Willem de Kooning, What Do His Paintings Mean? (thoughts based on the artist's paintings and sculpture at his Whitney Museum exhibition, December 15, 1983 - February 26, 1984)



 The question was asked another way about painter Willem de Kooning in the New York Times Magazine, "What is it that keeps the 79 year old artist going?"


 There are no easy answers to questions of meaning and incentive applied to any artist. But there is an aesthetic and symbolic language of form, shape, texture, color and gesture which can to some extent be interpreted, whether the artist is de Kooning or Rembrandt.


 If a painted figure is distorted or defaced rather than being whole and intact, it means exactly the same thing as if a glass has been shattered or a body lies broken by the roadside or on a battlefield. Life, and one's sense of it, has been wounded or fragmented: something has been rendered useless or destroyed.


 The explosive nature of de Kooning`s work tells us that it is an art of struggle, that its source is both painful and personal, obviously based on feeling over intellect and very probably stemming from some "primal event" (as Freud might term it) in his early life, or series of events, so traumatizing that the artist was forced to thrust them into his unconscious, and has spent a lifetime trying to keep a lid on them, only to have the unconscious contents violently erupt countless times in his paintings.


 The nature of repressed materials is such that, ultimately, they desire and need to become conscious (continually giving us hints of their existence through dreams and irrational behavior), and unless we are able to gradually or spontaneously admit them to consciousness, they continue to churn and fester, subterranean psychological poisons forcing themselves upward until they erupt like boils in fits of disruptive activity.


 The artist -- any artist -- has an advantage over the layman in that he may release energy and spew poison (as well as beauty and poetry) onto a canvas, a convenient and cathartic release and sublimation of the emotions resulting from the original painful life experiences and their suppression.


 An artist's violent behavior in the studio with regard to his materials, while it may be looked at askance by conventional society, is solicited, admired by the cognoscenti, and, in the case of the successful artist, elevated to myth and deification. Similar behavior out in society in the form of robbery, arson, rape and murder would not be tolerated. Thus, the power of sublimation and redirection of primitive behavior into socially acceptable, redeeming channels.


 What were the early experiences that so left their mark on de Kooning? What do women seem to represent to him that he will so flagellate them, the paint surface (whether or not they are present as subjects) and himself?


 We can only speculate, but there are universals in human character formation, as there are aesthetically in the language of art. Everyone's image of women is formed by one's first contacts, generally with the mother. De Kooning's parents were divorced when he was five. Originally with the father, his mother fought for and won the right to his custody. Apparently de Kooning's mother was head-strong, devouring and ceaselessly manipulative. In such an environment, the artist could easily develop an unease growing into fear perhaps, repulsion, even hatred of his mother (which he might hesitate to admit to himself even in maturity because she was his mother) not unmixed with a desire to love and be loved by her -- again, she is, after all, his mother -- just as later on he would transfer this anguish to women generally, combined with a natural sexual and emotional attraction to, and need for, them. In some respects in the pre-1960's works (his "Woman" series), de Kooning may be rebelling against his own need of women.


 Thus the seeds of a searing ambivalence may have been sown -- an extreme intensification of the normal battle of the sexes typified by the cliché, "you can't live with them, you can't live without them."


 Further, from the example of the art itself, it seems that de Kooning may be experiencing a not uncommon emotional situation regarding women, wherein the male is torn between two attitudes. In one, he may place a woman on an impossibly high pedestal of perfection, creating an idealized being of such purity, that he is unable to significantly relate to her sexually or emotionally. On the other hand, he may regard her as something appropriate to be used for his lust but not worthy of his love or respect. This attitude was apparently particularly widespread in Victorian times.


 A continual schism, with a great deal of suffering for both the man and woman involved, exists between the two misconceptions of women, which no single woman can ever bridge, because the bifurcation exists within the man, which only he can resolve by coming to terms with himself.


 Evidence of this conflict in de Kooning's paintings seems the unremitting violence of the artist's attack upon the women who are his subjects and the paint surface itself. De Kooning's women have taken a terrible fall from purity into filth and degradation, becoming very torn and scarred in the process. They are, in the paintings, voluptuous but depraved, alluring but dangerous, disillusioning and disappointing in their fall from the pedestal...and therefore must be symbolically destroyed.


