Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Paintings I Like, pt. 75

Willem de Kooning, Dark Pond, 1948. Enamel on composition board, 47" x 56."

Black Untitled, 1948. Oil and enamel on paper, mounted on wood, 30" by 40."

Untitled, 1948-49. Oil and enamel on paper, mounted on composition board, 36" by 49."

This post is something of a reprise of P.IL. 61; there was only one of de Kooning's black paintings in the big Ab Ex show a year ago at MoMA, but there was a really nice group of them in the current retrospective, which I wanted to talk about a little more.

At the risk of laboring a point I already made (which is something my wife is quite tired of), these pictures really emphasize de Kooning's European-ness in contrast to Pollock's American-ness, in spite of the passing resemblance between the WdK black paintings and Pollock's drips. Pollock's process-driven arabesques and monumental scale represented the apogee of a certain strain of American post-war abstraction. The figuration expunged all vestiges of representation while still using the curve; the latter being a kind of bugbear for European painters who could only achieve that level of abstraction via the grid. Pollock's big scale famously paralleled the big American vista, but it more importantly wrapped it's arms around the intrinsic relationship between the size of paintings and the size of people. 8' by 18' is big, but not that big - if that was the size of your apartment, you'd probably be grumpy about it. But it's big in the sense that without mimetic references, you compare the scale of abstract pictures to your own body, which is considerably smaller than many Pollocks.

De Kooning's black paintings, made at precisely the same time as Pollock's monumental drips, were attacked by Clement Greenberg - the small scale and vestigial representation, CG thought, were symptoms of terminal Euro-old-fashioned-ness; a refusal to embrace the modern. The black pictures are full of references to intertwined bodies - Reubensesque group sex scenes captured in a kind of glimpsed photo-negative. But what Greenberg couldn't understand at the time was that for de Kooning, banishing all reference to sexy European Baroque easel painting couldn't possibly be considered a victory on any level. Abstraction for him was a way of expanding that already rich language, not rejecting it. Embedded in this approach was a refusal to be made a foot-soldier in a certain kind of aesthetic-cultural battle. And as I've been saying in previous posts, this is what makes him the really relevant role model for the contemporary painter - expansion and synthesis as opposed to reduction, and choices based on a personal vision as opposed to a historical agenda.

Also of interest - the shadowy d richmond of Immaterial-Culture has put up some very good posts on the de Kooning retrospective - click here, here, and here to read them.