Artforum, Vol. 7, (April, 1969) pp. 42 - 49. Includes letter of comment by Fairfield Porter in following issue of Artforum, with Bannard reply.
To the art public Willem de Kooning is the "central" or most typical Abstract Expressionist. His paintings epitomize the style. The reaction of painters against the several forms and mannerisms of Abstract Expressionism has been strong and extreme since 1962 and continues even though that style has been displaced by newer styles. Since quality is often associated with style, it is tempting to judge all Abstract Expressionist paintings by the paintings of the best-known advocate of the style and to size up Abstract Expressionism rather than what one artist did with it. It is difficult to resist this kind of generalization in the face of a retrospective of any artist's work.
Furthermore, a show like this leads you to evaluate the artist, to think de Kooning is a great artist, or not so great, or whatever. Actually, there are only great and not-so-great paintings. A "great artist" is one who has produced "great paintings" in the past and may do so in the future. If you get right down to it he is only great when he is painting a great painting. So the "quality" of an artist is something of a fiction. Even if it were possible to evaluate a life's work, it would not be fair to do it on the basis of someone else's selection, or even the selection of the artist himself. Any selection is incomplete. And if you could see the life's work all at once there's no overall evaluation to be made; that would be "averaging averages" - it doesn't work in mathematics and it won't work for art criticism. Also, to deal with a retrospective properly, we must keep in mind that the paintings are one thing and the exhibit is another. Each consideration is a separate activity. This exhibit has faults, like anything else, but there are no ready-made rules for a "good retrospective," except that it should have continuity and wholeness, and I see no point getting into it.
This is a big exhibition of about 150 paintings and drawings and shows a lot of de Kooning's work. To be useful as criticism, any discussion of the retrospective must take one work at a time, and leave the collective aspects out of it. Despite these disclaimers it is correct to generalize about an artist's work on the basis of a retrospective if the generalization is descriptive. I have some observations, or all-over conclusions, which I'll back up later with examples.
De Kooning's art is traditional and available. He is very much an "old master." His work is full of the feel of "real art," of "art that looks like art." This is because his art picked up and carried on Picasso's Cubism and it is because de Kooning is by nature an old-fashioned figure-ground draftsman, more so than any first-rate artist since Manet. This quality of artistic personality as expressed in his style, sets de Kooning's work apart from that of many of his contemporaries, such as Pollock, Newman, Hofmann and Still, each of whom produced a body of work which had a unique and unavoidable "non-art" look. The painting style of none of these men was ever easily taken over and used by others, though certain features were borrowed, or set up as examples, whereas the "de Kooning look" spread everywhere at once, like a stain on water.
The "avant-garde" features of de Kooning's work, for which he is best known - big, slashing flayed stroke, tactile mashing and streaking paint, drips and spatters, deformity and queer attitudes of figures, especially women - are indifferent to the quality of his art. In fact, these mannerisms serve to weaken de Kooning's paintings and block the full exercise of his talents. They seem to have been applied by ambition for extra-art purposes. My guess is that this ambition, informed by a finely tuned and very bright artistic awareness, forced de Kooning to put his real but modest talents as a draftsman and sensual colorist into the arena of "high art." (I say "my guess" because I write of a man's motivation, which is as fleeting as any thought. Only the pictures are in evidence.) De Kooning knew what was good when he saw it, and he accurately picked out the "high art" forms of the time, particularly set out in Pollock's paintings of the late '40s. The use in his art of these forms went against de Kooning's nature, but, compelled by ambition and directed by a high taste, he force-fed them into his style. When he gave up these forms, in the early '50s, he gathered in others, more invented than assimilated, but still applied by ambition against the free exercise of his natural talents. This "artificial" period is his so-called "great" period and coincides with his rise from un-shown obscurity to great eminence and honor. However, it is my opinion that de Kooning has produced and is producing better paintings before and after this period than during it.
De Kooning's paintings are best followed chronologically by keeping an eye on line and color and the conflict between figure-ground and "all-over."
Elegy, 1939, is one of a number of paintings dating from about 1938 to 1945 made of line and hue in relatively pure form. The surface is made up of not too many simple thin lines and of shapes either delineated by these lines or set apart as much by hue difference as by value difference. Despite the Miro-like biomorphic shapes, which date it somewhat, Elegy is a very contemporary painting, because it is a very good painting full of the "issues" of current ambitious painting.
