Roundtable on MoMA’s de Kooning Retrospective
In a conversation conducted via email over several days last week, artcritical’s editor, three contributing editors and a distinguished guest were moderated by contributing editor Stephen Maine in a roundtable response to the de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
STEPHEN MAINE Thank you all for agreeing to share your thoughts on de Kooning: A Retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. As I made my way through the exhibition, I was struck by the emphasis on drawing as a studio tool–drawing as visual thinking.
First of all, a generous sampling of actual drawings is on view, including a few “working” drawings and others of which the primary value is to illuminate this artist’s process. Then, in the very first gallery the 1940-41 pencil drawing Portrait of Elaine is presented as the gateway to the first Woman series, implying that through the activity of drawing de Kooning found this iconographic leitmotif. Also, a number of the wall texts describe or refer to de Kooning’s procedure of replicating and repositioning particular shapes within a composition using tracing paper–the evidence is especially noticeable beginning with Pink Angels (1945). Even the image MoMA uses to promote the show is a 1950 Rudy Burckhardt photo of de Kooning roughing out a large charcoal drawing for Woman I, a photo ARTnews used to illustrate Thomas Hess’s 1953 article, “de Kooning Paints a Picture.”
This emphasis on drawing as thinking, making, shaping, is a great way in to this work, don’t you think?
JENNIFER RILEY I believe that drawing is the initial separation of idea from self, and this exhibition is a goldmine for demonstrating that idea in the work of de Kooning, whose great contribution to painting retained, combined and overtly exalted numerous drawing skills. The early figure drawings demonstrate his powers of observation, skill in rendering and a sense of touch whose delicacy was as keen on probing form and composition as it was on exploring spatial aspects of the page. Line, which early on describes edge, space, depth, and perspective in the later work becomes the wide range of marks and strokes of paint transporting qualities and information.
DAVID COHEN With de Kooning, in Sickert’s phrase, “drawing is the thing”. This despite the carnal painterliness that comes to mind as soon as we hear de Kooning’s name. In that romantic-versus-classic trajectory that pits disegno against colorito, de Kooning squares off against Pollock along the lines of Rubens versus Poussin, Delacroix versus Ingres, Matisse versus Picasso—on the painterly side. And yet, it is not only with incredible works on paper that this exhibition puts forward drawing as de Kooning’s probity but in an abundance of works where there is drawing within paintings. And I don’t just mean drawing with a brush by that, but actual, linear, graphite pentimenti expressively animating pictorial surfaces, starting off the bat with those seated pink figures.
DAVID CARRIER I would not speak just of drawing, but of control of paint. The great deKooning, in my opinion was the artist who could deal with the medium in such various ways. The contrast with his contemporaries is startling
IVAN GASKELL In terms of technique and procedure, de Kooning was in certain respects as traditional as Morandi. Drawing was one means of exercising control, and perhaps to the extent that he adhered to its practice he managed to produce viable paintings. Where he succeeds in paint, he is extremely precise and economical, though often complex; where things get out of hand (perhaps owing to impatience, or false “inspiration”?), they go wrong.
Yet in Dutch practice (in which de Kooning was evidently steeped) drawing has always had an equivocal position. He presumably carefully studied works by his fellow countryman, who got to most places he tried to go (including the representation of vigorous women) three hundred years before him, Frans Hals. No drawing by Hals is known. He presumably worked directly in dead painting (underpainting). Seeing the relatively modest Hals exhibition at the Met after the de Kooning show was highly instructive. I can only think, poor de Kooning.
JOAN WALTEMATH The drawings got me thinking about how deKooning rehearsed and executed the kind of gestures that constituted his painting. Painting is a very physical act and especially the scale of deKooning’s works demand physical acuity. Like any sport one learns, repeating a gesture over and over again allows the body (and mind) to develop the muscles necessary to preform that gesture without self-consciousness. And then those muscles remember how they moved and can refine and vary that movement as the muscle develops.
