Here are his own famous words, but he didn't know they stated a problem, he couldn't see the problem even when it stared him in the face: "Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented."(1) He didn't know that this idea kept him from Modern greatness, or rather that it made him a great old master, for it's an old master idea of painting, not a Modern one. As idee fixe, flesh implies a traditionalist's reliance, indeed dependence, on the model (however abstracted or disguised)--an inability to break away from the objective referent. Thus it implies a misunderstanding of the whole direction in which Modern painting was moving in de Kooning's era: the liberation from any model (external or internal), any descriptive mimetic purpose--any association beyond what is immanent in paint itself, in its fluidity and lability. This line of Modernist art fosters a sense of spontaneity. Painting becomes primary, self-reflexive, apparently parthenogenetic process; gesture reacts to and builds on gesture, seemingly without interference from reflection. The image may take chance form, but more often it flows with raw grace. There is a sense of unpredictable eruption--automatist abandon-- bursting the seams of the picture, making it uncontainable: a magmatic flow of protean expression, an abstract catharsis of archaic passion.
Wassily Kandinsky announced the goal and Jackson Pollock realized it. De Kooning did not. Thinking he was rendering his memories and fantasies of touching and caressing and rubbing and kneading flesh--if also of jabbing and poking and tearing and crushing it--he could not paint "informally" and freely. His paint is hemmed in by its representational purpose, by its instrumental role in his conscious reflection on the body, by his inherited wish to render the body, if in a new way. His paint must fit the body, its procrustean bed. When it doesn't it seems wasted. De Kooning is a libertine, but not a painterly one: he wants to plumb female flesh, leave his painterly fingerprints in it, rather than paint for the sake of painting.
It is hard, perhaps narcissistically impossible, for an artist to break away completely from the figure. It is hard to realize spontaneity, let alone sustain it;(2) hard to stop thought's interference in feeling, in process; hard to efface oneself, to become simply the medium of one's spontaneity, to suspend the way the mind inhibits process by preconceiving its goal. It is hard to make the dynamics of painting what count, not the subject matter; the how of painting, not what issues from it. De Kooning can never forget what he is painting. However dynamically he works, he is addressing a subject matter, and a tired, overworked, academic one at that: flesh. And flesh in his images is more an idea than a sensation, simply because he knows he is addressing it. His paintings invite us to interpret them rather than merge with them.
As you look at a de Kooning, then, it comes to seem less and less spontaneous. Indeed it may come to seem contrived, mannerist, stylized, arch. This art is ultimately not about liberation but about craft, not about dissolving flesh into paint that is thrilling enough in itself to make the figure seem beside the point, but about crafting flesh into abstract shapes, half erotic curve, half aggressive angle. The picture frame is a window in which the female body is exhibited as in Holland's red-light districts. And the women are small-time cabaret performers, clearly related to the whores of Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. De Kooning has a strong sense of the eros of paint, but a stronger one of the eros of flesh. His obsession with flesh sometimes makes his pictures seem like scenes from a superior pulp literature. Indeed his attitude to the female body resembles that of Zola: he wants to see it decay.(3)
Like Picasso, de Kooning could never make the leap into total abstraction, could never forgo memory and perception.(4) Both artists had the opportunity to do so, at a time when that would have advanced the power of art, and both failed to take it. …