Willem de Kooning, Untitled V, 1982. Oil on canvas, 80" x 70."
I'm a little late to the party, I know, but I wanted to get in a few posts about the fabulous de Kooning retrospective at MoMA before it comes down on January 9th. Even if you're a hardcore painting-is-dead partisan, I think it would be pretty difficult to walk out of this show without feeling a at least a twinge of doubt about those convictions - the exhibition was dazzling and protean, and more than made up for the paucity of de Kooning canvases in the otherwise magnificent Ab Ex NY show at MoMA a year ago.
For a while now, I've felt that the crisis in painting (or the series of crises) since the late sixties has been something of a fiction. The real crisis as I see it was centered not in painting itself, but in the literature on painting. Fewer and fewer people had anything particularly penetrating to offer on the subject in print, and this was interpreted as a failing in the medium itself as opposed to the literature. The focus of art writing then shifted away from the visual and towards subject matter, often political or critique-driven - topics which exist much more naturally in essay form. As I've said many times, it's hard to come up with 1,000 compelling words about blue. But really, does this mean blue is dead?
I know it may seem that I'm digressing a bit from de Kooning, but give me a minute. The real problems painting faced after Ab Ex and Color Field were the same problems that painting has faced for about 700 years, the same problems face by the Ab Ex painters. Periodically, you have to change the way you do it - you can't go on painting the way that the previous generation painted. Paradoxically, the way that many painters have found a way forward was to look back; Manet found his patron saint in Velazquez and didn't try and hide it, yet he was able to build a truly modern style based on this precedent. The Ab Ex painters had a similar relationship to Picasso even as they sought to supersede him.
Clement Greenberg was dismissive of de Kooning because the latter refused to embrace pure abstraction; CG interpreted this as the same kind of conservatism displayed by Picasso when he turned away from Cubism and returned to the figure. At the time, this argument mattered, because abstract painting was fighting for an identity distinct from 19th century beaux-arts representational painting. But fast forward sixty or so years to now, and the idea of pure abstraction doesn't matter much, and now one can get a good look at de Koonings without the issues of his day muddying the the water. de Kooning, from an interview in 1951:
"I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space."
De Kooning understood the ideas that were in the air at the time. He chose the ones that were useful to him and rejected the ones he had no use for. He mixed these together with his influences from the the recent and distant past, and most importantly added the force of an intensely personal vision of how one should paint. I think that the contemporary painter, trying to figure out how to proceed in the impossibly complex art scene of the early twenty-first century, could learn a lot from this approach.
Plus, I like an abstract artist who isn't afraid to paint a horse. Look for a few more de Kooning posts before the show comes down.