In the show we see how the drawings move from a concern with representation, to the formulation of movement.
STEPHEN MAINE Ivan, Where do “things get out of hand”? I’m inclined to agree with you, except that while I love the drawings from the late 1960s/early 70s, I’ve always had trouble with those slack, sloppy paintings. Okay, The Visit (1966-67) is wonderful–the grinning, spread-legged figure always reminds me of a leaping frog–but in a lot of other paintings from that period he seems to lose his way. Two Figures in a Landscape (1967) is just awful. Montauk I (1969) is less arbitrary, but insipid next to the clarity and snap of the paintings from the mid-70s (e.g., Whose Name Was Writ in Water). In the drawings, though, de K’s highwire walk between structure and illegibility is convincing.
IVAN GASKELL I feel that the vaunted canvases of women are failures, in part because he didn’t exercise the physical control you see in some other works. I don’t care for these works because as David put it to me, de Kooning didn’t know when to stop. His paintings work when he exercises a fine control of the kind that Joan described the process of acquiring. I actually see this to an extent in some of the very late works, which many revile (I don’t). I see it (control and economy) in some of the early ‘50s landscapes, such as Merritt Parkway. He had an occasional facility that can impress, but I consider de Kooning a relatively minor talent in the grand scheme of things.
JENNIFER RILEY I find fewer failures in the selections on view, however I can see why you might dismiss those canvases. Comparing the women canvases with Merritt Parkway whose figure-like shapes and large patches of tightly locked brilliant color are downright restive verging on elegant, the women canvases we are speaking of are a riot of awkwardness. I happen to like the possibilities I see in the simultaneous control and lack of control.
It matters somewhat that you think de Kooning a minor talent. I am a painter with great respect for the forward push achieved by this artist for painting at that time.
JOAN WALTEMATH As I went through the installation I started to see deKooning’s work in terms of the limits he was setting for himself in order to open up an arena in which he could play. As a strategy it seemed to bear out though these rooms. It’s constructed as if to read: he exhausted one arena and then his work evolved into something else. After we get through the first rooms where we see how he was riding the currents of his time and bringing those aspects formally into his realm, one of the problems I see that lingers with him is how is he going to deal with the break up of the picture plane. He begins to fragment his figures: Elaine’s face and arm drifting up and off. The studies for the large theatre back drop are a good example of this as well.
I feel him trying to come to terms here with the multifaceted nature of reality inherited from Cubism. This may be the single most important problem he had to contend with in his era. But deKooning was never going to work with planes; it wasn’t his language. His was all wrapped up in and around the body.
STEPHEN MAINE In the skeletal quality of the late work, in which color is secondary to drawing (in the sense of graphical organization), there is a direct connection back through the decades to the late-1940s white-on-black paintings (pre-Excavation) and those wonderful black enamel drawings, possibly interiors–even in deKooning’s use of the knife to spread the enamel to a thin film.
In the catalogue, Lauren Mahoney connects these drawings to Matisse’s brush-and-ink drawings from about the same time. Both are materially sparse, but to scramble figure and ground clearly did not interest Matisse. For me, that figure/ground interpenetration is the end to which deKooning applied his draughsmanly means. He extended the implications of Cubism out of the café and into the world. A line is a contour, but is the form on one side of the contour and the void on the other, or the reverse? Space becomes solid, matter evanescent.
IVAN GASKELL I could admire some of the work without especially liking it; I could actually like some of the work.
How are we to regard Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen of 1982-8 (Tate, London) in the light of de Kooning’s work? [It contains] the kind of “expressive” mark making with paint that we associate with de Kooning; but it is not merely paint itself, but a representation of something else in paint, and like paint: the Citizen’s own excrement that he has smeared on the walls of his cell as part of his protest against his confinement and its terms.
