for him). By shifting direction, I mean going from abstracted figuration to overt figuration, or returning to an old form to make a new painting, or even rummaging through historical imagery from the ancient world to the modern and from high art to commercial art and comic books to get his themes. He was serious when he said he was “eclectic by chance.” This is a bit like “deja vu all over again.” The title Between Sense and de Kooning refers to this lack of development, because “sense” is logic, “sense” is direction, and there’s something missing between this artist and the direction that we keep imputing to him because we want him to be more “normal” than he was. Of course, “sense” also refers to “sensation.” 

RL: That’s very good, now I appreciate the title. It’s not that he had no sense but that he existed somewhere off to the side of “sense,” in the normal meaning. I find the idea of no development very intriguing, but also disconcerting. Don’t we all want to believe that we can progress, improve, make something of ourselves? Certainly artists are made, not born—history seems to prove that, and so would the recent show at MoMA. Was his career really just a flat sameness, a kind of drifting in shallow, unmoving water, no direction to the flow?  

RS: I don’t think he was drifting so much as allowing himself to capitalize on all kinds of chance opportunities—as if there was hardly a wave in the ocean that didn’t have a form that was worth trying to render, or hardly a pair of legs that didn’t have an angle that was a little different from all the others. One sense in which he didn’t “develop” is that his earlier works are just as good and just as profound as his later works. I don’t think there’s a qualitative difference, nor is there a predictable direction. It’s not as if he “moved” toward abstraction or moved toward the figure or moved toward a certain kind of color. If he had painted for another decade, maybe he would have done a somewhat different kind of image, but I don’t think it would be predicted by what had come before. 

RL: That is quite a claim—that his work was equally good from start to last. After seeing the MoMA show I can’t agree, but then you would probably say that it’s a question of my limited taste meeting his diversity. But in your book you are not so strict either, because I do remember that you singled out the abstractions of the mid seventies, around the piece called Whose Name was Writ in Water. At the show I felt that these works were a kind of culmination, a high point. 

RS: Yes, those mid-70s paintings are good (!), but equally good are the paintings from around 1947-1949. These two groups share in appearing “abstract” to most viewers, which I would argue they are not. Rather, they make the distinction between abstraction and representation nonsensical, which is really true of all of de Kooning’s work, especially when you see the totality of it. We might put it this way: wherever there was an evident choice to make, he wouldn’t make it. 

RL: Earlier you said that de Kooning’s changes could not be predicted from what he had done previously. After seeing the show I don’t think I agree. He seems quite consistent. But is all the work of the same high quality? Again I can’t agree that it is. But then I’m not so enamored of the black paintings as most people are. But doesn’t the question of sameness, or evenness of practice, have something to do with his renowned inability to finish? 

RS: I think it does have something to do with an “inability” to finish, although I would not call this an inability. It’s more of a temperamental difference. I would say that the notion of finishing was not an idea that made sense to him. I think that we have to question our own commitment to finishing projects, since he did not have such a commitment. In his terms, finishing was an impediment to exploration. Cezanne had a similar attitude, by the way. But it’s relatively unusual, even among very adventurous artists. Most of us are capable of and used to concentrating on one thing at one time. But what if you were someone who could not think unless you were directing your thought in at least two directions at all times. You would not be incapacitated. It’s just that your results would be different and perhaps strange. De Kooning is a strange artist, which is why a lot of people really don’t like his results very much. Working within relatively conservative boundaries, he produced very strange results. We need to move along with him in order to learn something, as opposed to resisting it. But this would be true of your own art as well (and that of a lot of others who do things not entirely expected). Sometimes we don’t admit to how strange and novel things can be. (De Kooning could keep looking at feet for years while seeing new pictorial potential in them.) I’m in Sydney now and just had dinner with a painter here whom I had never met. He stumbled on my book while visiting the MOMA show. He said that this was a book about “paint” in the way that painters understand paint, which I was happy to hear. A couple of other people have said the same thing. Of course, this might make the book a bore for those artists who really don’t relate to paint, and that’s true of a lot of artists these days. I think that the book has a lot to do with critical practice as well as artistic practice, but I’m happy enough if people read it for what it says about artistic paint practice.


