Tate's new retrospective: Why did we get de Kooning?

Are we right to be so admiring of the work currently exhibited at the Tate

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At times there seems to be a lack of coherent reasoning behind the international programmes of British art institutions. With little public debate about such matters, we are often left with the suspicion that it is either economic and political expediency (it is cheaper to buy into an exhibition planned by, or jointly organised with, other institutions), or curatorial conspiracy that renders us all hostage to certain exhibition choices. Nobody asks us who or what we should like to see.

While it may be true that London audiences have seen no work by Willem de Kooning since the group exhibition “New Spirit in Painting” in 1981, this is hardly a rare fate for artists in this country and in itself no justification for the present show. Is there, for instance, a particular reason why there should be a retrospective of the paintings of Willem de Kooning at this particular time, and if so what might it be? Is there, then, something about the work that speaks to a current preoccupation, that somehow enlightens our aesthetic dilemmas of the present—his eclectic, multivalent synthesis of European modernism, perhaps, or his ability to negotiate a formal middle ground between those somewhat redundant terms “figuration” and “abstraction” (as if they were ever mutually exclusive).

Or is there some more cynical manipulation at work in the market place, or a sentimental acknowledgement to an artist who is now, by all accounts, too severely incapacitated to register the event. In any case, the exhibition has the aura of a requiem, as if the artist were already dead: a hand-picked selection of the choicest blooms politely and reverently displayed in a chronologically organised tour of the artist’s themes and variations.

As an art student during the early Seventies, a time before feminism had made any dent whatsoever in the secondhand New York machismo that dominated art school then, de Kooning was among the role models thrust upon a generation whose realities or aspirations bore little resemblance to those of the Abstract Expressionists.

The fluidity of his paintwork and the vigour of the process of applying and scraping away paint from vast tracts of canvas, appealed to an earlier US-dominated notion that art was about “letting it all hang out”, and a paean to manual labour in a fake identification with the heroic working classes. Any suggestion that art was an intellectual activity would throw these third and fourth division Abstract Expressionists at art school into paroxysms of indignation; in a further identification with Pollock’s and de Kooning’s alleged bouts of drunkenness and violence, they spent a good part of their working day in the pub, confirming Duchamp’s apocryphal judgement “dumb as a painter”.

By the mid-Seventies, however, with the arrival of post-structuralist debunking of the transcendental subject, the brush-stroke as a signifier of the inner essence of creative genius was challenged as a piece of masculinist romantic nonsense. Nothing had significance outside the context, socio-political as well as aesthetic, in which it was produced and to which it was addressed. Hence pure abstraction which lacked an anchor in contemporary realities began to sound a hollow note–one no longer believed in it. In this respect de Kooning’s work still made sense. He himself is quoted as saying, “I am not interested in reducing painting to design, form, line and colour. I paint the way I do because I can keep putting more and more things in—like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space”. His practice remained thoroughly rooted in European modernism which had never really relinquished its “motif”. Corporeal or scenic, the artist’s “glimpses” of the world remained attached to an anthropocentric gravity and space, which was Cubist in structure insofar as the object— “woman” or “landscape”—was atomised for display.

What can be gathered from this collection of works is an aesthetic struggle throughout the Thirties and Forties with the traditional European pictorial relations of figure and ground. Progressive attempts to find a way of integrating them—the gradual elimination of outlines through broken, drawn paint marks and the interpenetration of forms and colour avoid fixing the figure within a determinate space, yet these remained Cubist solutions. During this period de Kooning uses a strong geometric armature and an assured drawing to build his forms. These are most fully dramatised in the black and white paintings of the late Forties, which echo the work of various contemporaries, most notably Arshile Gorky, Wifredo Lam and Matta.

However, the work disappoints and loses power when it loses the strength of drawing to become increasingly dependent, as in the landscapes of the Fifties, on the tedious repetition of the same brushmarks. It is the latest work on show here—made 1981-86—that seems to return to the intense drawings of the late Forties; yet the work of this recent period was made under the encroaching effects of Alzheimer’s Disease, a degenerative disease of the brain that impairs memory before attacking the motor nervous system. The implication is that de Kooning could still wield a brush even if he could no longer think coherently. This raises the controversy once again about the nature of art or painting: is it “letting it all hang out”, or is it a practice that articulates memory of the past with imagined future realities and a sense of judgement on the appropriate processes and conditions by which such contemplations might be brought into visible form?

Whatever de Kooning was able to glean of his past work, it is both uncanny and rather heartbreaking to see in the artist’s last works the pale echo of an earlier robust vitality.

“Willem de Kooning” runs at the Tate Gallery until 7 May 1995

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Why did we get de Kooning?'

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