 Herein may lie the answer to the question posed in the New York Times. De Kooning must continue to paint as he does, must continue to perform what amount to periodic exorcisms -- nearly primal scream therapy -- to release continually rising internal pressures.


 Other evidence of this bifurcation of emotional, artistic attitude is the contrast between the desecrations of the female, the aesthetic slashings, gougings and deformations of her body, and the glamourized innocence of the Marilyn Monroe-based paintings, and "Study for Woman," 1950. The doll/puppet-like idealization of the heads strongly contrasts with the angular lacerations of bodies and breasts.


 In 1961, a cursorily-sketched figure with a bloated, disfigured body has a smiling, magazine-photo cutout for a head. It is an obvious statement of conflict between an ideal and a troubling psychological reality, as it is of the equally basic split between mind and feeling that de Kooning's work represents.


 However, an almost hopelessly fantasized, dual figure, "Barbie-Doll" conception in "Clam Diggers," 1964, creates a unity of heads and bodies which seems an expression of the emotional fulfillment and at least partial resolution of de Kooning's agony in this decade.


 There seem to be three major periods in the painting of Willem de Kooning: the late 1930's to mid-to-late 1940's; late 40's to approximately 1960; early 60's to the present. A summary of the general characteristics of these periods is as follows:


 1. Late 30's to mid-to-late 40's: a sense of melancholy and restriction of feeling and style in abstractions and male and female figures which express the artist's helplessness to deal with his problems.


 2. late 40's to approximately 1960: increasingly violent feelings and fragmented, black-outlined shapes in such paintings as "Ashville," leading to the eruption, essentially in the early 1950's of the "Woman" series and slashing post-"Woman" abstractions like "Composition," 1955, all expressive of a viciously cathartic, no holds barred confrontation with the demons of his inner self and violently mixed emotions concerning women which he so sought to repress in the first period. The force eases again in abstractions of greater geometric sweep and relative relaxation in the late 50's like "Bolton Landing," 1957, evolving to the increasingly light-filled "Door to the River," 1960 (which could be a subcategory of period two).


 3. Early 1960's to present: the relatively hard-edged, tense angularity, acidic violence and pathos of the pre-1960's paintings gives way to a more succulently sensual, orgiastic, exuberantly relaxed brushwork and construction of figures and composition. There is an expression of childish, primitive, erotic glee on the faces of figures that are discernible; a sense of coming to terms with, of yielding to, feeling and eroticism, of allowing oneself to sink deeply into the loving arms of the universal, all-enveloping, feminine demi-urge, the powers of the earth ("Mother" Earth, we might add), rather than the sky, the area of God the Father and the intellect.


 Though deKooning seeks to merge with liquidly, sprawlingly, orgiastic femaleness rather than explore or express individual women with specific and differing characteristics of mind, body and feeling, these works suggest an at least partial coming to terms with himself.


 What follows is a more thorough discussion of periods one and two. Working simultaneously in abstraction and figuration, the earliest examples of de Kooning's paintings at the Whitney, dating from the late 30's, represent a denial and attempted repression of his pain. But the intense pressure the artist is under is obvious in the heavily melancholy, severely restrained forms and feeling. While men are the primary subjects, women begin to enter the canvases. These male and female figures express the artist's helplessness through palely-grey colors, absent or deformed hands, morose, jaundiced gaze and looping, flaccid lines and biomorphic shapes. The figures seem barely breathed onto the canvas as if doubtful of the validity of their own existence, defenseless to deal with the world and their own destinies.


 These men and women, precursors of the famous women of the early 50's, while carefully drawn and painted, are as fragmented in their way as any of the artist's later work, with some parts of the figures delineated with an unnatural, surrealist clarity, while others dissolve into the background. Their closely-related values and color combinations -- greyed brown, pink, orange and green -- speak of a sensibility far removed from the raw light and vivid contrasts of the real world into a hazy, dankly-lit subterranean realm of the psyche.


