Living Memory

John Haber
in New York City

Willem de Kooning: The 1980s

You know, I think I saw yet another de Kooning retrospective this year, but it has slipped my mind. It was in some museum that let in some German nonsense, in midtown Manhattan with too many low ceilings and white walls, and it had a lot of bright colors. Was it really de Kooning?

Seriously I am talking about the very best kind of German nonsense, Dada and beyond, by the artist and feminist Hannah Höch. More seriously still, despite progressive Alzheimer's disease, Willem de Kooning continued to work on a grand scale. From 1980 until 1990, he filled his East Hampton studio with canvases a good 5 feet on a side. de Kooning's final show at the Museum of Modern Art contained about forty paintings from before 1987—when, the museum judged, his mental state had indeed affected his art too greatly. Pirate/Untitled II (Museum of Modern Art, Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund, 1981)

Echoes of expressionism

Many critics would have set that date a lot sooner. Decades ago, de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others had broke upon the world with a savage wit and a ruthless new formalism. Had it all—all that worthy of at least a de Kooning biography or de Kooning retrospective—disappeared into pale gestures and unexamined pleasures? The Modern's show is really good, and yet it will not answer critics—or my own ambivalence.

The first rooms offer sheer color, everywhere at once. If Abstract Expressionists themselves once evoked the sublime, can beauty have returned so in earnest? Primaries dominate while other colors play against them, like sly variants or resounding echoes. Bigger swatches of primary color painted wet on wet mix, too, to give sumptuous shades that almost match the intruders.

Increasingly, black and white function as a color, and the images grow more and more to depend on resemblance to the human body. They interpenetrate, as de Kooning adds back bits of a color that he had once partly painted over. Paint feels very sexy indeed and very physical, almost dangerous. I think of the compressed colors in John Chamberlain from around the same time and greatly influenced by de Kooning. It also attests to his repeated reworking. In technique at least, nothing is so simple as it looks.

After a few more years the overpainting of white becomes itself a major theme. I felt the paintings consciously emptying themselves out. The final ones get busier and busier again. Their brightly colored lines suggest writing at first, then cartoons, like an illegible battle of the centaurs. I could remember another painter who brought majesty to glibness, Peter Paul Rubens. I could contrast it with too many a painter, such as Tiepolo, who brought glibness to majesty.

Yet I had my doubts. The early colors compliment each other well, but in the famous early de Koonings the clashes take one by surprise. The echoes of the body that follow never evoke as pungent an irony as his famous images of women. Once he had obliterated naive ideas of gesture and refusal, when he helped Robert Rauschenberg to create an Erased de Kooning. Now the emptying out that comes, although the most impressive work on display, has to vie with the patient meditations of Mark Rothko.

The final paintings, with lines dominant, pretty much lose me entirely. I walked beside a triptych that must have been 17 feet long, and I never felt that enveloping change I get from huge scale at its best. Besides, the museum shamefully keeps one from getting close enough to know for certain. Almost all of de Kooning stands up, never soft headed or soft hearted. The white rooms near the middle could change anyone's mind, but as late grandeur goes, Waterlilies they are not. Nor are they a recovery of abstraction's vitality for others.

Pop music

The contrast makes one wonder about the very nature of expression, artistic identity, and formalism. In sum, it makes one think again about de Kooning's, or Modernism's, powerful and fragile legacy.

Think about it. Think about the widely divergent opinions on the show—and not out of left field, but rather from some of de Kooning's greatest fans. It all seems so subjective. Think about how easily the late work matches a textbook description of Abstract Expressionism. I can hear it now, the talk of big gestures, primary colors, shallow spaces, ironic formalism. Without intending it, has the exhibition found the Achilles' heel in late modern art? As critics used to say, it looks as if anything goes.

Of course, most visitors know better. They know that de Kooning's early work teaches one to appreciate the late work, while it also points to differences—not to mention differences from other loaded brushstrokes. There is more to it than simply putting subjectivity on a pedestal. The defense should not rest there, however.

I thought of how Pop Art and Postmodernism have changed the context in which anyone looks at Abstract Expressionism. They also lead to new expectations about abstraction today. They make one anticipate plenty—slapdash gestures, empty content, comic-strip forms, and figures of uncertain gender, all within abstract painting. It might be sacrilege, but I think they may have taught—and learned from—de Kooning as well. The wonder is how beautifully he avoided the mind games of "neo-geo" or "neo-Pop."

People will keep debating how much a great painter declined. They will argue whether he at last unleashed a calmer beauty. Perhaps they should also ask how much he managed to keep up. Only from all of these can one grasp how bravely he persevered and how sad was his death in 1997. Modernism has this way of staying inherent to a Postmodern age. His loss of memory was the occasion for a fitting memorial.

Speaking of cartoons, downstairs are indeed Dada collages by Hannah Höch. She actually kept her sense of humor, even as she turned her eye to fascism and sexism. It is pretty impressive, and yet I moved quickly in this exhibition, too. Sometimes she may have fallen for the passing comedy of newspaper lampoons. Then again, maybe not. Postmodernism is changing my mind once again.

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"Willem de Kooning: The 1980s" ran through April 29, 1997, at The Museum of Modern Art. The retrospective of Hannah Höch continued through May 20, 1997.


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