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Defining de Kooning

Yet there's the feeling that de Kooning is constantly fighting for his paintings, from excess to overload and beyond. One part of him wants to follow lucidity and order, to "get it right"; the other part is compelled to "mess it up." Out of this tension comes a synthesis, an uneasy, pulsing pictorial presence oscillating between confidence and doubt. From the outset, de Kooning chipped away at his own good intentions, pushing painting to a place that even he found difficult to enter.

The MFA exhibition is divided into early and late periods -- from the '30s to the early '60s when de Kooning worked in Manhattan, and from 1963 on, when he became an American citizen and moved permanently to a studio in the village of Spring in Long Island's East Hamptons. It begins with Seated Man (1939) and Queen of Hearts (1943-46), early works that attempt to merge seemingly irreconcilable sources from antiquity and the modern world. The show ends up with two large abstractions from the '80s acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum after Joseph Hirshhorn's death.

In these abstractions, de Kooning gave his curvy line a sharpness. The famous impasto and encrustations have been rhythmically swept away in favor of a less turbulent execution and a more penetrable surface. A blue of poured lapidus and dandelion yellow seems to luxuriate in chromatic freshness and clarity. Curves glide over the surface, locking into one another so that gesture and framework are one. In between, however, de Kooning worked concurrently on abstract and figurative paintings. In biomorphic abstractions, he filled imaginary interior spaces with cartoon-like creatures and fragmentary shapes.

For a series of black-and-white abstractions, he used an unorthodox mixture of traditional oil and enamel house paint to create fluid abstract imagery. In Zurich (1947), de Kooning combined seemingly nonsensical letters and words in a calligraphic composition that evokes the street signs and cracked pavement of his urban surroundings. The result is a painting of striking scale and inventive dislocations, in which careening strokes ricochet like a pinball game.

De Kooning loved battling control. He would make drawings with his left hand, instead of his usual right; he'd sketch while half looking at TV, or with his eyes closed. But then again, de Kooning never set purity as a goal. Fragments of pop culture -- movies, billboards, the detritus of the American desire industry -- were always sailing into his images and sticking there, as one critic noted, "like bugs on a windshield." Smiles from Camel ads, shoulders from Ingres; part archaic Ishtar, part Amsterdam hooker and part Marilyn -- high and low are everywhere.

Even so, de Kooning's violently expressionistic drawings and paintings of women were regarded by some as a betrayal of the abstract expressionist creed. In Woman (1953), the overlapped faces offer the painterly equivalent of a double exposure. Such visual puns, created in a spirit of caricature, resulted from de Kooning's theory of intimate proportions. He believed that at close range anatomical parts appear interchangeable. Through such subversive devices, de Kooning equated archaic fertility idols and idealized images of Western art with the less-exalted imagery of billboards and pin-up models.

As a painter, de Kooning has always been obsessed with the bodies of women, quoting them in whole and in detail, with a unique mingling of distance, intimacy, lust, humor and spite. To this day, the images remain disturbing and among the most difficult pictures in the American canon to fix with a settled meaning. Emerging from an indeterminate space in which figure and ground never seem fully distinct, they are timeless women, but also of the '50s. Their eyes stare directly at the viewer, knees and busts jut out, lips part in a frightening toothy grin. Did de Kooning have a difficult mother? Was he a misogynist? Do these women represent his feminine side? Does their ferocity symbolize his own liberation from artistic and social norms? De Kooning always insisted that the pictures were "funny," the sort of funny that the existential temper of the time honored as a profound response to the absurdity of existence. At any rate, the "Women" paintings brought to art a fresh and unrepentant American vulgarity while still reflecting de Kooning's training in the high European tradition.

Obviously, Joseph Hirshhorn was seldom horrified by vulgarity -- more than half of his de Koonings depict those buxom women, even if a large number of them are unexceptional. Some of the pink images of nudes splayed in landscapes are excessively lush and the drawing is submerged in weak, wambling brush strokes.

Most outstanding, however, is Two Women in the Country (1954), in which the frontally posed nudes are suspended like marionettes from the top of the canvas. Whereas de Kooning described their anatomy in slashes of black paint and charcoal line, he highlighted the pink flesh-tones of their bodies with bright green. Moreover, through the repetition of forms such as the curve of their breasts and dark circles of their navels, de Kooning created visual rhymes and an interaction between the otherwise isolated figures.

As often as not, de Kooning took his figures flesh and all, mashing them into a seething mass of humanity. "Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented," he once wrote. De Kooning doesn't just paint for the sake of painting: he wanted to plumb female flesh, leave his painterly fingerprints in it, work the body over, unmask her, rip the skin off, even as he fears her, desires her. For de Kooning, flesh is the site of an erotic matrix -- hot, clinging wet. By inviting the viewer to enter the spaces of the body, as if entering the spaces of a landscape, he offers the possibility of merger with something enveloping and all-encompassing.

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