 In the late 40's, cubist (Picasso is always a major presence in de Kooning's work) and surrealist elements collide to create heavily-fragmented, black-outlined, proto-Abstract-Expressionist works. But with the emergence of the women, de Kooning is forced to come face to face with his inner demons. They have popped up out of his unconscious to be attacked, literally doll-like surrogates stabbed full of pins in magical hope that the torment and its original cause will disappear or die.


 In 1948, de Kooning paints an ancestor of his ragged "Woman" series in which an intensely spiky sun seems to attack and erode the face of the somewhat bewildered, wide-eyed, upward-gazing woman. The knife-like angularities of the sun's rays seem a personification of the strong feelings (pain? anger?) within the artist as he attacks that which is within himself as the disturbing contents of his unconscious, personified by the woman (incidentally, all de Kooning's women have his aquiline features) come to semi-consciousness (also symbolized by the sun: the light of day and of reason). The resulting shock brings forth his "Woman" series as recognition and revelation of the causes of his inner suffering.


 Thus, de Kooning's "Woman" series of the early 1950's seems images of encounter -- with himself -- graphically representing the conflicting feelings about his mother and women that must be reckoned with in the enormity of their horror. Whether or not the artist was fully aware at that time, or is fully conscious now, of the nature of his imagery, he became fully involved with his feelings, and a moment of great, cathartic release was attained. The pressure valve opened, venting tremendous inner steam. De Kooning's work would never be the same again, would always fight constraint, once he had felt the blessed relief.


 It must be recognized that all of his "Women" are not alike. "Woman I," 1950, is fangily violent and obscene in the immediacy of her presence. "Woman II," 1952, relatively at peace, while "Woman VI," 1953, is helplessly benign and, though very different in style from the 30's and early 40's women, very similar in mood and meaning. This variation suggests differing degrees of directness in the recognition, expression and at least temporary resolution of his inner life.


 "Woman and Bicycle," 1952-53, with her double, grinning mouths is like "Woman I." The aggressive expression of feelings released by the artist's courage and desperation, and their own intrinsic power, is like a lion-tamer opening the door of a cage containing a particularly dangerous beast. Thus, the "Woman" series signals a kind of psychic victory for de Kooning in facing his demons on at least an intuitional level.


 The bifurcation and duality in de Kooning's life and work is exemplified by (1) concurrent abstraction and figuration in the 30's and 40's, (2) the basic schism between mind and feeling, (3) the elevation of women versus their degradation, (4) the combining of semi-hidden male figures with the females in some of the "Woman" paintings (see "Woman I"), and (5) his works containing paired female figures. These latter dual figures, rather than offering opposites of the ideal and degraded, positive and negative aspects of his feelings about women, are in fact double doses of the destruction and destructiveness of the female. They are bloat-breasted, knock-kneed boobies, alternately hapless and ultimately vindictive. They look as if they have been assaulted; or they turn upon and attack the would-be attacker.


 A very interesting drawing, "Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother," 1938, combining pained self-awareness with innocence, is a strange precursor of the paired female images, as is "Two Men Standing," a painting of similar theme of that year. The youths have large heads, sensitive faces (tense and world-examining in de Kooning; spiritually removed and upwardly gazing in the brother...like the "Woman," 1948) and small bodies suggesting an idealized elevation of aspirational mind versus a denial of troubling body and feeling obviously expressive of the ideas previously discussed.


 This drawing also seems a manifestation of the two sides of de Kooning, the real, physical, ego-containing man and that part of him which is split off, which he alternately idealizes in his imaginary brother, but seeks to destroy in many of the women. The imaginary brother touchingly symbolizes de Kooning's need for psychic wholeness, for oneness, for integration of disturbing feelings he had not attained at that time.


 It isn't to diminish de Kooning's work to suggest that the use of intellect is extremely minimal, as intuition and feeling, urged on by inner need, are by far the dominant elements. This is not de Kooning's situation alone. One of the reasons for his fame (and that of Jackson Pollock), is that he epitomizes the pre-eminent split between mind and feeling that affects world society and is so visible in art in the simultaneously existing polar opposites of various types of expressionism and the over-rationalities of minimal and conceptual art. De Kooning becomes an archetypal symbol of his era, raised to eminence by people who consciously or unconsciously recognize that he epitomizes that which ails them. In our time, ailment and fragmentation are more treasured than health and wholeness because the former are so widespread they have to be made into virtues, while the latter, once the ideal, are now so rare as to make their attainment seem difficult or impossible.