Strangeness, Abstraction, Representation, Expression 

RL: The strangeness of any art is not available to us when we categorize according to theoretical abstractions, an example of which might be concepts of “abstraction” and “figuration,” so your stress on staying open to what is there is very important in my view. Instead of “conservative” let’s say well recognized boundaries, within which he achieved strange results—that sounds to me like the classic recipe for great art. But what moved me about the “watery” pictures of the mid-seventies was that they were very expressive, full of feeling, but based on nothing, if you can here excuse my inadequate language. Maybe this is one of the goals of modernist abstraction, but you would deny any distinction between this and the more obviously figurative works. You’re saying that all of his work was a response to the people and places around him, but an unusual response.  

RS: Yes, that’s pretty much what I’m saying—that he was always looking at something, or having an image in mind, or—perhaps most often—seeing something interesting in his own previous work, which he would then trace or transfer and extend further (not as a superior development, but as a variation, maintaining interest). So he could be “representing” an “abstract” mark, because he isolated the mark in his vision and it became the equivalent of, say, a woman’s shoe. 

RL: Perhaps we have found a definition of abstraction—a strange response to the world—meaning a response outside of existing habits. But that excludes the idealist, geometrical wing, Mondrian and Judd for example.  

RS: Maybe so. Abstraction (not abstract art itself, but representational art that becomes “abstraction”) would be a deviant rendering. It’s the deviation or irregularity that strikes people as “abstract.” Otherwise, they would just call it a “picture” of this or that. 

RL: I think the notion of the abstract as the deviant is very interesting, because there is no limit to deviation. One can deviate from the deviation and on forever, into ever stranger realms. But to return to the “watery” high point, my impression was of great expressiveness resting on nothing. Not “pure” expression, because purity is not a useful concept, except as something to avoid, and not applicable to de Kooning anyway, but something for which I don’t have a word. Words like emptiness and nothingness are hovering around but don’t quite work as descriptors. But you are saying that those works must have been a response to something in nature, but does that matter at all to any viewer? Isn’t the farther from resemblance the better? De Kooning would say that he wanted to keep in touch with the ordinary etc., so a flight into the abstract would have to return at some point, but what does the viewer care if it’s the departure, the deviation that matters? 

RS: Maybe the fact that he could look intently at grease stains on the sidewalk or at the circular stain that remains in the cup after the coffee is gone—maybe this kind of fact about de Kooning (and surely about certain other people as well) is a clue. Because the stains don’t represent anything. In semiotics they are indexes, but neither we nor de Kooning cared what they are indexes of. It’s the sensory interest that counts, and this interest can lead to a judgment of expressiveness, but it’s not expressiveness of anything in particular. Or, we can say that the expressiveness is indeed particular—it’s particular to each individual. So we don’t really need to recognize the woman or the man or the dog in a de Kooning painting. We can find expression in what a lot of critics and art historians would call the “abstraction.” And so did de Kooning. But given his objection to categorization—because it was a form of limitation —he would reject the distinction between the representational and the abstract. 

RL: I think you’ve got something there, which should have been obvious to me but wasn’t until you mentioned it. I also take pleasure in contemplating patterns wherever they are, but I never linked that with the kind of fascination we are talking about in de Kooning. You are saying that the pleasure we might take in a painting is of the same order, that we can look at it like any mark we might see anywhere. But it is better than an arbitrary mark, more interesting to look at, because more thoroughly formed inside and out. Part of the pleasure involved is how close it skirts to the random stain or mark, but the point is that a way of looking at art comes out of a normal habit of looking. Just to suggest a correction though—don’t you mean that expressiveness is particular to each mark, not to each individual? It’s got to be in the work, not in the viewer.

RS: Yes, the expressiveness is in the mark, but it’s also in the individual—but by “the individual” in this case, I mean the individual viewer, not the maker of the mark (and an artist is both the maker and the viewer, or a viewer among many viewers). The mark has a certain capacity to generate expressiveness, but each individual has a different capacity to feel the expressiveness this way or that. So there’s what the mark “says” or “thinks,” and there’s what the viewer/responder of/to the mark “says” or “thinks” in the presence of the mark. If de Kooning had said to me, look at that stain, isn’t that great! then I probably would have replied yes, it’s great, but who is to say whether the greatness I perceived was the same greatness that he perceived. What would count was that we both thought that the mark was worth our attention. 

RL: Habits of perception, trained in everyday life, determine what a viewer sees, or at least that’s what de Kooning seems to show us. In that case abstraction has a problematic future. For me, maybe because I’m an artist, the mark has it all—and one day I may be the only one who sees it that way!  But I’d like to return to the topic of de Kooning’s art as changing but staying on the same level. I don’t think you mean that so strictly. There must be some variation of quality, some small fluctuation in an otherwise steady-state. But this radical rejection of historical development, this meandering flatness, is still a shocking thought. I hope you don’t blunt the shock by too many qualifications. It seems like a decoupling from any history outside of art, but it may also imply something about general history—that the world changes but doesn’t progress. Just sticking to art, it may also imply something that I doubt any contemporary critic would allow—namely that character is destiny, that artists are born not made.  