The two principal colors of Elegy are rather close in value. De Kooning's first strength is drawing, and the visual tool of drawing is extreme value difference - black and white. De Kooning almost always uses value difference as his vehicle of inflection, as did all the Cubists and Cubist-Expressionists. But Elegy is almost all line and hue difference of medium bluish green and medium bluish red. Red and green are complements of similar value at full saturation. (Yellow and purple, for example, are complements of very different value at full saturation.) Since the colors are complements, or "opposites," abutting red and green areas of similar value will be discrete by means of hue only. The bluishness of both colors pushes the whole surface "cold," gives it a slight dash of a high-strung, Surreal quality and forces the small patch of dull greenish-yellow in the right center almost into ochre. The overall bluishness also further mutes shape distinction and permits the restrained linear activity to show up much better than it would in a painting of strong value contrasts.
The drawn lines are few in number, sinuous, gentle and carefully placed to outline foreground shapes against background shapes. These delineated shapes are all curved; straight sides are left without lines. In this way the lines are used to emphasize figure-ground differences by the traditional detailing of "important" parts, like a face in a portrait. A darkening and greying of some areas is produced by the elegant semitransparent overlay of one principal color over another especially around the "bird's head" figure on the right. In this area the greyness of the overlay mixing of complements and the linear details get together to cut out one shape and set it on top of another. The delicate disruption of surface induces an illusion of slight relief, and allows enough over-and-under connectedness to knit the thin surface together. There's lots more to this painting: the sparkling, scraped detail in the center shape, the submerged "second thoughts" barely pressing through the bluish-green, the extra same-color shapes which will not reproduce and can barely be seen through the glass covering the painting. Elegy is quite a painting, in my opinion, and so are the others like it in the show, and many of the figure paintings of the same period which are made the same way. (Incidentally, the curious composition of Elegy gives rise to the same sense of exquisite placement and frail "touching" available from some of the recent sculpture of Anthony Caro. It is a very visceral but very fine effect. It's odd that such strong empathy in terms of space comes across from a painting so full of the pressure of color.)
What if ambitious art in America had followed the example of Elegy, instead of that of Excavation? It may seem strange to set the relatively small, delicate Elegy against the mighty Excavation, one of the "landmark" paintings of Abstract Expressionism and of American painting. But though size and ambition may help bring about public success they are not necessarily agents of quality. Elegy may be modest, but it's perfect. Art quality seems not to be specifiable; it must be sensed first and dug up later, and words will never encompass it. But it is possible to point up elements which fight each other, which undermine and weaken a painting. This internal discord is like contradiction in language. Excavation is full of such "contradictions." It may be a better painting than most but objectively it is seriously flawed. De Kooning could handle Elegy; when he took on Excavation he was out of his depth.
Excavation is about 6 1/2 by 8 feet. I think It is the largest painting in the show. It may be the largest de Kooning ever painted. It is made up of regularly repeated relatively small pieces of similar size. The style could be called large-scale small-piece all-over expressive Cubism (make it LASPAC from here on, to save time and space). In an article in the April, 1968 Artforum I contended that the inherent conditions of LASPAC compel the solution that Pollock got to at about the same time that Excavation was painted. A short synopsis of the reasoning which led to that conclusion follows.
Since Cubist painting is done in terms of space differences, the quality of a Cubist picture is supported by the relationship of the "pieces" in the painting. LASPAC painting, such as Excavation and Pollock's painting of the late '40s and early '50s, has the problem of a curtailed relationship among the small parts because the dynamics of the style forced these small parts to be physically remote on the same plane. Therefore they cannot interact visually and the "efficiency" of the Cubist painting is impaired. Pollock solved the problem by throwing out opaque planes and by keeping the delineated Cubist piece. Thus the planes and the lines around them are visually available continuously through the transparency and implied depth, and the over-and-under 'connections make for a very tight picture surface. This is not "why Pollock's paintings are great paintings," but whatever art they have is certainly supported by the results of this brilliant pictorial problem-solving. Excavation, on the other hand, is the same kind of painting left wanting.
