Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure

by Donald Goddard

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Pink Lady Study
Pink Lady (Study)
, ca. 1948
Oil on Paper mounted on Masonite, 18 1/2" x 18 1/2"

Collection Ambassador and Mrs. Donald Blinken

"Insofar as we understand the universe - if it can be understood - our doings must have some desire for order in them; but from the point of view of the universe, they must be very grotesque," said de Kooning in 1950 in a lecture at Studio 35 on Eighth Street in New York City.

Yes, they must be. All sorts of things are included under "doings," of course, including war, paving streets, swimming, crucifixion, painting - some more benign than others but reflecting a similar desire. Everything is connected, and it is impossible, or perhaps fatal, to disconnect them. In Thomas Hess's words about de Kooning in 1959, "There is no place where you could say , 'this is in between.' . . . Backgrounds and foregrounds still exist, but they are consistently interchangeable. There is a Gordian figue of ambiguities."

Strange word, "grotesque." Only recently has it had the connotation of awful, terrible, bad, to be avoided. It actually derives from the Italian for cave (grotto) and the fanciful paintings that were done for caves in the Italian Renaissance. So it's more like things are not what they seem, though they might have been precisely what they seem in Paleolithic cave paintings, which, as someone said, are all you have to know about painting. In any case, there are no seams, only conjunctions and disjunctions.

De Kooning's early figures in this exhibition, all pencil drawings of 1938-41, like Elaine de Kooning, are mellifluous and desolate, affected by the elegant work of his close friend Arshile Gorky and before he discovered his own cluttered universe. Even as continuous, modeled female forms, they are manipulated, slightly disproportionate, attenuated, or stylized. They exist in a place that doesn't exist except for the picture, a "no-environment," as de Kooning might call it later, but in fact there are always references to elements of a real and specific space that is different from the figure, though it is impossible to detach them one from another. Like Giacometti's figures, or Samuel Beckett's characters, they are haunted by the space in which they exist, and vice-versa.

Two Women
Two Women with Still Life, 1952
Pastel on Paper, 22 1/2" x 24"

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Bequest of Marcia Simon Weisman.

Serenity disappears in 1941, the third year of the Second World War, not so much in the figures themselves as in the drawing, the scribbled lines of pencil that violently mass in the figure (perhaps the beginning of de Kooning's famous "whiplash line," which painter John Ferren estimated traveled at 94 1/2 miles per hour). And the parts of the body begin to erupt, as for instance the uptilted head, slanted breasts, and disjointed arms of Seated Woman, ca. 1941. From this point on there is a constant movement toward and around "abstraction" in de Kooning's drawings and paitings, but in fact they almost always involve the shapes and forms of and references to women. (There are 78 drawings in this exhibition, many in pencil or graphite, others in pastel, crayon, charcoal, and/or paint on paper. All have women or parts of women, and two have a man - including Untitled (Two Figures) of about 1947, in which the male figure on the right is very similar to a female figure in several other drawings, such as Pink Lady (Study) of about 1948.)

In this latter work, and in the entire series of "Women" paintings and drawings he did from 1947 through the mid-1950s, de Kooning established a very strong connection to Picasso and Cubism, particularly to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 and Guernica of 1937. De Kooning was, in a sense, rescuing the force and freedom of modern painting, partly from the presumed certainties of Mondrian and Constructivism and partly from the depredations of authoritarian government and world war. It is a curious and powerful evocation, or reemergence, dependent on the original but not at all like it. There is still the sense in Cubism that things do fit together in time and space despite their fragmentation. De Kooning, on the other hand, confronts an absolutely incongruous world in which wholeness resides, and this itself is uncertain, only in the vision of the artist. Every time he apprehends something, he, or it, bumps into something else.

This is not strictly a mental or aesthetic, that is to say "abstract," process, but one that is crucially and inevitably visual, concerned with visual reality). De Kooning is above all a visual (intellectual) artist. What he sees - bodies, parts of bodies, shadows, chairs, windows, letters, etc. - enters into an arrangement that belongs to him, but also to the world. There is nothing that has not entered this way. If you look at a knee, everything else around it changes, as then so does the knee. Rectangles are not just rectangles but windows or spaces between chairs and legs. Real objects are constantly hitting the eye, as though we were in a moving car. The principle of organization is in the drawing or painting. Eventually, as Hess pointed out, the shapes de Kooning has confronted, along with lines, colors, and brushstrokes, become part of a vocabulary with which the artist struggles to make something that is incoherently coherent, that is real. The degree of abstraction is perhaps confusing, but, despite the artist's discovery of "no-environment," his specificity of place and of form is far greater than in any Cubist work.

But rather quickly place drops away and we are faced with woman herself, her flesh and mouth and vagina and breasts, far more than we ever have been in the past, even in Rembrandt or Manet or Picasso, not least because everything is active and clashing. It is part of our reality, not some other mythological or voyeuristic reality. Sexuality becomes increasingly insistent from 1950 on. The women themselves expand to fill the surface. Breasts, hips, and eyes expand. Faces become more masklike and, in drawings such as Two Women of 1951, almost disappear. Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance, as do mouths of women cut from magazines and pasted on to de Kooning's drawn or painted faces. Now these humans have fully become creatures of the artist's (very fast and very commandeering) movements of line and paint. In the guise of billboard bombshells, they are like ancient deities, as de Kooning sometimes thought of them, staring at us from the deep past.

Perhaps too deep in the past. Eventually, paint itself takes over, as can be seen in several passages of Two Women with Still Life of 1952, and particularly in the single figures like Woman (Blue Eyes) of 1953. His landscape-like abstractions of the late 1950s are totally composed of brushstrokes, and women, for the moment, disappear. But not for long. When the artist moved from New York City to the country (Easthampton at the end of Long Island), they re-emerged in a new place and a new light.

I don't know why the subtitle "Tracing the Figure" was used. To emphasize that de Kooning was a figurative painter, I suppose, in this age of computable figuration. He did do drawings on tracing paper, a couple of which are included in this show, sometimes to try out ideas, but the implication of tracing figures is misleading. The exhibition itself, however, is extraordinary.

Donald Goddard © 2001


The exhibition was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art / MOCA, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. It was also shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
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