RS:  I do tend to think that there’s no progress in world history, only change. I suppose that there might be progress in a biological evolutionary sense, but that’s extremely slow and doesn’t affect our lives or sensations. We can only make it a topic of scientific research and speculation. As for humans acting reasonably, the degree of reason (so to speak) doesn’t seem to have increased during the relatively short span of evolution that has included recorded history. With de Kooning, I would be willing to distinguish works to which he gave a lot of his attention from those that are “slight” in terms of hours of attention, but I often feel that there’s as much to learn from one of his notepad drawings made while he watched television as there may be from a so-called museum-grade full-blown painting (or sculpture). There may be different kinds of quality rather than different degrees of quality in his case. Cézanne probably made some progress up until he was in his 40s. But after that, I’m inclined to think that the kind of quality stays pretty constant and there’s no real progress, as opposed to change. Maybe someone like Corot never made any progress. It’s all just change. This is intended as a compliment to Corot, not a sign of any failing on his part. 

RL: So you admit that progress does occur, in some cases at least. Cézanne certainly believed that he was striving toward something, something he couldn’t reach.  Experience shows that some changes are more significant than others. After all, if one doesn’t try, nothing is accomplished, and it is rare to have success on the first try—particularly in art, where it isn’t possible to know what success is, what exactly one is trying for, until many examples exist. But that just makes your claims about de Kooning more interesting, more challenging, because it is a matter of choice whether one tries to develop or not. Perhaps dissatisfaction or a sense of something missing might push an artist to expand their practice or develop it. Was de Kooning perfectly satisfied and content?  

RS: I don’t think he was content at all, but he also didn’t believe that one solution was better than another. So, no matter how good something looked, he might start thinking that what he did the week before was just as good or better. And then he would think the opposite.


Beyond Painterliness, Illustration, Gesture, Line 

RL: Are there any concrete features of de Kooning’s pictures (here I’m not talking in a general sense, about his approach or sensibility) that you feel have been neglected, and that if we noticed would entail a new interest in his work? I have the feeling that he stands for a conventional manner today—that of “expressive” painterliness. What else is there to see there?   

RS: There’s a lot to be said about de Kooning’s use of tracing, imprinting, transfer, etc., which is a different matter from the expressive brushwork, and introduces complications of a different order. He’s probably more complicated than Warhol in this respect, for example, or than Rauschenberg, but these are not comparisons one would normally make. I don’t like comparisons, so there are very few in my book—comparisons lead too far away from the focus on the specific qualities of an artist’s work—but if I were interested in comparisons, there would be many to make with younger artists’ methods of the later 20th-century decades. 

RL: Allowing the invidiousness of comparison, who comes to mind?  

RS: One would be Marlene Dumas, who admires the variety of strokes and the general looseness of de Kooning’s delineation of figures. Dumas is a great draftsman and can capture personality in a subject, just as de Kooning could (although Dumas is not as loose as he was). Another would probably be Chrisopher Wool in his recent work, which uses stenciling and mono-printing of very loose gestural lines. I think that de Kooning may have affected representational artists more than abstract artists, although abstract artists admire him, and there are lots of painters, both representational and abstract, who might be getting a certain sense of abruptness from de Kooning—odd juxtapositions of forms. Even someone like Stella, with his wildness in the later metallic constructions, may owe something to de Kooning’s sense of (anti)composition.  

RL: I’m sure the readers of abstract critical will find these observations interesting. You travel so much and see so much art that you have an unparalleled perspective. Marlene Dumas must have mentioned to you an interest that isn’t obvious in her work, except in the broadest way, in that she is also an “illustrator.” Can you say anything about de Kooning’s techniques of illustration? 

RS: When Marlene Dumas was a student in South Africa (before coming to The Netherlands on a scholarship grant), she developed an interest in de Kooning and did some amusing take-offs on de Kooning’s imagery and technique. She has always appreciated his linear quality. Both are very talented illustrators. De Kooning himself, as an illustrator, was extremely skilled and could work in just about any style that was required, although he preferred a kind of semi-humorous caricatural style typical of the commercial advertising techniques of the 1930s and 40s. In his later years, when he no longer did illustration work to pick up extra income, he would occasionally “show off” by doing a representational drawing in an illustrative style. I suppose that it’s similar to the way that Picasso would sometimes “show off” his conventional abilities. 

