Craquelure and Rust

John Haber
in New York City

Willem de Kooning and John Chamberlain

Does every picture really tell a story? Maybe not, but every exhibition sure does—and not just by what it includes. Even the omissions can bring a show to life.

PaceWildenstein pairs Willem de Kooning and John Chamberlain, and they look suitably gorgeous and expensive. Looked at freshly, however, the artists reveal just how much Pace has decided to leave out. So, it turns out, has a lot of art history. From galleries and critics to their biggest heroes, Modernism's institutions have lasted, but not without some interesting struggles brewing.

John Chamberlain's Taffeta Coupé (PaceWildenstein, 1999)The gallery sets out a dozen Chamberlains amid eight de Koonings, including at least two museum standards. My first reaction? "I should have thought of that!" My second was to hurry up and luxuriate in the pairing. My third was to start asking why I had it so easy.

Olympia as cream-puff

It seems so obvious—and so often overlooked. If Willem de Kooning counts as a classic, as well as a major influence on John Chamberlain, the sculptor has too long come off as a one-liner. Welded and crushed automobile parts? They fall all too easily between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, like those fat brushstrokes of Roy Lichtenstein, but with the irony and sheer joy removed.

Something got lost along the way, however, something about both artists. In order to see Chamberlain's place among the Abstract Expressionists, one has first to recognize de Kooning's continued strangeness. Sure, he stands officially for "action painting." Cast a fresh eye, however, at the splashed paint and slashing brushstrokes.

The dense layering and broad strokes look both backward and ahead. In place of a self-portrait, a painter leaves layers of cheap paint and oil. He looks at himself and sees commercial waste. Painting gets a good look at itself, too, and the more it covers its own traces, the more it remains. To write this off as formalism or process, a dirty old man's self-expression or art's, is to forget how radically it disturbed these very distinctions.

Often de Kooning picks on genres like the female nude and the landscape, the same that Edouard Manet took on at the birth of Modernism. Only he moves easily between them and abstraction, as if art's past and its new pretensions were equally illusions, illusions that a painter has to recreate every time. This painter, at least, nastily defaces the female body, but in loose attacks that seem to blame it all on the very oil tradition, and she smiles right back. That direct confrontation with the viewer, that promise of flesh wrapped up in an assertion of independence, recalls Manet's Olympia, while the easy, cartoon style, sometimes uncertain gender, and outright erasures anticipate Andy Warhol. But then de Kooning should get some credit for Pop Art and even Andy Warhol, if not Warhol's influence. After all, he lent Robert Rauschenberg those two sketches for Erased de Kooning.

Toward the end of his life, the harsh prankster acts more and more like a cream-puff. By then, de Kooning reduces the formula to its essentials. Larger compositions hold lighter shades and good-quality oils, lathered on seemingly at will. He ends up with self-expression after all, but with an empty space still where content ought to be. He is expressing forgetfulness, the final work of a man with Alzheimer's.

Chamberlain holds the same intensity and the same care to cover his traces, only this time in three dimensions. Nothing seems more enduringly solid than leftover automobile scraps, like a waste dump that no one can clean up. Little, too, holds more carefully worked color and layered connections to art and life. Automobiles extend the conflicting associations that de Kooning had nurtured so well—to industrial paint and an ordinary person's favorite means of self-expression, fine art's laborious creation and assembly-line craft, life and falling apart, individual action and human absence.

Modernism's crack-up

No wonder Pace is out to make the case for cross-influences. Frankly, however, the show cheats big time. To obtain the visual pairings in its installation, Pace has to cut very selectively from the careers of both artists and to dispense with chronology. One gets no early de Koonings and only the most gentle landscapes from 1957 to 1970. One meets none of the most densely crushed early Chamberlains. For both, Pace leans to light colors, flesh tones, open spaces, and gentle seaside rhythms, most often from late in their careers. Like so much of the art world, everything seems designed to make them into Old Masters.

No doubt it all flatters my pride in my enormous erudition and sense of beauty. It also says something about Chamberlain's view of himself. If de Kooning long embraced an image of raw energy near to violence, combined with the simple pleasures of joy-riding, Chamberlain flees from it as quickly as he can. He took an extended break from found metal parts, in the late 1960s. In interviews, he denies associations with smashed-up cars. I think of a defender of de Kooning going into contortions to avoid issues of sexism.

Chamberlain has every right to ask one to see more than naive self-expression or blatant mockery of pop culture. So many years after Clement Greenberg and his hatred of kitsch, that is only his due. He does not easily resemble Warhol's accident paintings, like the Shadows, or James Rosenquist's fighter plane. Certainly, too, he cannot wish to seem exploitative of America's favorite ways of dying.

Yet if Chamberlain shares the best aspirations of late Modernism, he speaks to its risks as well. An avant-garde has a way of leaving, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's title, The Crack-Up. If de Kooning usually comes paired instead with Jackson Pollock, can one overlook that the latter died in a crash? One has to overlook it—but to remember it as well. Like de Kooning, Chamberlain returns the appearance of self-expression to its place in its time and to long-simmering debates on alienation, individualism. Not even he can make me forget that—or his own funky sense of style almost out of the Beach Boys—certainly not while crashing de Kooning's party.