In Cubist painting color and line serve spatial differentiation. Both are used to pin down area: color to identify and line to delineate. The Abstract Expressionist version of Cubism gave color and line greater expressive or affective opportunity. Line is at its best in Pollock's painting; color is presently very much "alive" for ambitious painters. The areas of Excavation are marked off by black lines. Black and the other very dark colors are used only as line, or line with implied shadow to simulate lifting or overlay of an edge. These lines have variation, but not the affective variation of the white lines of the white on black paintings of the late '40s, such as Night Square, 1949. The lines of Excavation are not free to work calligraphically because they are surrounded by paint at the same level of apparent depth. This paint cuts over their edges and slows them down, and pushes them into the service of area. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with this. But from the evidence of Pollock's art of the same time we must conclude that LASPAC, by the "logic" of its terms, demands expressive line. This may not be true necessarily but until another artist shows us something else it's all we've got.
Variations of hue in Excavation, except for the dominant pale greyish yellow and the black, are spotty and seem random and have the effect of decorativeness or "spice." Color does not bloom easily in this painting style. All-over painting needs units which are relatively small and uniform; otherwise there are big pieces and small pieces and another kind of painting with other terms of structure. Considerable color variation, even in a Pollock-type painting, would tend to form conglomerations of color - the color would gather in large areas and small areas, especially in terms of value, which the eye sees most directly, and again a different kind of painting would emerge, with terms of structure which might exclude the means at hand. That's why Pollock at his best used only a few colors of low saturation and discrete value. If, on the other hand, the color hangs onto the piece, and varies piece-by-piece, we again have an isolated piece, remote from others. Also, this technique would make a painting full of the pressure of color variation rather than space variation, which turns away from Cubism, or has in some of the best of recent painting.
A large Cubist format favors extreme openness - real blank space, like the blank canvas in a Pollock or the big holes in some of David Smith's late sculpture, because the separation of pieces exposes their relatable parts. The "giveaways" in Excavation are the fairly broad areas between things, like the one to the left, just above center, which cries out to be left blank. De Kooning's very painterly and traditional technique of working and reworking the paint surface kept undisturbed open space off his all-over painting simply because it was all-over painting - it had to be painted all over. Reworking means shifting in space and so everything gets covered. The conflict between de Kooning's working method and the all-over approach shows most plainly at the edges of Excavation. Pollock could treat the framing edge with some disregard, because his "thrown" paint had no visual kinship to that edge and therefore had no visual "reason" to come to terms with it, and because the transparency of the image turned the canvas into a backdrop, denying participation in the painted image of any feature of the canvas. Even when Pollock's paint quite obviously pulls back all round from the edge it has the quality of a simple formal accommodation with no formal complications - like a base fit to a sculpture. Excavation, on the other hand, is all paint, right to he edge. Therefore the edge becomes part of the painting and the other parts of the painting must come to terms with that edge. De Kooning handled edges successfully in his white-on-black paintings a few years previous - the image just ran off the edge in an offhand way, as did most of Pollock's. Excavation could have been worked out that way if de Kooning had modified some of the features of the painting by altering his working method.
I think the problem here was a psychological one. De Kooning is at heart an old-school draftsman. Excavation seems to have been meant as a masterpiece, or at least an important "summing up." But rather than push through to grasp the new principles that came in company with the all-over technique de Kooning fell back on what he knew: drawing and figure-ground. His reaction to the huge canvas and the foreign terms of art-making was quite human: he got "conservative." Instead of adjusting to new conditions he fought back with what he was sure of. It's a classic drama. The black and white paintings, like Night Square, were very fine paintings, but to de Kooning they had to be minor; they were too small and too much like drawing to be major art, and they were without color. For de Kooning they were just not enough like painting. Excavation is a large painting of relatively small highly charged Cubist parts which had been worked out the way de Kooning thought a "masterpiece" had to be worked out: painting, repainting, covering, scraping, careful adjusting and fixing, highlighting and damping - the way a portrait might be painted. This makes trouble at the edges. A drawn or "flung" line of paint goes off the edge by its own evident "speed," and can carry its enclosed areas, or planes, with it. But a worked-over area butts up to an edge cautiously. It must, because working-out is slow, and heedful of all around it, especially an edge. Small pieces are particular edge victims. The smaller the piece the more imposing the stretch of edge it faces. Therefore the size of the canvas makes a difference. Though Excavation is a very large painting the size of its parts is not much larger than those of the smaller paintings, like Night Square. So there are more "units per square foot" in Excavation. These units are at the mercy of the edges because they are more available to be shifted to conform; they have less inertia, less resistance. All around the edges of Excavation the pieces stiffen, shrink and polarize; they bat against and slide along the edge like summertime flies, or fish in a tank. The unfortunate effect is that the edges fade, and the center, with its full, free swinging, heedless-of-edge forms, bulges out, reinforcing the already centrifugal setup of the whole picture. This in turn provides the painting with an all-over concentric symmetry which becomes the dominant design; all surface inflection appears to support this design as decoration, which is by nature either random or mechanical. And so the visual effects of deliberate placement - the heart of Cubist art-making - are enervated, and the picture sags back, done in. Attic, a similar painting, has similar problems, but it is uncomplicated by color and comes off better.