RL: It’s strange that an artist usually appreciated for the materiality of his paint, its body, should be grounded in graphics and line. Maybe not so strange if one sees line as physical gesture. 

RS: Yes, I think you have to see it as physical/material gesture, as opposed to an edge or border or contour that lies between two other, more material areas or substances. When de Kooning used a four-inch brush loaded with paint and traced out a curve or an angle, I think he considered this to be a line, despite all of its physicality. 

RL: The sublimation of drawing and spreading colour into a single gesture is one of the great ambitions of modernism, and there are many ways to do it. If a line is coloured it has to spread out to register as colour, and if it gets wide enough it is no longer a line. But then by your reading this would be too systematic a way of thinking about it. 

RS: In de Kooning’s case, if the gesture is continuous and linear (as opposed to going back and forth to fill in an area), it is still a line, no matter how thick and how much it reads like color. I think it depends on the attitude of the person who handles the brush. I guess we’re perfectly free to see some of de Kooning’s marks as non-linear if we prefer to, but when he made them, I think he thought he was “drawing.”

RL: Interesting. That’s exactly how I conceive of my own pours. In de Kooning’s work there is no filling in either. But strokes of the same colour may go over each other and partly obliterate each other. 

RS: In Richard Serra’s new set of drawings, the “image” is usually clearly linear (a spiraling form) but in some cases he keeps going over it so many times that the surface becomes almost entirely filled in and you can no longer see the individual linear strokes—yet, I assume that he thinks of this type of surface as generated by linear drawing, and it remains a “drawing.” 

RL: There’s a kind of breaking point, or maybe a point of confusion, between a line and a brushstroke that seems quite fruitful. 

RS: Something to exploit, I suppose, like the division between abstraction and representation. One might even ask: When does a line represent a brushstroke and when does a brushstroke represent a line?

RL: I’m thinking that a brushstroke is the unit that accumulates to make a coloured area. De Kooning then seems to strive for an integrity or wholeness or unity through line. But if we say that then we contradict your description of his total openness and lack of program. 

RS: I don’t think that it contradicts the lack of a program. I think that it’s just the way he was inclined to work—that for him it was the natural way to work because he was so often imitating the form or feel of a body or an object, and the imitation assumed a kind of linear quality, like extending an arm. 

RL: This line/brushstroke comparison is very interesting. A brushstroke could be the gesture of a single moment—a line goes on through time. But a line will always come to an end. Do you notice a characteristic or typical rhythm of line in de Kooning’s work? Might the length of the line have something to do with the breath, for example?

RS: I would have to re-investigate to answer this question properly (perhaps it would be an additional section in the book). As a tentative answer, I’d say that de Kooning was proud of the fact that he varied his line as much as he did, maybe especially when working with charcoal on paper (where brushstroke physicality is not a factor). When working with paint, he tended to alter a given line by tracing another line around it, so it becomes somewhat hard to decipher where a gesture begins and ends. Many of the lines are transfer lines and many have elements of masking, so, by placing a sheet of paper against the painting surface, he could make a linear stroke that began on the picture-surface but then went onto the paper, and then he would lift the paper, leaving a linear fragment. 

RL: I’m not sure what you mean by “tracing another line around it,” through it sounds very interesting. 

RS: I’m thinking of de Kooning’s practice of tracing a form from both inside and outside. So if he makes a thick line with a brush, he makes a second thick line next to it at (for instance) its left, which adjusts it by covering part of it at the left. And then he might go back to the area at the right and make another adjustment, covering part of the second stroke on its right side. But each of these three strokes is itself linear. 

RL: So you are talking specifically about thick lines, which then suggest a form, or two forms, one on each side. I assume the other sides of these forms are not necessarily indicated yet. The new strokes down the sides change the shape of this thick line, so it is not just a line, it is also a shape or a colour area. I wish we could look at an image for this discussion, which is fascinating, and reminds me of Michael Fried’s important but unsatisfying article on Pollock’s Black Paintings. In fact the thick line has contours, one on each side, so it is more than a line, if I’m hearing you right.

RS: Yes, what results is more than a line, but each gesture is linear. This practice derived (probably) from de Kooning’s experience with lettering for signs, where you trace the form from both sides in order to articulate it. The technique is most obvious in his paintings of the 1940s and 1980s, but you see it also in the way that he works (what amounts to) the edge of a head or a breast or a leg from both sides of the form. 

