Essay: Willem de Kooning

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: April 26, 2020*
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  • Willem de Kooning
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Willem de Kooning, the famous and controversial Abstract Expressionist, was born in Rotterdam in 1904. From a young age de Kooning showed artistic promise, and received positive support from both his father and stepfather. The troubling economic situation of World War II, forced de Kooning out of school and into a four-year apprenticeship with the decorating firm of Gidding & Zonen. It was during this apprenticeship that de Kooning received further encouragement to pursue an artistic career, and soon he was enrolled at night classes at the Rotterdam Academy. This kind of formal academic training, and preoccupation with the human form would set de Kooning apart from some of his other well known contemporaries like Jackson Pollock. De Kooning’s dalliances into exploration of the figure represented a contradictory trajectory as an Abstract Expressionist. Much to de Kooning’s disappointment he only finished four years at the Rotterdam Academy instead of the required eight, focusing instead on what he thought would be a more practical career as a commercial artist. Returning to Rotterdam in 1925 de Kooning found little work as a commercial artist, in what would be a career-defining moment, set his sights on the United States. A long journey with a brief interlude, as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey, landed de Kooning in New York City at last. The promise of steady freelance work and the rising popularity of the New York Gallery scene drew the young de Kooning deeper and deeper into the New York Art world.1 Throughout the interwar period in the United States de Kooning’s emerging career would receive artistic influences from Matisse, other immigrant artists as well as his own creative ambitions.

Rejection of European avant-garde, Social Realism and Regionalism left de Kooning and many future Abstract Expressionists without a sense of purpose in their art. They searched for an art that would depict the irrationality of the world they were living in. To them the world was a rotten, broken place and what ensued was their struggle for personal salvation. It wasn’t only the external dynamics of a changing world that troubled de Kooning and fellow Abstract Expressionists, but they suffered a much more personal anxiety, disillusionment, and imagination of disaster.
It was the excursions into the figure form where the genesis for de Kooning’s Woman Series took hold. The Woman Series is an exploration of the human form and highlights de Kooning’s controversial nature as an Abstract Expressionist. de Kooning rendered his Woman Series three times from 1940 to the mid-1950’s, each becoming increasingly violent and abstract. The first series is the most realistic of the three, offering a clear distinction between form and landscape (Figure 1). The series is painted with an anxious mood, and muted colors to match. The sexual nature of the paintings are emphasized with low hanging clothing, and accentuated breasts. In 1948, de Kooning began his second rendition of the Woman Series where he began to tip the balance further into abstraction and trades realistic contours for abstract forms (Figure 2). De Kooning’s second series begins to highlight the ugly, grotesque but still sexual nature of the subject. Her body becomes an explosive and violent mass of color and painterly style, and she begins to fade into the chaos behind her. The third and final series was finished in the early 1950’s, by this time de Kooning had obscured and abstracted the subject to a whisper of the female anatomy (Figure 3). The violent expression of brushstroke and color highlights only the face and breasts, forcing the eye from one abstract form to the next in search for meaning. As de Kooning moved from toeing the line to abstraction to completely moving past it, questions were raised as to the meaning and purpose for these series, and so critics began to weigh in. Art critic, Hubert Crehan offered the most logical and sound response to de Kooning’s third Women Series, a mature and comprehensive culmination in the artist’s exploration of the female form. Crehan does not deny the influence of iconographic 1950s American woman, instead he relates it to a larger process of self-reflection for the artist, an unguided process of self-reflection for the artist which Crehan paints as a subconscious strife with no clear end point.
