Williem de Kooning, "Painting," 1948. Oil and enamel on canvas, 43" x 56."
I just saw the Ab Ex show at MoMa, and the next few installments of "Paintings I Like" will be dedicated that fine exhibition. As I was deciding which picture to start with, I realized that Willem de Kooning has never been the subject of P.IL.
The de Kooning/Harold Rosenberg alliance and the Pollock/Greenberg allaince were sort of like the Beatles and Stones of Ab Ex (or maybe the Beatles and the Beach Boys? Anyway, you get my point). I always came down squarely on the Pollock/Greenberg side - I have real problems with Rosenberg's quasi-mystical prose, and de Kooning's women are Paintings I Don't Like. But de Kooning did lots of other stuff besides those.
De Kooning's European-style beaux-arts training permeated all his work, even the more strictly non-objective paintings like the one shown above. Even though there are no eyes, faces, or body parts, there are voluptuous references to all of them throughout the picture - he could rarely achieve the level of abstraction that Rothko, Newman and Pollock all seemed to have such easy access to. There was a time that I would have counted this as a flaw in the picture; the fact that he couldn't give up the last vestiges of representation (as was the case with many European Modernists, most notably Picasso). But now that making the ultimate abstraction is no longer such a life-or-death proposition, it really doesn't strike me as an issue any more.
Those loopy arabesques create a kind of photo-negative of a fast moving orgy; he continually provides his famous "glimpse" of actions just passed or about to happen. And it might be the sense of swirling motion, but the picture never gets weighed down by all that black - it's as light as a feather, which, as any painter will tell you, is no mean feat. I could (and did) circulate around those curves and drips for a very long time without tiring of the picture.
De Kooning used black and white paint at this point in his career because of poverty, but it suited his gestural style exceptionally well - there was no possibility of making mud-pies, as was the case with many of the woman pictures and some of the early color abstractions. Wet-into-wet black and white paint can only make grey - no worries!
The painter would come to a splendid accord with color late in his career, but by the time he figured it out few people cared. Such are the vicissitudes of a life in art.