“Harold, am I an Action Painter?”
-Willem de Kooning to Harold Rosenberg, in a film clip from the 1950s
Of all the famous old-age styles in western painting, none seem to polarize opinion as much as the late canvases of Willem de Kooning. The acknowledgement of greatness in the late work of Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, and Matisse is largely without controversy. The de Kooning pictures from the 1980s, however, still stir up arguments, often taking the form of pointless ex post facto diagnoses of the painter’s aging brain. Others wish to have an endless debate as to whether the Black Paintings or the Women were his greatest series – the late pictures being a footnote at best. I’ve long been of the mind that these paintings rank among the greatest in his career, rivaling and completing his achievements in the 40s and early 50s.
The current exhibition at Gagosian in New York (one of the mega-dealer’s four NYC addresses) has ten canvases from 1983-1985, the highly productive period after the painter’s pitched battle with alcoholism and before succumbing to the infirmities of age. The show includes nine pictures I consider to be masterpieces, and one much less so – the issues with the weaker painting being highly revelatory as to what makes the great ones great.
All of the pictures are of a shape and size that the artist used throughout his career: a squat rectangle with a proportion of 7:8; here the shorter measurement being either 70” or 77.” The close correspondence to the ratio of the width of the square and height of the circle in Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is not coincidental – de Kooning always resisted moving to the enormous scale of many of his peers, preferring a size and proportion that was intrinsically human. The palette in seven of the pictures is red, white and blue (with corresponding tints). The three primaries plus white appear in one painting. Violet appears prominently in one picture; trace amounts of that same color in another which is otherwise red, white, and blue. Occasional vestiges of the black charcoal under-drawing appear throughout.
As was also the case throughout de Kooning’s career, the paintings are largely driven and defined by his exceptional draughtsmanship. But the bargain he struck with color in these pictures is of great consequence, and relates back to the breakthrough Black Paintings of the late 40s. De Kooning, like many gestural painters, often butted up against the wet-into-wet problem: extensive improvisation with a broad palette of oil colors invariably results in muddy browns and soupy greens. These unintentionally murky colors can be seen in the Women of the 50s, in Easter Monday, and in the Parkway paintings, among others. The primaries when mixed with white, on the other hand, produce tints of the primaries – no problem.
If you’re of the mind that de Kooning’s pictures are the record of an action, then muddy colors are not only a natural if unintended consequence, but something to be lauded. But de Kooning’s late pictures are not action paintings, and indeed, his repeatedly stated reverence for the old masters makes it doubtful that it was ever his real intention. I think that this essential deviation from the de Kooning mythology is the real reason that some still refuse to recognize the artist’s late canvases – rather than highlight anguish, they embrace beauty.
De Kooning said that space was the true subject of abstract painting, and the open, undulating space of these pictures bears that out. In terms of square footage, the delicately tinted whites are the dominant color in the exhibition, but the character of the space is largely dictated by the width of the sinewy red and blue lines – put more specifically, the space is quite different when the red and blue are legible as line or plane. In the lower half of Untitled XXIX from 1983 and also in two canvases from 1984 and one from 1983 (described in the supporting literature as <no title>) the more slender lines corral areas of the ground into soft bulges that visually proceed into the viewer’s space. The subtle modulation of the white of the ground, sometimes toward blue, or as in the case of title-less picture from 1983, toward pink, further destabilizes the white’s role in the picture – it routinely changes from open space to soft body and back again. In Untitled XLIII from 1983, the ground swells to a ripe pink, bordering on the pornographic, but never quite lapsing over into representation.
These fluid lines and the soft bodies are instantly recognizable in work made forty years earlier: Seated Woman (1940), Pink Lady (1944), and Pink Angels (1945), among many others from the era. These are in fact the same lines and suggested bodies from the black paintings of the end of the ‘40’s – albeit streamlined and stripped of the record of struggle so essential to the existential understanding of Abstract Expressionism; a critical distinction.
The pictures in which the red and blue read mainly as plane have a different type of space altogether. In two of the title-less pictures from 1985 and one from 1984, The ribbons appear mainly silhouetted against the white ground with the latter functioning principally as a backdrop. While I prefer the pictures in which the figure vs. ground and the abstract vs. evocative are in flux, these more spatially stable pictures dance in an irrepressibly joyful, cartoon-like way. Here it’s worth noting that while Picasso was always the “man to beat” for de Kooning, he was by his own admission thinking about Matisse a great deal while working on the late paintings – the Dance and the cut-outs are a clear influence.
The Privileged (Untitled XX) from 1985 is the weakest picture in the show (and interestingly, the one Gagosian Gallery chose as the representative image for the exhibition on their web site). Violet is substituted where blue would ordinarily appear, but this is not really the issue. In this picture, all of the shapes that in the other paintings flirt with recognizability actually lapse over into a kind of semi-representation; there’s a cat, a bow-tie, a heart, some wings, a couple of pipes.
I want to be clear that I’m not ranting about pure abstraction, the argument with which Greenberg attacked de Kooning’s Women of the 50s; de Kooning’s most abstract paintings were rarely “pure” in the modernist sense. But in the case of The Privileged, when the evocations become images, everything freezes. The arabesque motion slows almost to a halt, the indeterminate scale designations become fixed, the slippery figure and ground relationship stabilizes, and most importantly, the imagination is no longer invited to fill in all the tantalizing blanks. The various borders that de Kooning was skirting in the many great pictures of the series become all the more evident once one sees what happens when he crosses them. The figuration in The Privileged is not wildly different than in the other nine paintings in the show, but goes just a bit too far into the cartoon, into surrealism, into the realm of the obvious – and the result is a let-down. But it serves to highlight the cool, intuitive restraint exerted over the great pictures in the group.
Of all the pictures included, Untitled XLII from 1983 is the most reminiscent of “classic” de Kooning, with its trail of ghostly dry paint clearly scraped away with a knife and recalling, however faintly, the desperate search that both the art community and the general public associate with de Kooning specifically and Ab Ex generally. But existing series of in-progress photographs taken by studio assistants of the late paintings reveal that his working process – scraping, turning, revising, overpainting – was hardly different than his procedure in the more “agonized” pictures of the 40s and 50s. They just look different – he chose to bring the 80s canvases up to a higher level of finish in the end. To deny these paintings specifically via comparison to the more tortured surfaces of the earlier pictures is to prize the theatrical over the aesthetic.
Abstract painting is currently being vigorously reexamined and reevaluated in New York. At transitional moments like these, certain historical figures begin to reemerge as points of departure – the way that Brancusi, after some years of critical and historical neglect, was looked at with fresh eyes by the emerging Minimalists in the 60s. De Kooning’s late work seems to me to be a particularly fertile example for the contemporary abstract painter, not stylistically per se, but in terms of permissiveness. It is largely free of the more restrictive aspects of Greenbergian Modernism but evinces a keen understanding of them nonetheless – it chooses not to be that. It instead devours much that has come before and during its creation: Veronese, Rubens, Picasso, Stuart Davis, Matisse, Mondrian, Ab Ex, Pop, sign-painting, advertising, commercial illustration. And perhaps most importantly, it grapples head-on with the knotty issue of beauty, abstraction’s greatest bugbear since its inception, and is in no way diminished by its incorporation.
New York City