Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, May 27, 2004
 

 

"Constable's Skies" until June 25 at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries (20 E 79 Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212 879 6606)

"Garden in Delft: Willem de Kooning Landscapes 1928-88" until June 26 at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (1018 Madison Avenue between 78 and 79th Streets, 212 744 7400)

"De Kooning: Paintings from the Forties and Fifties" until May 29 at Richard Gray Gallery (also 1018 Madison, 212 472 8787)

"Willem de Kooning: A Centennial Exhibition" until June 19 at Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 741 1111)


DAVID COHEN

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Willem de Kooning Montauk I 1969
oil on canvas, 88 x 77 inches
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford CT
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

One of the ways Willem de Kooning is reported to have invited chance into his mercurial image-making process, and thus appeased his changeling's addiction to the elusive "glimpse", was to flick through art history books and arbitrarily accept as inspiration a given picture. (Other strategies included painting with both hands at once, or with his eyes shut.)

In emulation of de Kooning, a way to come to terms with his ever-perplexing but compelling art, which in this centenary year is the subject of a slew of exhibitions at New York galleries, is to do just the same: throw in consideration of a chanced-upon old master. Just around the corner on East 79th Street from the two smaller de Kooning shows on Madison Avenue is "Constable's Skies," at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, a riveting exhibition of the early Nineteenth Century British painter's justly prized cloud studies.

This comparison, gratuitous as it may seem, has bracing effects. Indeed, you should treat your eye to the equivalent of jumping into an icy pond after a spell in the suana by darting from one to the other: Constable's empiricism, his determination to get nature right, puts you in the mood to appreciate de Kooning's rootedness in landscape, the body, and-however skewed-observation of mundane facts, a trait which regularly scandalized partisans of the cause of abstraction. De Kooning's eruptive splurges, meanwhile, underline the inherent radicality and modernity of Constable, who was famed for his later influence on the Impressionists.

Despite the century that divides them, and the different paradigms of painting they seem to inhabit, the two have much in common. Holland, to start with. De Kooning was raised in Rotterdam, where he attended the Academy, before sailing to America in 1926, a twenty-two year old stowaway. Constable, though he would affect disdain for "the old men" as he called the old masters, was steeped in Seventeenth Century Dutch art as much as any other tradition. His native countryside was East Anglia, a region close to Holland topographically and culturally, which can also be said of the eastern tip of Long Island, where de Kooning set-up studio in the early 1960s. The American painter spoke of how the terrain there reminded him of Holland.

But philosophically there is an even richer commonality between the two men. Of course, it will be objected, de Kooning was famously unprogrammatic (anti-programmatic, in fact) whereas Constable was a man of many vehemently expressed aesthetic principles. But despite the realism of one and the abstraction of the other, they can both be termed empiricists: They measured artistic truth against direct experience, whether of nature or of the activity of painting.

John Constable A Storm off the Coast, Brighton 1824
oil on paper, 5-7/8 x 7-7/8 inches
Private Collection, Courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

And whatever else impelled Constable's gaze skyward in the 1820s, it can be said that in painting clouds, just as with de Kooning's "glimpses," Constable set out to commit the most illusive, ephemeral aspect of the natural order to the structures and rigors of observation. Even at his most abstract, de Kooning cannot be said to have painted "inscapes," in quite the way of Rothko or Pollock. His imagery is always mired in sensations and the sense of things. But in his determination to describe feelings and to capture the environment in which things exist he can be said to have taken as his subject fluid and elusive aspects of experience. Constable, incidentally, remarked that "my art is another word for feeling."

Constable's cloud studies were not, in fact, intended for exhibition. Nonetheless, they have come to be prized, along with his plein air oil sketches of Hampstead Heath and other locales, at the expense of his resolved "machines," the paintings-produced in his studio and exhibited at the Academy-in which he was most invested. This is understandable, as the spontaneity and freshness of these ephemeral works appeal directly to a modern sensibility.

