Vincent van Gogh once said, "The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore." As apt a metaphor as any for the 70-year-long journey that was Willem de Kooning’s career. De Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904. He stowed away on a ship as a young man, sailing to New York, where he became arguably one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century. de Kooning: A Retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, NY, traces the course he navigated through the art of his time.
From his early training as a decorative painter in Holland, a housepainter in Hoboken, and a commercial illustrator in Manhattan, de Kooning moved on quickly to investigate the burgeoning movement known as Modernism. Early on he befriended the artist Arshile Gorky, who became his primary influence and mentor, friend, and sometimes rival. Along with Gorky, de Kooning began to explore ways in which to abstract the figure, in "Pink Angels" (1945) [above], as well as to make early forays into purely non-objective works such as "untitled (The Cow Jumps over the Moon)" (1937-38). His constant determination and relentless perfectionism (he seldom considered a work finished) came to embody an archetypal image of the mid-century painter. A Captain Ahab in search of an illusive Modernist image.
De Kooning’s process of building a painting was intertwined with the movement that it depicted as well as the movement involved in the act of painting. He often rotated the painting while working on it -- attacking it from all four sides. While working on a nominally figurative work, "Woman" (1951), he considered the figure/ground relation from every angle. At times he would draw with his eyes closed, with his left hand, or with both hands at once. He especially liked to draw while watching television, trying to capture the instantaneous movement on the screen. "My drawings are fast, like snapshots," he said. His paintings were slow; he painted, scraped off, repainted, sanded, and painted again. He often worked for years at a time on a single canvas. But most of all, de Kooning was a colorist. No other artist of his generation was so able to dissect the form and reassemble it with such spectacular results. "Clam Diggers" (1963) reveals glimpses of feet, teeth, a hand; the bright hues -- yellows, reds, blues, all deployed throughout the field of the image -- create a visual tension between the linear configurations and the chromatic contrasts. Focus on one, and you lose the other. This struggle was paramount for de Kooning, who saw the act of painting as a search for an image that, to his mind, at least, could never resolve itself on canvas. Nothing in his oeuvre illustrates this better than "...Whose Name Was Writ in Water" (1975). The bright color is a ruse, covering some essential struggle for Truth. Melville may have said it best: "Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.... Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?" - Bradley Rubenstein
The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd Street in New York City.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.