Soon after finishing Excavation, de Kooning began work on Woman I. This painting is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, and is probably de Kooning's best known and most reproduced work. The most obvious difference between Excavation and Woman I is the figure. This new element alters the conditions of picture-making. Although it was a relapse of sorts, the figure did offer de Kooning certain formal advantages. It acts as an armature, a guide for placement. De Kooning's talents are more those of a draftsman than a painter. His strength is drawing and his weakness, like Picasso's, is large-scale many-element painting. His best works of this period are the smallest, like the bright and inventive charcoal Two Women, 1952. But as the Women grew, the quality shrank. There are two reasons for this, one mechanical and one psychological.
Expressionist drawings of similar motivation will be different in character as they are different in size, because all factors are not variable. The size of the working surface and some of the physical materials can change proportionately but the artist cannot. A small Expressionist drawing done with the wrist and fingers is different from one done with the elbow and shoulder. The mechanical forces producing the line are different because they were made for different functions. Furthermore, Cubist drawing in paint must handle color very gingerly; color is part of surface and Cubism is done in terms of space difference on the same surface that color must occupy. If hue difference is complex on a Cubist-disrupted surface the many colors may imply many pre-existing surfaces and enervate the Cubist attack, which favors repeated value difference of the same hue to bring about illusion and separation in space. Radiant color has been useful for Cubism only when used to identify already separated Cubist planes, as in Picasso's "hard" abstractions of the teens.
Two Women, 1952, is a charcoal sketch on paper, 22 by 29 inches. The few shaded or grey areas are close to the black; they are not the full-ranging tones of a Seurat drawing, for example. The drawing is made up of Cubist space supporting a variety of expressive line, and it is just about all line. Even some of the filling-in is visually discrete lines. The "art" of the drawing is carried by the character of the line - high and low pressure, straight and wobbly, thick and thin. It's quick wrist and finger work and it works.
Woman I is a painting, 75 by 58 inches. De Kooning went at Woman I the same way he went at Two Women, but did not modify his technique to adapt to the different scale and materials. Of course it came out different. For example, the lines of Woman I are short and choppy. There are a number of reasons for this: thick, from-the-tube paint cannot be put on fast and continuous; the size of the "drawing" makes quick connection difficult; the other colors and painted areas impinge on "line," which de Kooning always handled as if it were black on top of a uniform white surface; the movements of the shoulder are different from the movements of the fingers - I could go on, but there's no point. Woman I shows the expressive line of Two Women destroyed by paint and scale.