I’m tempted to see this as an indictment of solipsistic triviality on the part of artists such as de Kooning whose concern with personal expression and the figure-ground puzzle pales into utter insignificance when set beside the circumstances that Hamilton represents in his art. Hamilton asks his viewers to consider on what terms Abstract Expressionism and political imprisonment can exist in the same world.
STEPHEN MAINE No doubt Hamilton intends a critique of Abstract Expressionism in the Bobby Sands portrait, but note that the autographic mark (here, fecal smearing) is the badge of rebellion and assertion of the individual’s will in the face of the apparatus of the State. I have understood Abstract Expressionism (in its youth, before it became academic) in the context of the age of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, as an implicit protest against mass cultural conformity–not trivial, not insignificant.
IVAN GASKELL I’m not convinced that Hamilton’s critique implies a simple contrast between “trivial” Abstract Expressionism and “urgent” representational commitment. Rather, he seems to me to describe a world in which both exist in a vital dialectical relationship, each in some sense needing and depending on the other. To the extent that Abstract Expressionism could be thought of as an oppositional move as you–surely rightly–point out (however swiftly appropriated and suborned by those very men in gray flannel suits) I rather agree with you: but can the bite of either de Kooning or Hamilton, in their different ways, ever cause real pain? I like to think so, but…
JENNIFER RILEY Many cases like this, as we all know and have witnessed in perceived aesthetics, expose our own closed systems of expectations. What was de Kooning’s intent and what was the world’s reception of it then? Why it makes sense in his time (in his world) vs. the world’s reception of it over time is, in my opinion, what Hamilton’s work may suggest. To address your last question, the terms for political imprisonment and the terms of Abstract Expressionism overlap as position or attitude. De Kooning’s attitude represented the ultimate in individual freedom—an escape from an oppressive history and demands of dogmatic imperatives.
DAVID COHEN Hamilton, the founder of Pop and a key figure in the rehabilitation of Duchamp, is totally knowing and deconstructive in his use of painterly tropes. The artist acknowledged a “compulsion to defile” hallowed techniques which led the late Peter Fuller to write of “Hamilton’s crabbed little anal corner-shop imagination” years before the Citizen painting. An excremental theme runs (no pun) through much of his Pop and conceptual work, from Sunset (1974), an image of two romantically entwined turds on a beach, through extended series of faux pastoral images of nymphs and Andrex toilet rolls, turds and flower pots, etc. But I make a back-to-Willem plea. The tension between representation and expressivity is deeply alive in all his work, and hardly therefore needs extraneous comparisons to put the issue on the agenda.
Ivan’s affection for the late work and his conviction that the authorially uncontested canon contains so many failures are of a piece. If you like the late works best then you probably just don’t get de Kooning. Do we really think he wanted to produce thin, repetitive, pretty pictures? Do we think that in his vigorous prime he would have taken kindly to assistants choosing his palette and canvas size for him and telling him when the work is done? The chronological hang could have finished a room earlier and the last room given over to some of the late-1960s masterpieces (the Montauk series, etc.) crammed along a long wall in the penultimate gallery.
JENNIFER RILEY Perhaps these sweeping retrospective installations could one day follow a more filmic structure where the ‘End’ of the story is presented first and we are shown sectional ‘flashbacks’ that end with the central achievement rather than the waning years… David, that said, it is hard not to peer into the late paintings and enjoy the fugue-like reprise of drawing and shape being arranged on the canvas.
IVAN GASKELL I don’t believe that The Citizen is shallow in the least; nor do I think Hamilton’s art can be reduced to anal fixation any more than de Kooning’s can be to some notion of expressivity, or pursuit of chimerical freedom. I may not “get” de Kooning in some canonical manner, but I see things to admire in some of his work. I have no patience with want of economy or control in art, which is why I admire both Poussin and Rubens (and, among de Kooning’s contemporaries, Rothko).
What puzzles me is [the] claim that De Kooning’s attitude represented the ultimate in freedom. I’m afraid I don’t really understand this, with the greatest will in the world! All I can infer is that operational notions of ultimate freedom are likely to be contingent, when they apply at all.
