Willem De Kooning; the Transcendent Art, Sordid Life Told in Telling Detail

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Willem De Kooning; the Transcendent Art, Sordid Life Told in Telling Detail


Byline: Eric Gibson, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There can hardly be a more treacherous subject for a biographer than the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. At the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 92 he had, at least in America, almost come to equal Picasso in the popular imagination as a kind of art god, a figure of transcendent, history-changing accomplishment. The immediate task facing any biographer, then, would be to cut through the myth without seeming to diminish him in stature.

At the same time, there is no more likely target of "pathography," Joyce Carol Oates's famous tag for biographies that focus exclusively on the seamy, sensational aspects of their subjects. For, while de Kooning may have been a major artist, his private life was a sordid wreck. How to keep it from obscuring his artistic accomplishments?

Finally, there is the tragedy of de Kooning's late years. Beginning around the mid-1980s, de Kooning began exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. Still, he kept painting. What is one to make of these works? Are they heroic strivings in the face of diminishing capacity, a great last flowering like the cutouts of Henri Matisse? Or are they little more than a child's scrawls put down by a man groping his way through a gathering mental twilight?

Into this forbidding terrain have stepped Mark Stevens and his wife Annalyn Swan to give us "De Kooning: An American Master." Mr. Stevens is the art critic of New York Magazine, Ms. Swan a music critic and former arts editor at Newsweek. They have emerged from it not just unscathed but having established themselves, on their first outing, as exemplary practitioners of the biographer's craft. "De Kooning" is the very model of what an artist's "life" should be. It is also one of the most depressing books you will ever read.

De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1904 into a family that could charitably be called dysfunctional. In 1926 he stowed away on a ship heading to America. He eventually made his way to Manhattan, where he continued a career begun in Holland of commercial artist. But he wanted to be a fine artist and, thanks to a friendship formed with Arshile Gorky in the late 1920s, gradually became part of the bohemian, downtown milieu of avant-garde artists who, in the 1930s and after, were struggling to rework the artistic legacies of Picasso, Matisse, and the Surrealists into something of their own.

From the start de Kooning, who had had some formal art training but possessed little first-hand knowledge of art, displayed a trademark tendency to go his own way. Much as he eagerly wished to be a "modern" artist, he was also a deeply traditional one: He drew incessantly; gave the human figure a central role in his art; and looked to the European Old Master tradition as something to be equaled and emulated rather than a burden to be shucked off.

After a lengthy period of searching for his own artistic voice (which nonetheless yielded a handful of significant pictures) de Kooning produced two breakthrough paintings in rapid succession. The first was "Excavation" (1950), an abstract work that synthesized Cubist planar structure and Surrealist biomorphism into a tense, allover field that heaves and strains as digesting something. The second was "Woman I" (1952) a work that has since become one of the canonical images of post-war American art.

She is Rubens updated - with a vengeance. A full-on frontal nude with eyes blazing and teeth bared, "Woman I" is an expressionist harpy, a creature whose unfettered psycho-sexual confrontation with the viewer makes the put-up-or-shut-up brothel mavens in Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" look demure by comparison. It was, too, another example of de Kooning's ability to go his own way: an openly figurative work by a leading avant garde artist painted only a few years after Jackson Pollock's drip paintings had, according to the critical consensus of the day, established abstraction as the only proper language of advanced art in America.

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