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Old Age Question

Did Willem de Kooning's deteriorating mental health adversely affect his later works?

The Menil Collection's Willem de Kooning exhibition, curated by Klaus Kertess, seeks to explore the painter's creative process, but winds up raising even more provocative questions about art, aging and the mental process. The intriguing "Willem de Kooning: In Process" is the second consecutive abstract expressionist show from the Menil, coming on the heels of a 40-year retrospective of the facile and repetitive work of Sam Francis.

The exhibit explores de Kooning's creative process by focusing on late works from the '70s and '80s. De Kooning was notorious for repeatedly working and reworking paintings. His iconic painting Woman I (1950-52) was the result of an 18-month process involving drawn, traced and retraced images laid on the canvas in a fight to deconstruct the figure. He always kept other works or sketches of works close by and fed off the reincorporation of his images, energized by a studio cluttered with his own paintings. As he painted, he would sometimes squash vellum onto the surface of a wet painting to sop up excess paint. The act would create a mirror image monoprint to be used as a source for later works, maintaining an almost umbilical connection from work to work.

A drawing of a figure, usually female, was almost always a departure point for de Kooning's paintings; he couldn't stomach the initial blankness of a canvas. His work was based on an abstraction of reality rather than an abstract image created purely from the combination of line, color and form. The source image is often only vaguely discernable, if at all. De Kooning's 1950s-era Woman series evoked cries of misogyny because of the dynamic and sometimes violently gestural way they were painted and abstracted. There is undoubtedly a psychological element in the series -- he may well have hated his mother, who by most accounts was a particularly nasty piece of work -- but there are additional reasons for using a figure. De Kooning studied for eight years at a traditional art academy that would have required copious figure drawing. Work from a figure long enough, and it ceases to be a figure; it becomes a collection of shapes that just happen to belong to a human being, a compositional tool.

Three images of women from the '70s present a more playful alternative to the ominous women of his '50s work. Loosely graphic black lines and the primary colors of Sunday comics combine to create glimpses of high heels, wooden shoes and glove buttons. The cartoonishly exaggerated figures look like an incomplete hybrid of Betty Boop meets Minnie Mouse. They're genial and goofy, revealing de Kooning's love of comics like Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids. According to Kertess's essay in the exhibition catalog, de Kooning even hung one of the original Katzenjammer Kids drawings in his studio bathroom.

The exhibition is dominated by the '80s work in which the recycling of images plays a more visible role. From at least the mid-'80s on, an opaque projector was used to transfer Xeroxes of primarily 1960s drawings to the canvas. The paintings are thinly painted and linear, with none of the thick gestural smears of paint that mark his earlier work. The 1966 drawing Untitled (Seated Woman on the Beach) appears in untitled 1986 and 1987 works. The catalog essay details other such linkages throughout the show, and what you end up with is an art historian's Where's Waldo in which the viewer tries to find evidence of the earlier drawing in the later painting.

The '80s work has been a controversial topic, one addressed in the 1997 Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Willem de Kooning: The Late Work." De Kooning outlasted his hard-living and hard-drinking abstract expressionist colleagues by virtue of luck and genes, rather than caution and temperance. His drinking had been growing progressively worse until his estranged wife, Elaine de Kooning, returned and forced sobriety upon him in 1980, a lifestyle change that most likely coincided with the onset of Alzheimer's.

Signs of the disease may have been manifesting themselves as early as the late '70s, but he wasn't formally diagnosed with Alzheimer's until 1989, the same year his daughter Lisa had him declared legally incompetent. De Kooning died eight years later, in 1997. The diagnosis called into question the validity of the '80s works. Alzheimer's is an insidious disease that manifests slowly and gains momentum; by the time it's diagnosed it is usually quite advanced. Regarding de Kooning's art, the generally agreed-upon cutoff date for lucidity is 1988. Kertess scrupulously shows works that go up to only 1987. As for the matter of lucidity, Kertess feels the works speak for themselves, and that should be the final answer.

Basically you can go with one of two readings. The romanticists hold that the late works are yet another step in de Kooning's investigation of painting, a spare and lyrical climax to a lifetime of exploration. They believe that although his speech and memory were impaired, the core of his artistic ability remained untouched. The conspiracy theorist camp asserts that de Kooning was increasingly incapacitated and that his assistants played an overly active role in the creation of the paintings, selecting images to be projected, mixing colors, arranging compositions and painting in areas. The truth may be a little of both.

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