RL: The connection with lettering is a surprise, but it makes sense. I will have to look at the late work with this in mind. But the two things that are bending my mind a bit are, first of all, that his practice is linear yet large areas of the picture are not really lines in the normal sense, because each “line” can be shaped and carved on the edges, and secondly, that there is a lot of effort, fussing and fiddling, to get a unified work (although I might be making an assumption here). The latter point is actually not so novel, but because there is no “finish,” hence no criterion for unity or resolution or whatever you want to call it, the fussing and fiddling seems to be for its own sake. To me the seventies work appeared to be magnificently resolved, with all the different kinds of line, stroke and colour area jammed together in a grid, but not with any feeling of constraint.  

RS: I agree that the marks/strokes are not lines in the usual sense. All that I’m saying is that I think de Kooning experienced these marks as lines or as linear gestures. The fussing around with the marks—which, I grant, often made them look less linear—would end only when de Kooning felt that he had achieved a kind of unbearable tenuousness. A picture should look as if it was just about to fall apart. We get used to how his pictures look, but I think they would have looked quite weird initially, although it’s clear that some people liked them right away, probably because there was such a fashion for gestural art. It’s possible that (despite our being used to them) these pictures are harder to see now than they were when they were made. I realize that this is a bit of a contradictory statement, but it’s worth considering. 

RL: I accept the point about his fundamentally linear approach and can see what you mean. The two sided line, picking up on the connection with lettering, seems like a kind of zooming in or magnification, which ties in with your description of his fascinated stare. But “unbearable tenuousness” is a great alternative to my all too conventional assumption that unity or resolution must be the goal. Yet experience shows that these kind of distinctions cannot be sustained forever. What appears to be falling apart today seems to hang together tomorrow. 

RS: Agreed. We eventually get conditioned to certain types of presentation and the effect ceases to be disturbing. Let’s say that de Kooning sustained an unusually high level of disturbance. A lot of good critics couldn’t tolerate what he was doing. Artists had an easier time with it, perhaps because they could bear being left in a state of suspension without knowing how to describe the potential resolution of the situation. Critics don’t like to be left hanging. 

RL: That kind of narrowness I can never understand. I’ve always thought that the achievement of a state of suspension was just one aesthetic choice. Mondrian tries for that too, but underlying his work is a strong sense of what the final result is supposed to be, the source of my objection to it.  

RS: One critic who didn’t mind being uncertain was Leo Steinberg, but he stopped writing criticism around 1970 or so. 

RL: Thank you Richard, we haven’t touched on every interesting topic possible in de Kooning, but have covered some very fertile ground. And I hope your book will be as widely read as it deserves to be.

  1. Joost de Jonge said…

    Dear all,

    I very much enjoyed reading this interview, a wonderful dialogue. I was especially taken with the elucidation of the title, it took on broader meaning, made more sense, while it seems rather straight forward, it usually is the overtly present that escapes our attention and requires the highest contemplation by some of the world’s greatest thinkers.

    “Between sense and the Kooning” : surely there (it) was (is) a truly intense relation between the two of them! It is of all there was between them more or less a stabilitas loci of the undecided/uncommitted rationale.

    Thank you for this highly informative exploration of De Kooning’s work and Professor Shiff’s understanding of it.

    Yours truly, Joost de Jonge, Vianen Ut, The Netherlands.

  2. Chris Down said…

    Thank you for this great interview Robert and Richard.
    This book is a fabulous, if at times dense, engagement with De Kooning’s practice. As you mention, it is distinguished by an unusual level of attention to the specifics of the work rather than the historical rhetoric surrounding it. For me, much of Richard’s work functions as a critique of standard art historical discourse, particularly as it pertains to painting. I deeply appreciate the seriousness with which he deals with artist’s work. It also helps that he has written about almost all of my favourite artists.
    Thanks again for this discussion

  3. Cynthia Kukla said…

    I agree with Filip and I am buying this book. The focus on the visceral aspect of paint and of DeKooning’s practice and the discussion and building/unbuilding of figuration is fascinating. I think of What Painting Is by James Elkins.

  4. Filip Gudovic said…

    One of the greatest interviews/articles i have read on de Kooning in a while. He has been a great inspiration in my practice and during my studies, few discussions here open up new ways on viewing a de Kooning.
    Thank you Robert and Richard,
    will certainly buy the book as soon as i see on the book shelf!