On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

THE FATAL WOMEN Of PICASSO AND DE KOONING 1984

When I was asked in the autumn of 1983 to contribute to this catalogue an essay on Picasso and de Kooning, the topic at first sounded distant and historical, a study of artistic relations between the older and the younger master way back in the 1940s. There might be, for example, a consideration of how de Kooning took the structure of Analytic Cubism, with its shuffled, overlapping planes and fractured chiaroscuro, and then rejuvenated it, electrifying its latent energies with the full force of his pictorial thunder and lightning. As a subdivision of this dialogue with Cubism, there might also be a discussion of de Kooning's use of letters and word fragments, as in Zurich ( 1947) or Zot ( 1949), or his occasional intrusion of clippings from popular imagery--an advertisement for cigarettes (as in Study for Woman, 1950), a photograph of a woman's head (as in Woman 1, 1961)--which would balance the growing illegibility of his torrential labyrinths of paint with a startlingly legible glimpse of prosaic reality. And there might be, too, a discussion of the impact of Picasso's frequent explorations of monochrome, whether in the years of Analytic Cubism or in Guernica,1 upon de Kooning's own restrictions to extremes of black and white in the pivotal years 1947-48. And still more broadly speaking, any thoughts of the importance of Picasso for de Kooning would have to deal with the question of their common psychological approach to the female body, often re-creating it with paint on canvas as if it were the victim of physical or sexual assault.

These questions, however, seemed to belong very much to the past until, by a happy coincidence in the winter of 1983-84, New Yorkers were first able to see the de Kooning retrospective itself at the Whitney Museum and then, shortly afterward, to see at the Guggenheim Museum the illuminating exhibition "Picasso: The Last Years, 1963-1973," which opened many eyes to the continuing vitality of a master whom many considered irrelevant to the history of modern art since 1945. For it soon became apparent that in the 1960s there was a remarkable convergence between these two transatlantic masters of succeeding generations, born twenty-three years apart, almost to the point that they shared an old-age style. And there were other revelations. Although both Picasso and de Kooning were long thought of as cultivating their private gardens, isolated from and sadly irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary art, suddenly both these masters looked freshly topical, intersecting closely with

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