Two Women consists of two colors: black and white, or, more accurately, black and a bit of grey very close to the black against a white background. Identification of one part of the drawing with another is very strong and automatic and allows a good bit of leeway for chance-taking in the making of the drawing. The line itself has a resonance and "color" apart from, or on top of, the several spatial complexities. The planes or spaces of Woman I are filled with colored paint, which creates a series of discrete surfaces in the place of the continuous white-supporting-black of Two Women. Furthermore, the "togetherness" of Woman l's central image is drained because the painting is taken right to the edges. This artificial varying of what is naturally an unvaried surface mocks the similar treatment of the figure, reduces its substance and reality and cuts away its authority as a unifying form. The visual result is a series of partly defined, partly coherent painted areas spread across the surface, "hanging together" only by means of an unfocused figure and the compression of the four edges of the canvas. Except for a vague lining-up of the indefinite Cubist pieces with the framing edges the parts of the picture have no formal cohesion. Furthermore, the paint is mixed on the canvas with no regard for the effects of combining related or complementary hues, so the colors come out muddy at mid-value. De Kooning had to continuously rescue Woman I by forcing relief-type disruption of surface or high and low value colors, like black and white, onto the unmodulated swamps of paint (for example, the last-minute "bosoms" or the thick stabs of black at right center). No area of pure color could survive the involved and obsessive working-out on the canvas with ever-varying pigment. The complete non-integration of surface knocks out the props of intended design of Woman I and the painting falls back, just as Excavation did. What finally comes across is the condition of the paint: flayed, mashed, crushed, spread, mixed like a mud pie, each thick pigment fighting its neighbor, unrelieved, all across the canvas. It is interesting to compare Woman I with Woman, 1949, painted before de Kooning caught the allover bug. Woman, 1949, has its problems, but it's a real knockout, full of line variation, lively color, slick over-and-under effects, a tricky but convincing implied depth, and a figure that really holds together.
I don't like to write about an artist's motivation and intent. There is the risk of guessing wrong, and being unfair. Besides, the proper subject for art writing is art, not artists. But de Kooning's attitudes come through so strong, and seem to affect his art so obviously, that I must give in now and then and note what I think was going on with de Kooning as well as with his paintings.
I feel that after Excavation the woman image was, for de Kooning, a symbol of defeat in the face of the real tough problems of Excavation. It was a desperate retrenchment, a pulling-back, an escape to safer ground. De Kooning has a very good eye for quality. His recognition of what's good and his tremendous ambition clash head-on with his careful old-master art-making attitude. The defeat Woman I represents aggravated his ambition. Having backed off from the real issues de Kooning gave his paintings dramatic effects. Thus the ghastly face and deformed figure, the flayed, scraped, disturbed paint, the untended, lumpish "so-what" design, the paint gone to the edges to imitate "all-overness," the hoked-up background. He abdicated from high art-making and took up convincing an audience. And we begin, at this time, to pick up the great herding and bleating art public, who like above all the effects of newness without the rough substance of good art - old stuff with a new face.
Composition, 1955, is a "purified" Woman I - the same problems uncomplicated by a figure, definite line and random color-mixes. It is difficult to verbalize what's wrong with this picture, or, indeed, to pin down the events and accidents of art history which made such a painting possible. The over-all composition is side-by-side rectangles, each approximately 1/16 of the picture area, each obscured by thick paint. There's no over-and-under connecting or visual knitting-together of any kind. The paint tries to get moving but it's no use; anything that moves is battered back. It's like a thousand tiny nozzles squirting every which way. The paint is confined and nervous. (Oddly enough, I can say the same about some of Hofmann's unartful and gawky "rectangle" paintings, which somehow come across as great art, muscular and complete. Composition does not.) It shares and even exaggerates the faults of Woman I. The problems are spiritual, really, and beyond spelling-out. Everything is colliding and dissolute. I can feel de Kooning fighting. It's a dreadful painting, but a "heroic" one.
Some years later de Kooning solved the problems of large scale drawing with paint by making area and stroke simpler and larger, by providing foreground and background and by filling in larger areas with relatively unmixed colors of strong value contrast. Making the Cubist unit much larger automatically generated solutions to the problems of the previous ten or twelve years. On analysis it is a simple matter of mechanics and topology, but coming to it in painting was, as always, a tough job.
Small pieces butting up against one another in LASPAC painting have the disadvantage of mutual isolation, as demonstrated by Excavation. But large pieces can abut because their size relative to the size of the painting makes them fewer and closer together. This in turn increases the efficiency of their relationship, and lets color in easily on the simple format. During this time (about 1955 to 1963) de Kooning used color to identify rather than to affect. Color is the "costume" of a particular part of the painting. There's not much expressive use of hue difference in these paintings. Value difference is in the service of space. For example, in Suburb in Havana, 1958, the dark blue goes behind the very assertive cadmium yellow and the large white patch on the lower left; the white patch loops in front of the yellow at just-below-middle center and goes behind it at left center. The blue background reappears behind the yellow inside the "V" in the enter of the picture, and the small strip of yellow top right sits "on top" of the blue. This is an example of color identification used for spatial cohesion. The illusion of shallow space permits an apparent mixture of the separate parts of the painting.
