De Kooning Three contd
The drawings of the 60’s like Woman in a Rowboat, Reclining Nude and Woman are amazing, all charcoal on paper/vellum. The line goes from thin and hard to smudged but it is the articulation of the figure that is amazing. De Kooning manages to get away from Picasso like dislocation in a unique way, it is beholden to Picasso but not imatative. Picasso’s synthetic cubist works of women have struck me for a very long time as being the various perpectives that one would have of a woman laying in bed next to the artist. When you lay with your lover the view of the various body parts is varied in the act of love making and perspective in the traditional western view is diminished, De Kooning still maintains a physical distance from the woman as if they are standing, sitting or laying before him but the body is twisted apart and the mark making notational.
The paintings of this period Sag Harbor, The Visit, Woman and Child and the absolutely amazing Two Figures in Landscape are just knockout. This is the period when De Kooning was mixing safflower oil, water and benzene into his paint. My feeling having seen one of the door paintings at the Hirshorn when I traveled down to D.C. with one of my closest artist friends to see Blinky Palermo was that he was trying to get the consistency, fluidity and tactility of enamel paint along with the body of same. Just speculation on my part as I have not actually tried it myself but the sheen of the paint and the way it flows reminds me of enamels tactile qualities.
The spatial qualities of these paintings are complex and basically you can’t quite get a handle on it, except in glimpes, which were De Kooning’s literal words. Unlike much art made at that time, I am thinking of Stella, Andre, Judd, Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc, the two poles of art born out of ab ex, De Kooning’s work doesn’t hold to any orthodoxy. Not that the mentioned artists necessarily did but their work is basically given immediately in totality, you get it immediately in one look. However there are subtleties for sure that often times necessitate prolonged looking and sometimes not too.
These show, at least to me De Kooning’s preoccupation with the figure in space, it is always the case I suspect. De Kooning is never a pure abstractionist like the non-objective painting that Greenberg espoused. De Kooning, using his words again is “an old fashioned painter” concerned with the figure. The sculptures demonstrate the figure in a fluid cubist crushing, swerving and twisting in space. They also have the totemic quality of Joseph Beuy’s work but I don’t believe there was ever any cross fertilization between the two. It is what one calls in scientific terms, convergent evolution.
The works managed to cross the line from looking like malformed clay (which is what they were modeled in) to having just enough human handling and presence to give them a perverse aura.
Watching people view these paintings is kind of interesting, people in general look puzzled and confused as if there is no handle to grab onto. The colors are bright, saturated, sometimes garish, electric and hot despite them being sometimes brought into the pastel range by mixing white. The space being articulated is a shallow one, the paint rests on the surface of the canvas but the space is fast, slippery with erasures and scrappings just visible below the surface creating the ground, again there is nothing to grab onto. Small bits could be blown up and be contemporary Richter’s or a host of other lesser known artists. Of all the artists who wielded the brush in a gestural manner De Kooning is by far in my opinion the master of it and so much so, he almost closes the door behind him in regards to this particular approach to painting.
Untitled, 1977 has what looks like a red high heeled shoe in the bottom left. Dore Ashton wrote in “A Fable of Modern Art” about Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” as an embodiement of various atttitudes of modern art, struggling to express the inexpressible, to make concrete the abstract. I don’t want to waste word space rehashing Ashton or Balzac’s tale but suffice to say there are enough paintings of De Kooning’s where a foot is present in the bottom half of the canvas to make one think of Frenhofer.
In the next few day’s I’ll address the 80’s and the final works and then an additional postscript. The show closes tomorrow and if you happen to be at MoMA and see one particular person staring at paintings for an inordinate amount of time, well it might just be me.