The Paintings Must Never Dry ; for Willem De Kooning, Success or Failure Took Place Only on the Canvas

Article excerpt

The first thing said about the 20th-century painter Willem de Kooning at the start of this massive biography is that he was "stubborn." Referring to their childhood in the Netherlands, his sister said: "My mother was a tyrant and Willem was stubborn." The same word reappears some 600 pages later, near the close of his career, which spanned much of the 20th century. "He was so stubborn," observed his assistant Tom Ferrara. Then, finally, Joan Ward, the mother of his only child, used it in her eulogy at his funeral.

Those who knew de Kooning close up knew his stubbornness well. That characteristic could support an endlessly stoical heroism - or a monumental self- centeredness. It was his obduracy, anyway, that underpinned his unyielding determination to be a serious artist, in spite of anything and anyone. No one - except himself - was allowed to interfere with his concentration. "Woman" in various manifestations - ironic, horrific, erotic, and lyrical - was a mainspring of his art, yet his promiscuous relationships with actual women were largely peripheral to his day-by-day work.

As this biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan proceeds steadily onward through the struggling decades, a tellingly stubborn image of the artist persists. He sits obstinately in front of his painting in his studio, stuck, frustrated, staring and staring, thinking and thinking. He endured years of "painter's block" and actual poverty, but he never gave up. Even when, at last, he achieved a reputation, he still suffered years of economic insecurity. As the authors suggest, de Kooning was not far from being the archetypal artist in the garret.

He unquestionably became one of the stars of the so-called New York School. Yet his European origins and commercial art training, and his respect for the old masters and their essential challenge to a modern artist, were sometimes used as critical sticks to beat him with.

He had reached America as a stowaway immigrant. His heavy Dutch accent and novel, often witty, version of English never let this be forgotten. He retained a romantic, slightly naive view of America that did not quite yield to the brutal reality of the American art world or to the decades of indifference he suffered from an anti- art culture not much less obstinate than he was.

His hard-won success - well after World War II - was the fruit of a national change of attitude that his art had helped foster. But in the long run, it bore surprisingly little relation to what happened, or didn't happen, in his studio. For him, success or failure was determined only by what occurred within the rectangle of a canvas on his easel.

Something about de Kooning and his generation of New York artists - the generation that made New York the center of the art world rather than Paris - was driven by the idea of what "being an artist" necessitates. Poverty, promiscuity, and alcoholism were often its ingredients. …