 It is also particularly appropriate in a dehumanized age concerned with manipulating masses of humanity -- showing little respect for people as individuals -- that woman, who in myth, art and reality has always been a symbol of life, beauty, fertility and abundance, should be so desecrated, helpless, destroyed and even turned into a violent avenger in a century devoted more to the destruction of life and the earth through war and chemical poisoning than to their protection and enhancement.


 De Kooning's art clearly offers an emotional alternative to a time bent on destroying human capacity to feel, to need, to aspire by means of a vast, mechanistic, technologically-monolithic society which rewards a self-serving, nearly robot over-rationality and sterile efficiency, while feeling is viewed as eccentric, aberrational and likely to clog the smooth functioning of a dehumanizing, computer-oriented world.


 If it is difficult not to see some aspects of de Kooning's paintings as excremental in the sense of a cathartic spewing or vomiting from one orifice or the other, it is absolutely impossible not to view his sculpture that way. Not meant to be either critical or demeaning, this conception accurately describes the twisted, wrenched, punched, pulled, squeezed, attenuated, dislocated and blackened bronze forms and the equivalent psychic cleansing the artist has attempted.


 More than de Kooning's paintings ever have, perhaps due to the blandishments of color, however agitated, and the limitations of two dimensions, these figurative sculptures express the length and breadth of the artist's elemental psychological concerns. Confronting these astounding pieces, one grasps for language adequate to their description and the expression of their meaning.


 The sculptures are "tar-babies" in the Uncle Remus tale punched and twisted by the struggles of Brer Rabbit to free himself. They're scarred, charred and blasted semi-human, dwarfish remnants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are flaccid, yet organically-charged forms like gnarled, tar-covered tree stumps and roots; ancient waste products of horrifying, intense inner experience; ancient, childish, primitive things ripped from the bowels of de Kooning's inner man.


 Tormented death's heads, psychic purgings, warty, tumorous, noduled vomitings; knobby, defecated forms and surfaces extruded, roughened and warped by the passionate, desperate pressures of the artist's hands. They are absolutely primitive and primordial, the very substance of the artist's being at an ultimately elemental level, descending far beneath the veneer of intellect, civilization and "acceptable behavior" to a subterranean arena hidden from the light of sun and the perception of the eye and mind of man...at the absolute foundation of existence.


 It is the place of both horror and redemption where hideous monsters of the deep -- spiky, malformed, tendril-trailing fishes and sea serpents -- co-exist with God. It is the unconscious -- the 20th Century equivalent of, substitute for, God -- where beauty rides astride the most bestial of loathsome beasts far beyond the ken of the conventions of the work-a-day world so superficially on the surface of life.


 Like Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," "The Confidence Man" and "Bartleby the Scrivener," de Kooning has scraped bottom in these sculptures, examined his grave doubts about the meaning and validity of existence, and lived to tell about it. Not all can make such a dive into the depths and survive. Perhaps those who do survive are never unscathed, accounting for the disturbing, cryptic vagueness in the artist's public thinking and manner.


 De Kooning's three paintings from 1982 on exhibit, are more controlled in contoured, looping shapes very similar to the 1930's - 40's abstractions and figures. In that sense, the artist's career has come full circle. The savage energy that was hidden in, buried under the stylizations of the early work, erupting powerfully in the 50's women, more lyrically in the 60's and 70's figures and abstractions, has subsided once more in the 80's.


 In one sense, de Kooning has been painting the same picture over and over. Perhaps all artists do this: Van Gogh creating Van Goghs, Rembrandt Rembrandts, the way Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and John Wayne seemed to replay themselves and the same role throughout their careers. No one can escape who and what they are. This need not be too surprising in de Kooning's case because the same psychic drama and trauma continue to replay themselves over and over again, most often resulting in repeated obliterating gestures and images of attempted dismissal; though, as mentioned, a post-1960 synthesis of sorts seems to have taken place, at least in the overtly figurative paintings, where sensual revel seems the dominant note.


Copyright by Don Gray


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