Like an even greater influence, David Smith, he sounds perfectly happy to boast of his training in automobile welding. Only he is less eager to take responsibility for his materials and their place in the life of the viewer. Yet only in that context can art's materials, as a formalist would demand, reflect on themselves and undermine the very traces of themselves. Pace, with all that it leaves out, is playing the same game. I prefer to see Chamberlain as combining the central, contrary tendencies in late modern art, much like David Smith himself. Alongside the confrontational junk collector and macho welder, one can see him as a gestural painter, a Minimalist, or a Pop artist playing with America's greatest obsession, the open road

Should one care about his denials, with work this good? Conversely, with help like that, should one really talk of influences? Surely any two artists from that time would exhibit parallels. And so what? Yet the show works from the moment one walks in, and my own complaints had to make me excited to ask why.

Words and silences

Modernism, once derided as harsh and ugly, has settled all too well into galleries and museums. Postmodernism picks on that, but with a vengeance, charging that it belonged there all along, as one elitist institution propped up by others. Sure, this show plays to exactly those expectations. Yet every show is an interpretation, and in real life a show's meanings never end with that tale. The finer the show, in fact, the fewer the endings.

No one truly likes to agonize over interpretations, not even me. Art has a way of hiding a show's rough edges, not to mention its own. People take for granted the aura of an Old Master, the accessibility of Claude Monet, or the abomination of a contemporary. Artists know their own limits, but also their own instinctive choices. I have had to argue, over and over, why art takes words.

When a museum is generous with words, it only makes things worse. Wall labels supply ready-made attributions and interpretations as if no one could ever disagree. Even a show out to teach how to look at art tends to have a few conclusions in mind. In fact, the curator's originality—and the controversy it evokes—will have inspired the show in the first place.

If art has something to teach, it offers the perfect chance for the Socratic method. After some background, the better the explanations, the more good art will make people respond with ideas and questions of their own. Few curators, however, know when to speak and when to shut up. Too much lies at stake, including the reputations that keep art careers and funding alive.

Exhibitions may let the cat out of the bag a bit with what they include. A fine show at the Newark Museum this fall tackled the art of Dutch interiors. Did its inclusion of actual interiors, furnishing and all, hide distinctions among painters, or did it bring them and their world to life? Did the Guggenheim's displays of high fashion, motorcycles, African art, and private collectors broaden one's idea of Modernism, destroy the pretensions that art nurtures, or put art, wealth, and gender stereotypes up on the same sorry pedestal? Is that new Vermeer for real? At least one cannot help asking.

Less often noticed, a show always leaves things out. Sure, artists get upset by who fails to make the galleries or a Whitney Biennial. Critics have brought out the missing history of art by blacks, women, and other outsiders to the Western canon. But every choice entails omissions. Strangely enough, the gaps may do more than undermine art's institutions. Sometimes, absences speak for themselves, and their dialogue with a show can get pretty raunchy. It then gets pretty wonderful in its own right, too.

The usual suspects

I never believed at heart anyway that every picture tells a story. Art has a right to remain silent, and it tells many competing, conflicting stories. But an exhibition, plain and simply, has to make choices, just as Pace has, and Pace's choices do sound awfully suspicious. Yet, the show reminds me, a healthy suspicion is not a bad outcome. If the artists have become Old Masters, at least one learns again what else they have meant. One sees better, too, what taut pleasures a fuller picture would create.

One gets to see Chamberlain as a craftsman, but not just of metal. Compared to such younger welders as Nancy Rubins, he takes special care for how rust or paint alters substances, surfaces, depth, and color. His early constructions throw one back like de Kooning's dark and airy cityscapes, their twisted shards arranged in open planes with almost no color. His later piles spiral or taper upward, like artillery shells or lipstick, in intricate whirls of lighter tones. The first invite one to peer into them but block avenues of sight, creating a visual crawl space right out of Surrealism. The later ones simply entrap one.

Yet de Kooning, too, never simply embellishes an armature of verticals and horizontals. In much the same way, Chamberlain does not start with a predetermined auto frame, like a computer design shown in car ads today. Rather, layering allows one work to rediscover the work's formal underpinnings over and over. Even their formalism comes not from a prepared sketch, but from the work and its relationship to the viewer.

Often de Kooning stretches paint so thin that it dissolves in squeegee lines or craquelure, before emerging all at once in a broad, signature brushstroke. The mark stands for the artist's hand that much more because it had become almost automatic—or never even present at all. It also stands for the subject's presence, bunching and cracking at the edge of a brushstroke like frilly fabric or aging flesh. Olympia gets to stare back in new ways, but then Modernism was crashing parties all along, long before auto wrecks from Martin Kippenberger and others. The show's selections only extend that formidably messy history.

Pace has made it possible to appreciate two artists for their confluence and easy beauties. Art's supporters and postmodern critics alike may even prefer it that way. Thankfully, however, omission and erasure dog these works, their exhibition, and abstraction. (With luck my own selectivity and distortions only continue the chain!) For an alert viewer, the show's very biases bring alive two artist's gritty provocation and their love of this tacky world, its women and highways alike. It reveals connections with more than they or anyone can handle.

In a way, Pollock had it too easy. Walking around a canvas all but ensures a fair degree of symmetry and a visual extension of the human. These two had to make abstraction work the hard way. Pace too cuts corners, and the scam itself tells something of Modernism's place today. Yet it also shows two institutions, the men and the art world, as filled with cracks, rust, and sheer excitement as the work. Art may rest gently on its laurels, but it smiles toward the present all the same.

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Willem de Kooning and John Chamberlain ran at PaceWildenstein through October 27, 2001.


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