Woman Redux: De Kooning, Mailer and American Abstract Expression

Article excerpt

I am not a seasoned Norman Mailer scholar, even though his writing has captivated me since I first read him in college. Any more knowledgeable Mailer scholar who thinks I get him wrong might chalk it up to the distorting influence of Ernest Hemingway, that other white male who has commandeered a big chunk of my scholarship. Actually, I recognize that both authors provoke passionate and intemperate reactions, sometimes from women, perhaps due to the public personas of these writers as hard-hitting, women-be-damned kinds of guys. Nonetheless, both these writers are quite similar in speaking directly to their times with art that shocks convention and galvanizes emotional truth. No person, male or female, who reads well either of these authors remains unaffected.

In order to arrive at artistic truth, Mailer tried to write "with the soul of a beautiful woman" as he, not unlike Hemingway, worked from the inside out (Prisoner 152). This required radical action and innovative artistic techniques representative of the best and most transformative expressionist art. For Hemingway, that meant scrutinizing and then modeling his writing after the skewed perspectives and disjointed landscapes of Paul Cezanne, and for Mailer that meant appropriating for his art the erratic swirls and painterly distortions of Willem de Kooning, a leading figure among the American Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and 1960s in New York. Following the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer's traditional war novel that brought him early fame in 1948, Mailer dared to experiment with unconventional literary forms and techniques so as to penetrate the post WWII veneer of respectability and social and historical posturing. Mailer's slash attack on American complacency and his use of distortion verged toward the irreverent and outlandish in his most shockingly powerful 1965 novel An American Dream. This work, sandwiched between Mailer's war novel and his later autobiographical narratives forged in the school of new journalism, redefined expressionism for a post-WWII America. The novel unsettles and disorients as it defies conventional notions of gender, love, and artistic innovation. The writer of such a daredevil work should not be held at arms' length, even by women.

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In order to discuss Mailer as a new expressionist who straddled realism and the surreal in creating a provocative and profound portrait of women, he is best aligned with another twentieth-century artist of Mailer's time, Willem de Kooning, a painter who loved women even as he seemed to mutilate them on the canvas. De Kooning's biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan regard de Kooning's painting "Woman I," which he worked on over the course of three difficult years, 1950-52, as "one of the most disturbing and storied" images of a woman in the history of art (309). This painting marked a turning point for de Kooning, who clung to realism even as he yanked it free from formula, similar to Mailer.

Mailer's portrait of Deborah Rojack's murder in An American Dream bears uncanny parallels to de Kooning's "Woman I," a painting that Norman Mailer knew well by the time he was working on his novel. An examination of the two works in tandem illuminates how Mailer's attempt, at least in this novel, was not to destroy women but to liberate them from within and to restore harmony for both men and women. I realize that my ideas here risk comparison to all those sick doctor jokes wherein the patient is told the good news that the doctors will be able to save her. The bad news is that to save her they must first kill her. Mailer recognized that Kate Millet, along with other feminists, believe that male writers love to kill off their heroines as aggressive acts of male superiority. Judith Fetterly never forgave Hemingway for killing Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms, and Millet lashes out at D. H. Lawrence for his slaughter of a white woman at the hands of natives in "The Woman Who Rode Away. …

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