In Suburb in Havana de Kooning enlarged his line in proportion to the larger unit of area. The line in a painting like this does not have to define because the high value difference from one unit to another makes a sharp edge wherever necessary. A defining line would be redundant. Thus expanded and untied to area, line can choose its own place and can take on color and variety of form. The "lines" in Suburb in Havana aspire to be areas of Cubist pieces themselves; the brown "V" and the corresponding brown piece to the left sit "on top" of the larger areas, occupy another level of the shallow illusionistic space and work together with the overall Cubist structure.
The abstractions of 1957 to 1963 resolve many of the problems evident in de Kooning's earlier paintings of the 50s. But for some reason they come across bland and cold. They do lack the affective color and taut design of the best large-unit painting of the period, affective color which would come in on top of the space-color solutions. These solutions were properly carried out in the Suburb In Havana type paintings, but seem mechanical rather than inspired. There's trouble with hue against place - the hues of the colors of the abstractions of the late '50s often seem interchangeable. The dark blue of the background and the dark brown of the lines of Suburb In Havana could be switched with no real change in the character or quality of the painting. The elements of the painting are therefore not fully interdependent and a spirit of randomness and superfluity comes in, a pictorial "spinelessness" which is the converse of the confined straining of Composition, 1955, and is just as destructive.
What I have said does not prove that any of de Kooning's paintings are of any particular quality. It is easier to point out what is wrong with a painting than what is right. Mechanical faults are not too difficult to find if you go at a picture objectively. Wrong things lend themselves to talk; what's right, on the other hand, just seems right. A painting is like a living organism, or is built like one. It doesn't pay off to criticize anything which "comes to life." It gets into "magnitudes of quality," for which there are no criteria. All flowers are beautiful, each in its own way. Roses or anemones or mimosa are each "best" for some taste, but there's no proof that one is absolutely best. Quality, "good or bad," is relative by definition. If something is good or bad it satisfies or does not satisfy certain conditions, which may or may not be specifiable, or previously specified. A good soap, for example, is one that washes things clean; we can say what soap is for so we can also say how well it does what it is supposed to do. Paintings do something or we wouldn't have them around, but no one has been able to say just what that is. Most so-called minor art is either easy-premise art or is simply unfinished art, art that never used up all the apparatus with which it began, which never stretched its means as far as they go. But failed art has definite internal "contradictions" as does anything incomplete and faulty. These inconsistencies can be brought out in words, not in terms of any clear final "purpose" or "criteria" but insofar as they seem to enervate a work. That's the best we can do.
LASPAC seems to need obvious visual interconnection of parts. De Kooning sensed that LASPAC was the "high" art form of the time; he took it on but he could never use it full strength, because he was unable to contrive a means of visual interconnection of parts adequate to support the thorough exercise of the style. De Kooning's pieces butt up and shake out in picture after picture of the early and middle '50s. The Suburb In Havana type paintings solve the interconnection problem, as described above, but are otherwise deficient. In fact, as I write about the irresolute Composition, 1955, and the more "finished" Suburb In Havana, and reflect on the apparent superiority of the latter, I find myself liking it less. Maybe Composition, 1955, for all its faults, is still "alive." I don't know. Such are the snares of art writing.
In the early '60s de Kooning tired of the city and the art world and sought privacy on Long Island. It was a move from public to private, and de Kooning's attitude toward his art went from "public" to "private," or from theatrical to intimate. Though all objections to discussion of an artist's "insides" apply here again, the change in style seems clearly affected by the change in attitude which shows through it. I think by the early '60s de Kooning became convinced that he was the great artist that his pride and ambition demanded. Sales and public acclaim came to him in the same extravagant measure as the neglect and indifference of earlier years. In the light of today's restless big-money big-press world of art that neglect and indifference was extreme: a first one-man show at forty-four, with fifteen years of first-rate painting behind him, and the slow year-by-year swell to fame and fortune for the next ten. The enormous piling-up all at once of everything he had missed for so long may have relaxed the anxiety of an ambition that drove him to paint with an eye on forms foreign to him, to force into his style procedures for an art he could perceive but not produce. This desperate push, once satisfied, could be retired. It was not checked artistic ambition which wrought the change but a confidence brought by public success. No longer needing to demonstrate that he was a great artist, de Kooning could sit back and assume that he was. And so he set about doing what he liked best: making large, drawn, figure-ground paintings, full of the sensuality of women and buttery, colorful oil pigment. The agonies of Composition, 1955, are gone forever.
