I have no interest in writing a "review" of an exhibition I've seen. I'm not an art critic or art historian. My interest in seeing the works of other artists is as an artist myself. And as a painter, there are few artists that are more instructive or inspiring than Willem De Kooning.
Inspiration on Steroids
At the entrance to the exhibit was this portrait from 1943-44. I visited the show with my friend and fellow artist Nitasha McKnight, and as the two of us stood in front of this painting in awe unable to move, Nitasha said, "I get the feeling we are going to leave this show crying in pink." I think I already was.
We were finally able to pry ourselves away from this portrait, but we found ourselves continually immobilized by almost every single painting. His complex, labored surfaces offer so much subtlety and depth, while the fluid drawn lines insert an intentionality and confidence that so elegantly evokes sexy, sensual forms. These forms are repeated throughout his oeuvre and begin to form a language that becomes evident as you patiently work your way through the exhibition. Of course De Kooning is known for his bold merging of figuration and abstraction, of figure and ground, but until I had the luxury of walking through the annals of his entire career in one day, I don't think I fully appreciated the continuities and linkages among his seemingly disparate bodies of work. But there they were, available for all to see if you could just spend enough time looking. And as we stalked our way through the different stages of his career, every leap seemed more understandable, more inspiring.
Half way through the show, Nitasha and I had to take a break. We had spent hours studying the first few rooms, and we hadn't even come to the Woman series yet. Our heads were ready to explode as we tried to memorize every stroke and sensation that lay before us in charcoal and paint, analyzing and grappling with each and every major and minor development we could glean. Our eyes were exhausted from having to accommodate the demands of his scrambled, anarchic but palpable spaces. And the endless array of marks and gestures, scrubbed surfaces and impastoed passages, frail glazes and fearless over-painting, we were consuming it all in a gluttonous visual feast. We needed some time to digest.
We went downstairs for a coffee and sat there for awhile in silence. Finally, we both confessed that the show was inspiring to the point of shaming. Our own practices suddenly looked timid and cautious. We had viewed barely one-half of the exhibition and yet we had seen enough breakthroughs for at least three careers. De Kooning was ambitious, brave, constantly pushing his ideas into new territory in ways that were risky and fearless, never harping on one idea for too long, incurably restless and rigorous in his pursuit. It is an incredibly inspiring - and humbling - model for an artist's career. Nitasha and I agreed, we will have to do better.
|De Kooning's "Black Untitled", oil on canvas, 1948|
For those of you who know me, you know that I am really interested in the genealogy of images, in the influence of past images on the making of new images. This painting ("Black Untitled") by De Kooning is not one of his more famous images, but I was completely smitten with it at the exhibition. When you first approach it, it looks like a strange process-based piece, a relatively inconsequential work that must have been a mere stepping stone toward the more iconic masterpieces like the black and white "Painting" from 1948. But this modest untitled work just wouldn't let me go, and the more I looked, the more I saw.
The photograph of the painting looks much more graphic that the real thing, of course. The painting has a ghostly quality that is eerily dramatic. The longer I looked, the more figural references I came to see, and the tension and angst it evoked brought other great black and white works to mind. Most obviously, it seemed to have a lot of similarities to Picasso's Guernica:
|Picasso's "Guernica", 1937|
And once I put De Kooning's work in the lineage of Guernica, it was impossible to not see the spectre of Goya's "Disasters of War" etchings (1810-1815).
|Etchings by Goya from his "Disasters of War" series|
Most of the visitors were only giving this modest De Kooning a cursory glance as they walked through the exhibit. And it certainly would never have been a painting that I would have paid that much attention to if I had only seen it in reproduction. But standing before the painted object, I was completely seduced. Offering it my time and contemplation, it more than rewarded my efforts. These were not painting of instant gratification. Thankfully, Nitasha and I had the time to revel in each work, and the rewards would grow exponentially as we continued our epic trek through De Kooning's career.
By the time Nitasha and I had worked our way through the Women series and later figurative works, our knees were beginning to buckle again. Feeling like exhausted prizefighters entering the ninth round of a boxing match against the world champion, we took a moment to breathe deeply, trying to reinvigorate ourselves. We had to shake off the latest visual onslaught so we could brace ourselves for the body blows that we were certain would come. And come they did.
In the next room, the paintings were hung so close together you could practically see the curators throwing up their hands in surrender, unable to edit even one of the brilliant works out of the tight line-up. But there were two paintings that captured our attention for the longest.
|De Kooning, "Untitled", oil on canvas, 1977|
The first was "Untitled" from 1977, the watery blue painting with the red high-heeled shoe. In reproduction, it's hard to see what makes this painting so hypnotic. But in real life, it towers over you, the swaths of pale blue paint forming spaces that are positively pillowy, inviting you to dive in. The dark pthalo brushstrokes recede into delicate crevices, and the suggestions of surf, sand and sex is irresistable. As we walked around the room, I kept looking back at this painting, continually surprised by its visual depth and frothy surface. It wouldn't leave me alone.
The definitive punch that finally knocked us out was "Untitled III", also from 1977. Nitasha and I must have stood in front of this painting for almost half an hour, so long that we started to strategize ways we could pocket the 6 foot painting and run away with it forever.
|De Kooning, "Untitled III", oil on canvas, 1977|
Among the million and one things that we loved about it was the crazy color choices he had made and how perfectly they played together. We had been noting his color choices throughout the exhibit. I have always associated a particular pink with De Kooning (a juicy pink made from cadmium red light), but despite all of his well-known fleshy hues, throughout the exhibition I couldn't stop remarking on his use of yellow in particular. Any painter will tell you that yellow is a tough color to use well and with subtlety. It can easily be neutered into Easter egg pastels, or poisoned with too much complimentary purple. With the tiniest bit of red, it can succumb to the pressures of orange. Or in an attempt to dim its blinding brightness, it can quickly become fatally drained of its fragile vitality. But De Kooning uses yellow masterfully, unpredictably, never making it come off as staid or cliche, often making it the life-giving artery of the picture.
And don't get me started on his enlightened use of greens.
When we came upon "Untitled III", we just stood there in amazement. At first glance, it's just bloody gorgeous, but as you try to imagine the process of making the work, the subtle and bold choices of color become curiouser and curiouser. Admittedly, De Kooning has his muddy moments, but they always seem to be alleviated by an unusual and inspired remedy. One could look at this painting forever. I certainly tried.
We stared at this painting for as long as we could, hoping that if we just looked long enough, we could absorb his spirit and later replicate his genius in our own work. But overhwelmed and slightly dazed, we finally had to leave. Ever since, as if the ghost of De Kooning himself were whispering in my ear, I keep hearing a voice in my head repeating over and over: be more brave. Get back to the studio and be more brave.