JENNIFER RILEY What I mean in terms of ’ ultimate freedom’ is de Kooning’s much written about desire to be free of order. Though he did speak about a higher order, I believe his notions of freedom were much more grounded in earthly, social sources: his assertion of individual sensibility, his extreme concentration on the sensory rather than the political, his ideas of fluidity, vitality, continuity as they pertain to his practice. He said, “Order, to me, is to be ordered about, and that is a limitation.”
Mikhail Bakhtin employs the term ‘unfinalizabilty’ as an all-purpose carrier of his conviction that the world is not only a messy place, but also an open place. It designates a complex of values: innovation, surprisingness, the genuinely new, openness, freedom, potentiality, and creativity. (From Creation of Prosaics)
JOAN WALTEMATH Freedom has always meant to me, the freedom to set your own limits and not to be subjected. It takes a lot of control to move all that goopy liquid around and end up with something anyone would want to ruminate over for any length of time. Pictorial issues, largely unconsidered in discourse since the anti-formal epoch, are complex and illogical. It’s what I look for and think about in relation to other painters work: how do they solve problems, what are the problems posed by the era, by the artist. It’s an approach modeled on George Kubler. It seems at times so far from an art historical dialogue, I wonder even that we are talking about the same subject.
In the black and white enamel pieces, I see him transforming the cubist plane and its resulting multifaceted space into a vocabulary based on form and void relationships. No one in history is more masterful at this than Tintoretto, hence the great adoration he receives from architects. It is all about the body and the volume between bodies.
JENNIFER RILEY We see economy of means and technique [in the enamel drawings]. It seems deKooning laid down thin meandering lines [and with] a flat scraper, perhaps paper, and drew the ink from the line thus creating the large ragged edged shapes. Here is an instance where he didn’t revise nor could he erase and I find them remarkably complete.
JOAN WALTEMATH The form/void relationship emerges from those pieces in a way that fragments the space, beyond the kind of pictorial space that the cubists created. It’s a shallow space – no distant horizons – but you can enter and move around in these pieces. That is how I’m reading the black and white paintings, you have to look at them for a few minutes to let the coordinates register in your mind, but then it comes clear. I see these as his breakthrough works, yet once he is successful he redefines the limits of his game. One of the things that emerges out of these paintings is the loss of composition as a way of locating the subject.
STEPHEN MAINE Those are among the most exiting works in the show because of the irreversibility of that smudge or scrape, and because of the economy and ease with which they shuffle figure and ground. Also the scraped enamel is not black like the line but a dark gray, as just a bit of light filters through from the paper underneath. A triangulation of value: black/white/almost black.
It is as if de Kooning felt compelled somehow to qualify nearly every mark he made, to complicate it, to second-guess it, to mess it up. The mid-to-late-50′s landscape-based abstractions may be where he comes the closest to finding in the brush stroke the equivalent of a declarative statement, with no “and yet…” attached.
This kind of relentless qualifying of what is already on the page or canvas is what I love in de Kooning and thus, to my mind, the sculpture is an ancillary achievement.
IVAN GASKELL The sculpture may be generously described as an “ancillary achievement,” but what place does it play in de Kooning’s artmaking? Is this no more than dealer inspired flummery? Do people not care because of a persistence of the (modern) hierarchy of media and method that places painting at the pinnacle?
JENNIFER RILEY As a student in Boston I remember seeing the MFA’s de Kooning bronze for the first time and being disappointed that it felt not so far from Rodin, and I was also reminded of Bernini’s clay models for the Angels for Ponte Sant’Angelo. My second thought was that he was a much better as painter because there really was no one immediately jumping to my mind other than himself when I first encountered his painting. The sculptures which are not without achievement, but not so great, because de Kooning’s most imaginative work is intrinsic to the picture plane.
