Seated Woman from the early 40’s
The first thing I noticed was the density of the painted surface; these are not thin washs but layer after layer build-ups. These buildups of paint though create a density of, for lack of a better word, presence.
What is interesting is that the book “William De Kooning The Artist’s Materials” by Susan F. Lake has found that these works from this time such as Queen of Hearts is that the background colors have been adjusted and changed over a period of time, sometimes years and not just in subtle change of hue or value but absolute radical turns. Afterwards the figure would be addressed when a final background was decided and the underdrawing in charcoal would be sometimes retouched or added in the final stages of the painting. The surfaces are polished without obvious hint of brushwork that we associate with later works.
It is obvious and has been commented many times that these works are related to Picasso, the Pompei murals that the Met owns and Ingres. The relationship between de Kooning and Gorky’s figural works is well known along with the artist John Graham. To some extent these works are decidedly not modern for their time. There is too much an air of antiquity that sufuses the work despite the disarticulation of the figure. This isn’t surprising because De Kooning claimed and felt that the entire material history of art was vital and living.
A close examination of the work shows the passage of time in subtle detail that a photograph or image in a catalog would miss. There is so much physicality in the scraping, sanding and articulation of the paint that the work in total is the body and the entire surface has an activation more like the high period of Braque and Picasso’s anayltic cubist period but unlike their works where the figure was the focus in de koonings works the entire canvas vibrates, the density of the background creates what I call multi-valent time and passage. This density of effect reaffirms the paintings totality and tautology and denies the significance of the figure.
If the figure existed without this background density the primacy of the figure would prevail, this hints at the future for de kooning, it isn’t the figure that is important but the space around the figure.
Pink Angels 1945
Briefly, in this abstraction you can see one of the first incarnations of brushwork where the paint denotes speed and passage of time or the glimpse. This speed continues through the abstractions of the early post war years.
The white abstractions Excavation and Attic
I won’t go into detail here as there is so much literature about these works over the years but will make some observations. De Kooning’s reworking and erasures are equivalent to Pollock’s drip. These shadow images of what formerly were existent create a field similar to Pollock but whereas Pollock’s drip is paint as paint, non-desciptive nor figurative, De Kooning’s erasure and absence creates the field. It seems logical to me that Rauschenberg would ask for a drawing to erase and De Kooning oblige since erasure was such a strong aspect of De Koonings oeuvre. It goes without saying but I will say it nonetheless, that there is this elision created between the figuration and the negative space and in later works this theme of the space around objects or figures takes precedence. Paint never becomes just paint as it does in Pollock creating space and atmosphere, in this case Pollock’s high period of the drip opens the door to field painting, De Kooning takes advantage of Pollock’s field in the black works and uses it to create a different space that never becomes pure painting ala Reinhardt (see Pure Paints A Painting by Elaine De Kooning) or Newman but is still tied to man within his space.