Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la Femme, by Rosalind E. Krauss

Book of the week: Tracey Warr on De Kooning’s iterative output and his fascination with the physicality of paint

April 28, 2016
Elaine and Willem de Kooning standing in front of painting
Source: Hans Namuth
Elaine and Willem de Kooning: the artist was enthralled by ‘what paint does’

In 1950, in a lecture on Renaissance art, the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning declared that “flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented”. In his own artworks, de Kooning was fascinated with “what paint does”, its lushness, the possibilities of building it up into material substance on the canvas, evoking fleshiness. He confessed to a predilection for “a nice, juicy, greasy surface”. What he liked about clay, when he started sculpting in later life, was that you could keep it wet.

Between 1950 and 1954, de Kooning created many large abstract expressionist oil paintings and drawings of the same subject – woman – sometimes seated, sometimes standing, sometimes two women. He worked on each painting over and over for long periods of time. Woman occurred as the subject in his work in the 1940s and recurred in the 1960s in paintings such as The Clam Diggers. Although de Kooning admired Rubens, his own iterations of women in paint were not realistic fleshy nudes. Instead, with their smeared abstraction, their hideous toothy grins and exaggerated breasts, they appeared to many viewers as monstrous, ugly, even gynephobic. “I get the paint right on the surface. Nobody else can do that,” remarked de Kooning, and indeed the woman in Woman I, with her “distorted oral rictus” and transfixing stare, seems to be coming right at you, out of the painting.

In this study, Rosalind Krauss sets out to account for the repetitions of compositional template in de Kooning’s work. Her central question is why he could not desert woman as subject. “I can’t get away from the Woman. Wherever I look, I find her,” he said. Krauss notes that de Kooning’s inability to stop working on a particular painting, or to stop obsessively painting the same subject over and over again, are at the centre of many previous critical discussions of the artist. She proceeds to outline her own “explanatory tropes” for de Kooning’s commitment to the woman-as-model template that held steady over four decades of his career. This template, she argues, formed the nexus of what he wanted to say about the status of painting as representation.

Krauss’ short book is written in lucid, cogent prose, making its argument as strongly through its 73 illustrations as it does through the written text. She draws on the evidence of de Kooning’s lecture “The Renaissance and Order”, on a fascinating series of photographs showing the changing states of Woman I as the artist laboriously worked and reworked the painting over two years, on her own account of the “heated intelligence of the formal discussions” de Kooning held with fellow New York School artists, and on the well-trodden ground of contentious interpretations by the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. She discusses de Kooning’s art in the context of literature that he and his contemporaries read and debated: Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Søren Kierkegaard. She engages with other critical readings of de Kooning’s work ranging from Thomas Hess writing in the 1950s and 1960s to more recent studies by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (2004) and by Richard Shiff (2011). Above all, however, Krauss’ argument blooms from a careful looking at and pondering of the artworks themselves.

Discussing de Kooning’s techniques, brushes, eradications, cutting and pasting that produced collage-like discontinuities, Krauss effectively demonstrates how he was concerned with the grammar of painting: the visual meaning of a painting apart from its overt subject matter. The pose in the Woman series, for instance, allowed him to explore foreshortening and perspective. He aimed to make figures and the voids around them equally active.

The “explanatory tropes” Krauss puts forward are what she terms “the triplex” – the combination of model, canvas and artist; the shadow (touching on her earlier work on the index); the window/mirror/windshield; the Freudian fetish, existentialism and doubt. She argues that de Kooning studied “the triplex” of model-canvas-artist in the work of predecessors including Vermeer, Ingres, Picasso and Matisse. She conveys de Kooning’s admiration for Vermeer’s ability to paint “between the edges”, Matisse’s windows-rhymed-with-canvases, and Ingres’ inclusions of mirrors. The point of view need not be materialised through an actual representation of the artist; instead, the artist could enter the picture as point of view, and so de Kooning saw each brushstroke in Cézanne’s paintings as the artist’s shifting point of view. She makes reference to later work such as the indexical shadows of Lee Friedlander’s photographs and the bodily imprints of Jasper Johns’ Skin drawings. Krauss demonstrates that de Kooning was aiming to catch the totality of object and subject.

De Kooning’s later paintings of abstracted highways occupied him for seven years, even longer than his compulsive fixation with Woman. Krauss argues that rather than a shift of topic, there is a continuity from the Woman paintings to the Parkway Landscapes. De Kooning, a non-driver, enjoyed weekend drives in a Packard with his friend Wilfrid Zogbaum. Krauss suggests the car windshield can be equated with canvas, landscape with woman/model/subject, the view of the road with the artist’s tacit point of view, and so “the triplex” reappears.