STEPHEN MAINE Since the distinction between sculpture and painting becomes ever less important as those traditional disciplines blend, I can’t think many informed observers would see much of a hierarchy, let alone a pinnacle. Yet one trades primarily in actual space, and the other in the illusion of space. As Jennifer suggests, de K’s fundamental concern–and, in my view, his gift–has to do with the picture plane, the illusion of spatial articulation, which his sculpture does not engage.
IVAN GASKELL I’m afraid I see the sculptures as possibly—I stress possibly—an instance of “getting in on the act,” perhaps commercially inspired (i.e. not necessarily de Kooning’s idea) but prompted because such things were part of the repertory of older artists of a certain standing: Degas, who never knew any of the bronzes cast in his name; Matisse, who did; Rodin, for whose beneficiaries endless poor casts have been a goldmine; Picasso, who actually did something with sculpture; Giacometti, whose work must have been in certain respects a touchstone; and surely others. In other words, to join the club of the great and the good as an artist, you had to produce sculpture.
DAVID COHEN The issue of freedom in our discussion has been presented as somehow earned at the price of economy and control, [two] virtues we all hope to find in the art we admire. But these are perennial qualities germane to great exemplars of any style, including styles where exuberance and exalted manifestations of freedom abound. By a similar token, someone working in a minimalist idiom (a style that fetishizes economy and control) can actually be deficient in those qualities—can be uneconomic in the efforts at reduction and out of control in their denial of facture and improvisation.
IVAN GASKELL Ingenious, though I’m not sure quite how one would discern these wants in the things concerned. I fear we see here a transfer or projection of qualities proper to a person (such as “out of control”) to things made by that person. A painting cannot be out of control, though it might exhibit the results of its maker having been.
STEPHEN MAINE As to the exhibition itself, my only quibble is the space wasted on the vitrine of very small sculpture in the Montauk room. I would love to see a selection of sketchbooks and/or other small-scale flat work, in the manner of the recent Richard Serra Drawings: A Retrospective at the Met. Of course, Serra works in sketchbooks incessantly when he is on site and I don’t know that de Kooning ever embraced this practice, but there are reams of drawings in existence. To all: your “most memorable moment” in viewing the retrospective?
DAVID COHEN At the risk of repeating myself, I already stated my major quibble with the installation which is that the late work is given too much wall space and, disastrously, the last word too. I proposed ending the chronological sweep early so that the last room can give generous space to genuinely summating masterpieces rather than last demented efforts. Jen made a brilliant point that exhibitions could take a cue from cinema and experiment with chronological dislocations to great effect. I felt that the Montauk and other big figure/landscape paintings needed more space and were the one spot where the hang felt crowded. But Elderfield is a hanging genius, as his Puryear installation proved and the current show confirms.
JOAN WALTEMATH The honesty of those later paintings was very moving for me. I felt him reaching back to the black enamel paintings we’ve all talked about, looking for a breakthrough again – wanting to again redefine his limits. I kept thinking that if you put an image of those black and white early pieces on photoshop and hit inverse it would pretty much look like the later paintings. It would be interesting to see how it doesn’t. Here he picks up again a kind of form/void vocabulary to construct his pictorial dimension and uses only what memory remains in the body to create those flowing lines. Some of them are more coherent in this regard that others. There is no point of reference for them in the outer world, only inside where the body holds memories of the movements we have made, knows them intimately. The highlights for me are the two on the left side as you face the exit, spare and elegant they underscore how he has given up everything he invented, everything we want to use to identify him, and he still makes a painting. He challenges us to be able to let go of it, too!
IVAN GASKELL I was impressed by his relentless experimentation: he never got into a groove and became complacent, it seems. In this he resembles Poussin who also relentlessly reinvented his mode of art making again and again, though perhaps to greater moral purpose; that is, I emerged from the Poussin exhibition some years ago feeling that I have been given the opportunity, thanks to his art, to become a better person. I emerged from the de Kooning exhibition admiring, with certain reservations, and somewhat bemused.