While all three of de Kooning’s Woman Series drew adept intellectual responses, none were so descriptive, poignant, and illuminating as those written in response to his third and final series. These responses offer a maturity that earlier responses lack and are able to offer a comprehensive critique and explanation for the series. One of de Kooning’s most outspoken champions was Thomas B. Hess, a prominent New York art critic, who said in article drawing a relationship between de Kooning’s Woman Series and the pin up icon, “I still think it is fair to consider de Kooning’s women of the 1950’s as violent intellectual and emotional criticism, in visual form, of the contemporaneous situation of the American woman as reflected in the pinup photograph”2. Hess saw this series as a conscious action by the artist to display his own “criticism”, but does not offer a value judgment as to whether his characterization of, “violent intellectual and emotional” represented deeper emotional feelings for the artist, like contempt or misogyny as other critics have suggested. Hubert Crehan, another critic in the New York art world, focused more the psychological questions that the Woman Series raised, “They are psychological rather than iconographic symbols…De Kooning…has been traumatized by the subject”3. Crehan agreed with Hess about the “violent” characterization of the series, but makes an effort to comment on purpose for such a series, such an extension makes the negative value judgment that Hess was unable to. Crehan later points to a deeper psychological reasoning for the series, “Crehan then contended that the artist was ‘struggling’ out of both desire and fear with a ‘different Woman: the new American Women, a formidable type, who is the avant-garde of he sex in the contemporary world.”3. Crehan paints a picture of personal distress for the artist, one where he must decide whether he desires the “new American Women” or whether he fears them. The final and perhaps most personal response is offered by Elaine de Kooning, once married to de Kooning, Elaine was an accomplished artist and critic herself, “ Bill does not feel the destructiveness or antagonism about his Women. He finds them cute and sweet…To explode a woman on canvas as Bill did was an act of apotheosis and destruction. It’s a male attitude towards all women: mothers, sisters, sweethearts, and daughters. And Bill loves the image of the floozy.”3. Elaine is quick to offer the artist’s motivations for the series, and draws a weaker but similar connection to the popularity pin up culture. Her statement is marred with the contradictions her ex-husband was known for, she says, “Bill does not feel the destructiveness…He finds them cute and sweet” and goes on to say, “what Bill did was an act of apotheosis and destruction”. Elaine’s final statement offers critical support to Hess’s original statement, but fails as Hess did to score or hold “accountable”, the artist for his actions. Few critics attached ever attached value judgments to their statements, they did not feel any sense of superiority on the subject, they simply were trying to understand and respond to de Kooning’s work.
The influence of the iconographic 1950s American woman on de Kooning’s final Woman Series cannot be underscored, but to only see as a “violent intellectual and emotional criticism”, or an “act of apotheosis and destruction”, misrepresents the de Kooning’s purpose behind the series, and instead offers a vague and contradictory generalizations. Art critic, Thomas Hess eqautes de Kooning’s final Woman Series to “violent intellectual and emotional criticism”, but fails to provide context as to whether or not this “criticism” was pro-women or anti-women, instead remarking, “Certainly he has never given public support to feminist or Women’s Lib causes…”3. This statement indicates de Kooning may have favored the latter. The ambiguity that Hess includes in response to the Women Series, draws from his credibility and it becomes harder to see de Kooning’s series as a sort of “criticism”. It more likely represented an understanding and remedy of expectation for the artist, relating to the “women’s place” in the 1950s. Elaine de Kooning’s response to the final Woman Series offers little support to the violent and aggressive characterizations of the series, but does mirror Crehan’s juxtaposition of desire and fear with the juxtaposition of apotheosis and destruction, a personal conflict for the artist. In an essay titled, “Content is a glimpse”, de Kooning alludes to the generator of this conflict, “I think it had to do with the idea of the idol, you know, the oracle, and above all the hilariousness of it. I do think that if I don’t look upon life that way, I won’t know how to keep on being around.”4. De Kooning is conscious of the relation between his Women Series and the iconography of the American Women, but the latter part of his statement alludes to a deeper psychological conflict, one of insecurity and anxiety, a world where he wouldn’t feel comfortable. The feelings of insecurity and anxiety represent an upheaval of firmly held ideas of beliefs and expectations, a process which began with the permeation of the American female icon, Art historian and author Sally Yard remarked after an interview with de Kooning, “Rather, his was a dream of prosperity: to become a commercial artist, make money, play tennis, and find those long-legged American girls”5, those “long-legged American girls” are further described in and Hess’s definition of the pin up girl, “‘wide-eyed, long-legged, ample hips and breasts, and all above with the open, friendly smile that discloses perfect, even, white teeth.”2. De Kooning’s dream to “find those long-legged American girls”, represents the artist’s virgin understanding of women, and their “purpose”. The repetition across both statements show how standards morph into expectations and misunderstanding, a misunderstanding de Kooning would try to reconcile through his painting. Both generalization and contradiction draw credibility away from Hess’s and Elaine de Kooning’s statements, which leaves the viewer to question and search for a more comprehensive response, similar to that offered by Crehan which goes even further to paint a picture of an artist lost in self-exploration.