But the painterliness of both artists, while remarkable, is prone to be misconstrued. De Kooning's oft-quoted remark that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented" has been taken, reductively in my opinion, as a manifesto for viscerality. In much the same way, the word "painterliness" is often taken in an overly literalist way to mean that the actual stuff is used with expressive physicality. That is obviously true of de Kooning much of the time: pigment is piled upon gushing, energized, almost sculptural surfaces. There is such an exhilerating sense of the physical immediacy of his brushstrokes that you sometimes think the brush itself might still be in the room somewhere! But the old-fashioned meaning of the word "painterly," to do with depictive acuity, precision, command, is actually more apropos of Constable and de Kooning.

The real reason that flesh needed oil paint is because of its elusive variablity: the subtle sensations of movement, of breathing, of blood pulsating within and behind it. Oil paint has an unrivaled elasticity, an ability to embody ambiguity, suiting it to the challenge of simultaneous familiarity and otherness in an observed person's person. Clouds, arguably, push tangeability and elusiveness to similar extremes.

Constable's "skying" campaign has been related to a desire to understand the autonomous weight of the skies, to dispel any notion that the sky is merely a backdrop to landscape. He was excited by new scientific research into clouds; at the same time, he had an instictive sense of meteorology since his boyhood job on his father's windmill.

His sketches are at once sharp and spontaneous. There is an exhilerating freedom to the color and brushmarks, but despite the way Constable's lyricism has been vaunted for its "abstractness," the sense of credibility in his studies comes a much from specificness of touch and observation as from gay abandon.

In both Constable and de Kooning we are forced to think through the relationship of velocity to perception. The speed with which Constable put down the effects of weather, however related in mundane practical terms to the need to capture something that was changing fast, is sometimes a persuasive metaphor for the conditions it describes. In "A Storm off the Coast, Brighton," (1824), for instance, the agitations of the brush and the impasto of the white cloud resisting the darkening of the sky lend an almost action drama intensity to the scene. And yet the vertical striations of rain against a horizontal sweep of ominous sky is a depictive miracle in its observational precision and consideration. A serener sky from 1822, lent by Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, almost acknowledges the sensation of time suspended when dated by the artist "31 September".

De Kooning was famous for the hours he would spend meditating his own work, not just in contemplation of the next move, but in realization of the meaning of the marks already made. Opposed to preconception, he evolved in its place a process of postconception, of accepting, elaborating upon, or accomodating, seemingly frenetic brushstrokes and painterly effects. In "Pastoral," (1963) at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, painted soon after the move to the Hamptons, spontaneous, agitated brushstrokes almost cohere in a literal reading as a figure walking along a path amidst trees while the sumptuous, sundrenched pigment from which these intimations arise preserves all of the otherness and awkwardness of paint that's applied with almost violent lack of signification.

A marvel of these de Kooning shows is the sense of unity that comes across his restless oeuvre. His extreme impasto mid-career is held in check by the carved-looking jigsaws of the post war period and by the smoothly serene application of the late period (some of it completed when the artist was suffering from Alzheimers).

Throughout his work there are intimations of the body, whether in overtly figurative works or ostensibly abstract or landscape paintings. "Montauk I," (1969) at Gagosian's blockbuster show, on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum, can be read (or misread) as an orgy of stray limbs and writhing torsos. Discerned one by one, these radically disrupt scale expectations: an enormous pair of eyes peering out from the top of the canvas dwarf a body seen in profile, from calves to extended forearm, at its center.

It would be a mistake, however, to view his work as encoded representation, or as abstraction that is somehow hedging its bets with a residue of familiarity, or as depictive puzzles waiting to be unravelled. His glimpses of reality are usually too fleeting, ambiguous, and distended to reward such attempts, anyway. Instead, bodiliness is a means at his disposal, like paint itself, out of which to make pictures and charge them with energy.

As such, de Kooning reverses the traditional relationship of paint to depiction still very much in place even in the most abstract and modern looking Constable sketch. But the work of these painters is gloriously linked across the centuries by an exhilerating sense of presentness.


 

 

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