For me, the thrill moment was turning away from the dreary row of Women in which so many people have invested so much, in a variety of senses, to find the late ‘50s-early ‘60s landscapes (or landscape abstractions). Merritt Parkway (Detroit Institute of Arts), which I have mentioned before, and its neighbors impressed me in a way that nothing else I saw did. This is scarcely a revelation, but in my mind lifted his overall achievement from also-ran to worthy of repeated attention.
DAVID CARRIER For me what’s most memorable were the mid-period landscapes, showing de Kooning’s control at its best. The woman I don’t have any political objections to, but my formal concern is his need to hang the paint on an outlined figure. In the end, deK comes from what feels a very distant world. When Sue Williams paints in something of his fashion, she has to be very different- ironical, political. It’s not a technical question. At least unless you are very senior and European.
JENNIFER RILEY Standing in the room with the luminous, lush, exuberant large format paintings c. 1975-1977 was one of the highlights of my experience of this wonderful exhibition. Until this sequence of paintings my viewing experience was located solidly between mind and body. Here, however, I felt a bit blown backwards. For example, the group of late 50′s early 60′s parkway paintings, including “Merritt Parkway” and “Bolton Landing” are absent the vitality, luminosity, and warmth of the 70′s abstract landscapes. There is a certain distance, dullness and cool in this group (not to mention some relatively unfortunate spatial bloopers). Are the 1975-77 landscapes, which are also full of movement, landscape sensations and color and rich brushstrokes that embody the velocity of the paint effective because of the ambience of surroundings in which they were made? (They were made in the Springs [on the eastern, rural end of Long Island -ed.] whereas the earlier ones were derived from sketches, small notational responses he made of his trips on the parkway then painted back in NYC.)
STEPHEN MAINE The wall of mid-70′s landscapes was a revelation. Something clicked for him, and he found a balance between allowing the paint to unravel and nudging it back into place. Also his color here is fantastic, never better before or after. I can’t explain the effect of light, Jennifer, but I do think he regained his touch. By that I mean a variety of touch–in contrast to the relentless slathering that I find so dispiriting in the paintings of a few years before. The catalogue has a good description of the methods de Kooning used to add substances to his paint–including water–to get unusual textures and other effects. The heightened tactility contributes greatly to the vitality of these paintings.
JOAN WALTEMATH He uses the materiality of paint and the means of moving it around to create a pictorial dimension that is neither classic foreground, middle ground and background space nor an organically construed cubist space. The push and pull method of Hoffmann lingers around here, you can feel that as an overall spatial configuration in some of the paintings. It never comes across to me as if it was used with any specific intent, more of a default mode for some one trying to carve out what hadn’t really been figured out yet by anyone else. Or perhaps so much in the air that it was one accepted formulation of what a non-objective pictorial dimension could be in the era where the flatness still counted.
DAVID CARRIER De Kooning took a while to open up; in earlier rooms he works on smaller scale. These are resolutely unfussy paintings. Maybe this sense of liberation reflects his move out of New York City. The light is really interesting. Are there earlier, equally bright, large Western paintings?
JENNIFER RILEY Church. Turner, Burchfield…
Maybe we should try a hang of these three, plus de Kooning and … ??
DAVID COHEN There is a common line of praise one hears from artists about old master exhibitions: it makes them want to go home and paint. I have exactly that feeling – and I don’t paint! This urge to manipulate materials that comes over you as you look at his work is a direct response to the haptic, if not the carnal aspect within the work itself.
The body-consciousness in de Kooning isn’t just about the woman series or the “ab-flab” sculptures or the paint-as-flesh impasto and palette of works from various periods or the stray limbs and deconstructed musculature that animate works like Attic and Excavation. Rather, the relationships of paint to drawing and surface to structure each constitute pictorial equivalents of flesh on bone. De Kooning’s is an art of supreme embodiment.