Born in Rotterdam, de Kooning arrived in America in 1926 as a stowaway and died in 1997. He lived a life long enough to read Greenberg championing a new generation of artists and repudiating de Kooning’s work as mere “mannerism”, to see (and donate the base work for) Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning, and to have his dealer tell him that his late sculptural work was “not good”. His late paintings were judged by some to be the outcome of Alzheimer’s. Krauss argues that, on the contrary, there is a robust continuity of the concerns she has outlined, both in his late Ribbon paintings and in his sculpture.

Willem de Kooning Nonstop offers a fresh and persuasive perspective on its subject, provoking thoughtful engagement with his work and with paintings by other artists who influenced him. Krauss presents her argument in an episodic, almost note-like structure. Having studied with Greenberg, the pre-eminent and often controversial critic of this generation of artists, Krauss is now the grande dame of revisionist theory on these artists. It was a 2011 exhibition of de Kooning’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that was the spur to Krauss to write this book. Many years earlier, she wrote an undergraduate thesis on de Kooning, and thus this study can be seen as the culmination of a lifetime spent pondering the paintings and the pictorial intelligence behind them.

De Kooning referred to the influence of Mesopotamian idols on his Woman series and saw his women as landscapes, with “arms like lanes and a body of hills and fields”. He was transfixed by the joyousness of Matisse’s paintings. His Woman paintings express maternity, fertility, sexuality, joie de vivre, life and procreation nonstop. At the same time de Kooning was painting the Woman series, Jean Dubuffet, in France, was coincidentally producing paintings of “ladies’ bodies”, including The Tree of Fluids, which is displayed in Tate Modern. Georges Limbour wrote that “the famous Corps de Dames seemed monstrous to those who wanted to reduce them to what they were only in part – women. The texture of these bodies shows clearly that they are not big hunks of flesh, but rather terrestrial slime, the substance of mountains and moors.” The grins and hooves of De Kooning’s women evoke the copious laps of stolid, joyous mothers and grandmothers who might suddenly pick up their skirts, kick up their heels and hoof it at any unexpected moment. Willem de Kooning Nonstop evinces a ferocious and desperate joy in life, and in the endless road – that eventually does stop.

Tracey Warr is research associate in fine art, Oxford Brookes University, and co-editor of Remote Performances in Nature and Architecture (2015).

Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la Femme
By Rosalind E. Krauss
University of Chicago Press, 176pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226267449 and 7586 (e-book)
Published 11 April 2016

The author

Author Rosalind Krauss, Columbia UniversityRosalind Krauss, university professor in the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, was born and grew up in Washington DC, where her father, a lawyer, worked for the Department of Justice.

“The department was a few blocks from the National Gallery of Art, where I would meet my father for lunch every other week or so, and then visit the gallery with him. We always started with the 17th-century Dutch collection to see the works by Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer and Ruisdael, to which he was ardently devoted.

“We would then make our way to the 20th-century art section, where there was a small group of Picassos, Braques and Klees. My father’s disgust at modern art was very vocal, and I was as ardent in my disagreement with him as he was committed to the Dutch masters. I was determined to convince him, but didn’t have the vocabulary or strategy of argument to do so. I think this is at the bottom of my desire to write – eloquently, convincingly – about art.”

Krauss lives in SoHo in New York City with her husband, the writer and literary scholar Denis Hollier. “A Frenchman, Denis has family in Paris, to which we travel regularly to see them. It was my ‘French connections’ that led to my conception and execution of a large exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, L’informe: mode d’emploi, which I co-curated with the critic and scholar, Yve-Alain Bois.”

She adds: “Of the various exhibitions I’ve curated, my two favorites were the Richard Serra exhibition (at MOMA) of 1986, and the exhibition of Surrealist Photography – L’Amour Fou – I co-curated with Jane Livingston at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC.”

Of her first encounter with the works of William de Kooning, Krauss recalls: “I found all his works unsettling. I think that is why I chose to write my senior thesis on his work. To try to describe a de Kooning Woman in four or five adjectival markers of emotion is to go down an irrelevant path. What they deserve, instead, is an acknowledgement of their formal complexity and intelligence.”

Clement Greenberg’s attack on de Kooning, she suggests, “was in the interest of a group of younger painters to whom he had become intensely committed: the colour-field or stain painters – Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. He saw the shading from light to dark inherent to de Kooning’s brushwork as a threat to the open, fluent fields of colour he thought characterised the best painting of the 1950s and 1960s. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had giddy (and sometimes vicious) senses of humor. Rauschenberg’s request for a de Kooning drawing not to keep, but to erase, was not just an act of rivalry, but of triumph.” 

Karen Shook

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