De Kooning consistently has produced paintings of higher quality after his move to the country than he did the previous fifteen years, since the white-on-black paintings of the late '40s. The stylistic changes from, say, 1959 to 1963 are quite clear. Color is more pale and there is more color difference in each painting. Line and area are more alike: an area may be made up of a group of lines; a line may have the stability, color and size of an area. The use of painted line for the first time is similar to the expressive drawn line of his charcoal and pencil sketches. The numbing horizontal-vertical alignment of all the large post-Excavation paintings is broken up, pushed about and made much less important. The setup is plainly figure-ground and the ground is either left empty or is integrated into the picture. De Kooning is finally at home with his style and his medium.
Two Figures In a Landscape was painted in 1967. It is full of thickly drawn oil paint, like a slow, bright Soutine. The big-unit strength of the figure-ground composition and the overall paleness of the colors accommodate complex hue and saturation differences and an intricate pattern of sharp and gradual value change. The thick-and-thin colored lines go only as far as the paint will carry them, When paint is mixed on the canvas, hues are usually close and blend into related hues at mid-value. The figures are heightened and the background fades off in the traditional manner with which de Kooning feels comfortable. The integration of color-mix with the "body" of the paint is very nice; the "submission" of the painting to the tangible substance of oil paint turns the materials into art.
It is interesting to note how disturbing are the several large "runs" of paint in the center and lower parts of the painting (they show up much more on the painting than on the reproduction). These same "mistakes" seem to matter little in the paintings of the '50s because those paintings were set up vertical-horizontal, so that the naturally vertical drip or run left the composition undisturbed, and the piece-size was so large they seldom interrupted anything. But Two Figures In a Landscape is an intricate painting made of fine color changes, thick and thin lines and paint body, shapes of alternating size and disposition and the strong unity and suggested depth of the figure-ground. Here again de Kooning carries over forms from one system which do not fit in another. The runs, especially the long one at left center, track across the canvas like the knife-mark of a vandal.
Clam Diggers, 1964, is a lovely study in close-value colors. It is one of a group of very fleshy, succulent light-value figures done about the same time. They are all really beautiful. Another favorite of mine is Two Women, 1964, owned by the Hirshhorn Collection. The Clam Diggers, with their roundness and "jumpy" edges, are like a couple of updated Reginald Marsh women. Clustering of value contrast is confined to spots around the heads of the figures (it's much stronger in the black and white reproduction than the painting. In fact, all the post-1963 paintings reproduced in the catalog, color or black and white, are darkened down). Close-value painting has the visual effect of all-overness, because there is little light-dark difference for the eye to pick up, and, together with the "gestalt" of the figures, there's enough coherence to the picture units to make any more obvious interconnection unnecessary. We are directed to see the color and paint and all the sensual and tactile attributes of surface. It's the Two Women charcoal in terms of paint.
Maybe Two Figures In a Landscape and Clam Diggers and the other paintings of the period are not great paintings, but I can't show they are not. And to boot, what of it? Both paintings do what they set out to do. There's nothing really wrong with them; they "come to life," they are lovely, sensual and visually satisfying. You can't knock that. However, many people do. Even de Kooning's most ardent supporters are a bit embarrassed by his recent work. That's because the art public likes form, not substance; they look for qualities instead of quality. Like most critics, they celebrate familiar form. They want what looks like great art. De Kooning's paintings of the late '40s and '50s are large, more-or-less all-over Cubist-Expressionist, a style "right for its time," but as I have tried to show, not right for de Kooning. De Kooning finally satisfied the taste for this kind of painting supremely well, perhaps better than any other artist, and he was rewarded in like measure. But now that he has given up many of the manners of '50s Abstract Expressionism, and has settled down to do what he wants to do, likes to do and can do best, his fans feel betrayed. They are put off by "pretty," sensual, intimate figure-ground paintings by the great splash and spatter cruddy-paint giant of the heroic '50s. Ironically, the reputation de Kooning built in the '50s continues to sell his recent paintings at prices which seem rather more than they are worth. So the art public and the art market go their confounding way.
