The 70's revisited
What’s great about the 70’s paintings at MoMA is that by this time the audience has been weeded out and you can actually see some work.
I have to revisit Two Figures in a Landscape owned by the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. This work is a damn ugly sloppy mess and I love it. The ground once again has these ghostly vestiges of images that are scrapped and sanded and the paint that remains or has been added is this goopy mess literally sliding down the canvas. The fleshy colored paint is puckered and sagging like a road smear of skin and the overall coloration is garish in local areas with sky blue against orange, a smudgy yellow white green, scumbled brown, olive green, bright yellow and then this flesh outlined in areas with orange. It probably was a seated woman splayed out on a lawn chair but that’s a guess or a couple in coitus. I found myself staring at this painting trying to take it all in simultaneously and then scanning over it, my eyes darting back and forth; repeat, wash and rinse. These works are carnal, paint as flesh.
I felt this way also looking at the following works, oh never mind they’re all Untitled with a number after it. It was all too easy to get sucked into looking at these pictures and looking and looking, they are inexhaustible.
It is hard to categorize this decade (maybe the entire oeuvre) save for the move away from the gooey safflower texture, possibly because a conservator told De Kooning about the inherent instability of his mixture (see Willem De Kooning The Artists Materials by Susan F. Lake) incidentally coinciding with a serious binge, not surprising. If I found out that 5 years of exceptional painting was potentially unstable I myself would become unstable.
Untitled V from 1980 is the beginning of drawing with the tapers knife, gone are the puckering and explosive brushwork, now bands of green close to a thalo mixed with what looks like paynes gray along with subtle shades of white, pale greens and somewhat hidden underpainting reveal a different spatial configuration. This is no longer the body rendered through paint as flesh but neither is it non-objective. This particular work for me is reminiscent of Gorky whose memory comes through in works that post-date this and for me seems to have a feeling of landscape and not because of the green but the spatial feel.
As we move to the final room we are confronted with Pirate from 1981. I remember vividly the first time I saw this painting and was thunderstruck. Again this density of effect pervades the painting, the red at the left having been sanded and scarred so that the yellow comes through and then overpainted with a wash of white, wow and then the thin blues lines again reminiscent of Gorky and then a smallish yellow patch of moving brushwork to the right of the billowing white and WOW once again.
With Pirate and Untitled III from 1981, the one to the left of Pirate if you managed to see the exhibit now have a frontality of shallow surface space that was hinted at by Untitled V from 1980.
By 1982 the works, Untitled V, XIII (all 1982) are shifting from this frontality to a more cubist space reminiscent of the black and white works from the late 40’s and even shadows of the biomorphic images of the mid 40’s such as Pink Angels only in these later works it is the space around these biomorphic shapes that are hinted at, implied not explicit. De Kooning at this time was 77 and alcoholism had taken a huge toll from the artist, along with the onset of mental deterioration. My great grandfather use to recycle the same stories when he sat at the dinner table, something I’ve noticed with elderly people, life is reflected on and relived, De Kooning it seems is doing the same.
Untitled II from 1983 has white shapes floating in a sea of an older underpainting of primaries, this particular one opens up a visual field in my eyes of Pollock and definitely runs over territory of the black and white paintings. We see more slippage as the year progresses, slippage in the painterly sense not age, the work Untitled V from 83 has a broad expanse of yellow surrounded by ribbons of primary colors. Untitled XIX evokes Gorky again with yellow forming the runs in the top third of the canvas.
1984 brings us to the rather sparse work of No Title to the left in the above photo. A painting which to my eye creates a space akin to a dancer moving slowly across the surface, not unlike the wispiness of what I imagine Duchamp’s bride wafting across the top of the large glass as she is stripped bare.
1985 gives us another No Title work with a really stripped down palette of blue and black, along with works like Rider, which is a very bizarre painting with hints of Gorky ruminating in the dutchman’s mind.
1986 and 87 bring us the final works which are cartoonie, to my eye it is obvious that old drawings of figures are the source for these works but the spatial qualities of each are unique and not unified. This is problematic for many in the art cognoscenti but it doesn’t bother me. Perhaps it is the influence of dementia but to my mind the idea floats that subconsciously as the knowledge comes of impending mental death become imminent, I would want to touch on several key ideas of importance that are varied and not hammer one point repeatedly, a sort of greatest visual ideas being touched upon. Pure conjecture on my part but these last works still confuse me and in a good way, they pervade my mental landscape and need to be dealt with. At the end of the day not many painters alive today despite their youth paint such oddities with this kind of import.
I spent up to a half hour on many paintings staring at them and letting them sink in, eyes locked to them and afterwards walked through the show again, doing the same and ended up with a headache from eyestrain. Not that I minded though.
So where do we go from here? More in the Final Postscript and thoughts on what De Kooning means to me, back to art and the purpose and function it has personally and to the larger cultural contexts along with a greatest hits of works that have meaning to me akin to Mr. Paul Corio’s Paintings I Like via his blog, No Hassle at the Castle and kudos to him for highlighting my thoughts.