Willem De Kooning

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, December 5, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Willem De Kooning


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


The extremely moving retrospective exhibition devoted to the paintings of Willem de Kooning (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 8) was organized to mark and celebrate the artist's ninetieth birthday. But the show inevitably memorializes the art of the New York School, which de Kooning's work epitomizes, and provokes a number of thoughts on the reciprocal relationships between individual artists and the large transformative movements actualized through their work. These reflections are reinforced by the fact that the show coincides with an extraordinary exhibition (at the same museum until the same date) dedicated to the origins of Impressionism, considered as a movement. For the individual Impressionists stood to that movement in relationships parallel, in many ways, to those in which the Abstract Expressionists, as the artists of the New York School have come indelibly to be known, stood to their own.

Let's begin with one of those relationships. One singular effect of Abstract Expressionism as an artistic movement was the way in which it transformed the figures who belonged to its first wave from moderately gifted picture-makers in one or another idiom of backwater modernism into towering creators of monumental works that were, in Robert Motherwell's phrase, "plastic, mysterious, and sublime." It was as if the style acted like some tremendous tidal surge, lifting up the handful of individuals who were to define the movement and depositing them on some unknown shore, where the first footprints were theirs. Being part of a movement is nearly always a piece of tremendous good fortune for an artist. One might, for example, ponder what might have become of the artists who became Impressionists had the movement not swept them onto a fresh plane of painterly possibilities. Whatever their individual endowments as artists, it is difficult to believe that they would have become more than what the French call petits maitres had they continued in a historically straight line, developing those endowments in ways their antecedent historical circumstances defined, becoming portraitists or landscapists or still-life painters in the styles with which they began, and of which they were already masters on the eve of Impressionism. But Impressionist and "pre-Impressionist" - to use a historical term unavailable before Impressionism came about - painting are far closer to each other, for all the critical indignation Impressionism released, than are Abstract Expressionism and the relatively pallid modernisms its adherents left behind when the movement turned them into geniuses. No exhibition could in this respect be more instructive than a before-and-after-1948 show of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. As luck would have it, the Pace Gallery has organized an exhibition of the early work of Barnett Newman, composed of paintings almost desperate in their searching and inconsequence, until the breakthrough, in 1948, of Onement I - a work that astonished the artist himself and that we can perhaps see striving to emerge in some of the works it otherwise cast into irrelevancy. The de Kooning of pre-Abstract Expressionism painted the sad single figures that were the currency of Depression art, and whatever their merits, these paintings have as interest only the fact that someone who became great doing something else executed them.

If we were to focus on the works of the "after" part of our before-and-after show, we would be struck, l think, quite apart from their disproportion with the show's "before" section, by a second singular fact: namely, the stylistic incommensurability between the works of the different artists the movement redeemed. Each of them exemplifies the essence of Abstract Expressionism, but always in the artist's own particular way, so much so that had de Kooning (for example) not existed, it would be impossible to imagine his paintings on the basis of the work of his peers.

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