It is not enough to chalk de Kooning’s Women Series up to a critique of the 1950s woman, de Kooning’s critique of the 1950s can only be understood as a part of de Kooning’s larger soul searching journey, a journey that would force the artist to find a way to express his subconscious on canvas. In an essay titled, “What Abstract Art means to me” de Kooning illuminates the psychological aspect of his art, “ I know there is a terrific idea there somewhere, but whenever I want to get into it, I get a feeling of apathy and want to lie down and go to sleep.”4. De Kooning seems to begin the process of self-reflection through painting with excitement, with a vision for the end, one of clarity and transcendence, but somewhere in the realization of this dream is confronted with his own ideas, expectations, and past. Hubert Crehan mentions the such a confrontation with the past in his response to the Woman Series, “They are psychological rather than iconographic symbols…De Kooning…has been traumatized by the subject”3, Elaine de Kooning adds a statement about the artist’s mother, “‘Bill’s own mother, who is in her early eighties, is a real doll, but she has a ferocious aspect.’”3. While there is no explicit trauma mentioned by the artist or his ex-wife, one can surmise that de Kooning’s own mother contributed to his understanding about women and their “place”, but maybe even more important his “place” in relation to a “woman’s place”, a realization that may have harbored an inferiority complex. It is possible that this inferiority complex left de Kooning with the “feeling of apathy” and exhaustion. It is not enough to see his works as reactionary, instead it must be seen as a process of understanding, de Kooning works from a desire to test and understand his ideas about the new American Women, but ultimately retreats into apathy and fear. De Kooning’s earliest works from his first Women Series, include the realistic contours of a woman, she often sits in a profile posture, safe, so that the viewer may take her in within the limits of their own comfort (Figure 1). Behind her a geometric background represents the order and clarity de Kooning thought he possessed. The increasingly abstract nature, blending of figure and landscape, the elimination of identity serves to represent the pandora’s box of misunderstanding de Kooning felt as he dove deeper into the subject. Woman I from de Kooning’s final series represents where de Kooning ended his process of self-discovery (Figure 3). What strikes the viewer first is the position of the woman, she is not in profile or contorted in a sexualized or alurring way, her body assaults the vision. This serves to represent the finality and clarity de Kooning feels towards the subject, but his abstraction of the figure and landscape serves to muddy any interpretation other than confusion and chaos. The breasts serve to remind both de Kooning and the viewer that the subject is female, as de Kooning further tried to come to terms with the changing American Women, he began to involve himself with more abstract psychological and visual questions. It was not the totality of the psychological process that vexed de Kooning but rather the personal conflicts he would have to resolve as a result of undertaking this level of self-reflection without any sort of guide.

It is important to see the evolution of de Kooning’s Women Series as a process of self-understanding and discovery for the artist, a battle between desire and fear, hoping to control what he thinks he knows, and being controlled by what he comes to know. David Sylvester alludes to this in an interview with the artist, “The spectacle of his daring release of violent forces and of his power ultimately to control them resembles that of a car careering round a mountain track as if it were going to fly out over the edge but somehow continuing to hold the road.”6. Hubert Crehan goes on to describe this struggle,“Crehan then contended that the artist was ‘struggling’ out of both desire and fear with a ‘different Woman: the new American Women, a formidable type, who is the avant-garde of he sex in the contemporary world.”2. The “daring release of violent forces” and “his power ultimately to control them” represent de Kooning’s desires and fear respectively. On one hand de Kooning desires the new American Women, she is the epitome of his dreams, and his dedication to the exploration of the female figure show his desire to understand his own expectations. De Kooning’s desire for this “new” woman is matched with his own fears about the subject which are described by British art critic David Sylvester comments, “they are figures that stop us in our tracks, figures as impregnable as fortresses.”6. Curator, Marla Prather follows this sentiment with, “‘ the figure seems virtually formless, engulfed by the wet, slippery medium of oil paint de Kooning has developed.’”6. On the other hand the artist fears this “new” women, “Some of my earlier woman are violent. They even scare me.”3. She represents the suggested trauma de Kooning experienced and a reluctant delve into the subconscious. She represents an uncomfortable reflection of the levels of gender equality, and brings up issues of masculinity and inferiority. The “balance” of these two forces, “continuing to hold the road”, represent the consciousness of de Kooning to present to the viewer a “finished product”, a testament to his new “understanding”, however complete that understanding is. What becomes apparent is how these works work to insulate and protect de Kooning from his own realizations. De Kooning creates a work that is, “impregnable as fortresses”, “engulfed by the wet, slippery medium of oil paint de Kooning has developed”, he has gone both on the offensive and defensive, creating a fortress for himself and his own ideas and expectations, all while creating a trap for the viewer, so that they may become entangled in the wet, slippery medium of oil paint (Figure 3) Both Sylvester and Prather describe stylistic choices that de Kooning employs in order to both protect himself in his exploration of his own self but also to find a sense of clarity in the chaos of his subconscious, actions which leave the audience with an unfinished understanding of de Kooning’s own journey.
Hubert Crehan’s response to de Kooning’s third Women Series, transcends visceral responses to the aesthetic nature of the women depicted. He suggests de Kooning engaged an arduous process of self-discovery after and upheaval of his own beliefs and understandings was prompted to examine his own “place” in relation to that of the “new American woman”. What de Kooning presented as his last rendition of the Woman Series represents a stopping place in the process of self-reflection for the artist, what is still not understood was whether the artist reached a point of self satisfaction or enlightenment, something that would warrant an analysis of his later work.

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