Willem Dekooning at Allan Stone Gallery (1970s)

New York City



 Though Willem De Kooning is relatively sacred as an artist today and comfortably ensconced at the Knoedler Gallery, the posh home of fashionable art, his place in history may not be too secure if one is to judge by the evidence on display here (Allan Stone Gallery, 48 E. 86th, works from the 40's and 50's, through November 1st).


 He will be remembered as a member of a movement in the 1950's, but the work itself is repetitious, too dependent on the calculated slash, too consistently stressing technical means.


 One picture in the exhibition, "Lisabeth's Painting," 1957, seems more personal and less relentless than some of the others (as if an accident or momentary relaxation had taken place) because of what appear to be small prints of a child's hands dipped in white paint doing a vertical dance across the center of the De Kooning brushwork.


 All this isn't to say that De Kooning didn't have courage in doing what he did; though like so many of the Abstract-Expressionists (and generations of other artists), he was wound so tightly in Picasso's clutches that he had to do something desperate to break away.


 Nor is it to say that De Kooning's paintings don't have a convincing power that sets them above the work of his imitators and most of his contemporaries. But, on viewing his later work (not on exhibition here), one feels that De Kooning has fallen into the trap of feeling that he must continue to turn out "De Koonings," producing watered-down versions of himself. One cannot look at a roomful of De Kooning drawings of women, for example, without them seeming repetitious formulas despite their emotional jumps and jerks.


 And the paintings have a similar effect. There is something fiendishly powerful and true about his early women, but one wearies of seeing a later slash of yellow abut a slash of blue, with the accompanying predictable spatter of angular paint drops at one end of the brush stroke.


 If De Kooning is exorcising private demons or the monster of 20th Century life under which we all suffer, his emotional extravagances are understandable and perhaps reflect, and help to ease, our tensions, as well as his own. As such, they are in every sense preferable to the sterilities of hard-edge, geometric painting and the constructivists who have capitulated to the inhuman technological monster, prostrating and prostituting themselves before it, begging only to serve.


 In contrast to them, De Kooning is the most alive and personal of artists. At least his blood pulses and flows, and he feels emotion, rather than the pseudo-intellectual titillation of playing a neat orange stripe against one slightly less orange in color, carefully removing the masking tape so the edge will be sharp and clear, and above all, impersonal.


 But, in the end, one wearies of De Kooning like most of today's artists because he explores too narrow a field of artistic and human possibilities. To some, he may be expressing cosmic urgencies, but his paintings (no matter how powerful) remain a splash of yellow, obliterating one of blue (the 1950's), or relatively sharp-edged, angry or anguished Picassoesque distortions (the 1940's).


 Despite all of today's artificiality, and technology's assault on our humanity, we remain human, with a human being's need to see, touch, smell and feel the real world. De Kooning and the others can never satisfy but a small part of this need.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms