Different Strokes: The Late Work of Willem De Kooning

Article excerpt

On the 22nd of this month, "Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings" opens at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the final stop on its five-city tour. In the following pages Peter Schjeldahl discusses the controversial late phase of the artist's career.

The last act of Willem de Kooning's art reminds me of a self-portrait by another Dutchman, Rembrandt van Rijn, that hangs in the Frick Collection. In Rembrandt's rugged last style, it renders a man who is old, fat, and probably sick, not long for this world, and who meets our gaze with tired, not terribly interested, but speaking eyes. In three-quarter view, filling the frame and crowding the picture plane, he sits heavily, looming at us. He wears a baggy smock that, belted high, gives the bizarre impression that he has breasts. Where are his knees? They are fudged. There is not enough pictorial space for them. Confronting the picture, we are in Rembrandt's lap.

The painting summons a maternal myth, comic in a bottomless, wonderful, perhaps frightening way. It suggests overripened life like that of a pumpkin past its prime. I imagine the depicted person saying, "Here, take me. Eat me, if you are hungry. I am no good to myself any more. I am full of stuff that may be treasure or junk, for all I know. My days of caring are over. Have what you want. Here." Where, besides King Lear, are abjection and nobility so combined? My problem with both this picture and de Kooning's late paintings is in knowing how to receive such gifts. I suspect that it needs courage.

When I was preparing a public talk on de Kooning's late, late works, which I like a lot, an art-world acquaintance said, "You aren't going to go into all that Alzheimer's crap, are you? "Of course not!" I answered quickly. What did he take me for? Then, in my talk, I went into Alzheimer's (or senility, the less expensive term I prefer) at length. Not to address it would be like ignoring an elephant in the living room, I decided. The talk went well. I found that reading into this work a great artist's adjustments to flagging mental powers made engaging though limited sense of very strange paintings.

Why had I so vehemently denied my readiness to do any such thing? I suppose it was shame at the thought of dignifying vulgar reductions of art, of which none may be baser than medical diagnosis. (The lese-majeste of rifling abstract work for signs of a shot brain hardly needs emphasizing.) Beyond that, one recoils from popular beliefs that artists are screwy. From the lurid pathos of Van Gogh's ear to Morley Safer's smirky revulsion on 60 Minutes in 1993, artistic audacity is met with one tone after another of condescension or outright disgust among healthy-minded citizens, who will have only too little trouble interpreting the news that a man gone in the head is deemed a hero of abstract art. Don't give the bastards an inch, my acquaintance implied, calling me to the ranks.

Then there is the subtle embarrassment that attends de Kooning's standing in just about every sector of the art culture. Here is someone who ought to be safely historical, long since pensioned off with a ceremonial epithet: Last of the So-Called Geniuses, maybe. We likely feel entitled to deal with him in general terms, rather than exercising a technical formal literacy that is rusty among those of us who once practiced it and all but a dead language for younger art professionals. Only some artists are apt to embrace the challenge, or the ordeal, of de Kooning's late work as something urgently important and inspiring. Those artists will catch the rest of us up eventually.

De Kooning today fits less comfortably, if at all, into familiar genealogies of genre, style, and idea than he did at his contrarian peak. His mythic individualism - the "Luciferian pride" (Clement Greenberg, 1955) with which he did or did not become "the outstanding painter of the ideological epoch in American art" (Harold Rosenberg, 1972) - seems outlandish now that individuality itself is so doubtful a concept. …