In Vol. 7 (Summer 1969), p. 4, Artforum published a letter of comment by Fairfield Porter in response to Bannard's essay.
In his article on de Kooning (April), Darby Bannard tries very hard not to write like a painter. He seems to be influenced by a current style of art criticism which translates the visual into an indirect language based on logical and sociological ideas. A year ago he objected to the phrase "lemon yellow" for a color in a painting, preferring "light yellow green" as more accurate. The first phrase implied a particular sensation, the second that color is an intellectual idea. The second is a critic's term; and to be as indirect and accurate as Bannard wants, it requires also that one be told the chemical names of the pigments and the manufacturer, for anyone (relying on his senses) knows that Winsor Newton's cadmium green pale is different from Block's.
He uses the word "quality" as a category of excellence, as a teacher might, who has to give marks. An artist who wants to remain inside his art uses this term as a category that has nothing to do with measure. It leads only to misunderstanding to talk about art as though it were scientific or logical.
The biologist Gerald Maurice Edelman in a recent issue of the New York Times expressed the difference between art and science very well: "The difference between art and science is that art concerns itself with the particular, the arbitrary, and can look at many worlds at once, while science is concerned with the general, dealing with recurrent events in a world that has one value at a time."
Bannard thinks he should talk of de Kooning's paintings one at a time. If he would think like an artist he would be able to realize that there is such a thing as one quality (in my sense, not Bannard's) in the whole of an exhibition of one man's work, just as there is a family resemblance between siblings. And one can describe this just as one can describe, say, the quality "French" in a culture, without having to see every particular French thing. Certainly one can recognize it.
Bannard's article comes most alive when he describes directly in active (rather than visual) images, with verbs rather than nouns: "All around the edges of Excavation the pieces stiffen, shrink and polarize; they bat against the edge like summertime flies." This makes one want to look at the painting. But he also says that "It is easier to point out what is wrong with a painting than what is right. Mechanical faults are not too difficult to find if you go at a picture objectively. Wrong things lend themselves to talk; what's right, on the other hand, just seems right. A painting is like a living organism, or is built like one." He makes Excavation, which he dislikes, seem very much a living organism: the paintings he approves of don't come to life in his words. "A good soap, for example, is one that washes things clean; we can say what soap is for so we can also say how well it does what it is supposed to do. Paintings do something or we wouldn't have them around, but no one has been able to say just what that is." Is soap built like an organism? Is painting useful in an analogous way to soap?
He says that Excavation is the largest painting in the show, maybe the largest de Kooning ever made. It is about 6 by 8 feet. Labyrinth, also in the show, is almost six times larger, about 16 by 17 feet. He says nothing about it. Does that mean there is nothing wrong with it, since it doesn't lend itself to talk? How does it relate to Bannard's claim that de Kooning's weakness is large-scale many-elemented painting?
Bannard seems not to trust the visually specific. He prefers the most generalized meanings for nouns and adjectives; those that can be used in the largest number of contexts like the recurrent events a scientist looks for. And sometimes he seems to be trying to invent a bureaucratic tool of control - a Sort of Roberts' Rules of Order (or Greenberg's Rules of Order?) for rationalizing the operations of the art market.
Southampton, N. Y.
In the same issue, Bannard replied:
Mr. Porter's letter is diffuse and hard to answer. It seems to be a defense of "art" against "science." Art and science are not opposed, they are just different. The conflict rages in the imaginations of artists and serves only to protect ego against rigorous thought.
Mr. Porter is an artist and he thinks very visually. This is reflected in his letter, but one must be bound by the rules of the present activity, and think like a painter when painting, and a writer and critic when writing criticism. The confusion of roles and rules is the underpinning of all the rotten semi-literate art writing which abounds today. It's everywhere, fouling everything, like the oil slick in California. Accuracy comes out cold, I'll admit. But what's the alternative?
- Walter Darby Bannard