I live in my world

Barry Schwabsky

  • Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme by Rosalind Krauss
    Chicago, 154 pp, £22.50, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 26744 9

Could anything be more unexpected, in the world of art criticism, than the appearance of a book by Rosalind Krauss on Willem de Kooning? Krauss is a wide-ranging critic and historian of modernism, the author of an influential book on Picasso, but she has been associated above all with minimalist and post-minimalist sculptors of her own generation or slightly older – figures such as Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra – and then with the promotion, through the journal October, which she co-founded in 1976, of a somewhat younger group of postmodern artists who substituted photographic imagery for painting, among them James Coleman, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman.

‘Door to the River’ (1960)
‘Door to the River’ (1960)

In Art since 1900, the massive textbook she and her October colleagues published in 2005, de Kooning seems to be one of a passel of painters in whose hands ‘the entire conceptual baggage of authenticity, spontaneity and risk that accompanied [the] ideology of the mark’ – what Clement Greenberg called ‘the Tenth Street touch’ – ‘had become a kind of creed.’[*] Worse, in Yve-Alain Bois’s assessment in that book, de Kooning is the exponent of a reactionary adaptation of his friend and rival Jackson Pollock’s truly revolutionary technical innovations, indeed ‘a kiss of death: gone were the looseness and risk-taking of the drip technique, now replaced by a tight grip on the brush and nervous twists of the wrist’. Krauss herself in Art since 1900 sees de Kooning as one of the guys who didn’t get the point of Pollock’s practice of working with his canvas on the floor. Pollock’s method, in Krauss’s eyes no mere procedural quirk, was nothing less than an attack on all

sublimatory forces: uprightness, the gestalt, form, beauty. At least this was the conviction held by many of the artists convinced by the antiform drive of his work. That the canvases were returned to a formal decorousness by being hung – vertically – on the wall of either Pollock’s studio or the museum, did not deter them in their view … All the other Abstract Expressionists worked on easels or with their canvases tacked directly to the wall. This meant that in de Kooning’s or Gorky’s work liquid paint would form a vertical runoff, the spatters would themselves be oriented toward form. Pollock alone resisted this.

Krauss doesn’t mention de Kooning in Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977), though a page is given to a reproduction of his painting Door to the River (1960), implicitly as an illustration of what she means in explicating Harold Rosenberg’s idea, influenced by existentialism, of ‘action painting’ as proposing ‘the pictorial object as a metaphor for human emotions that well up from the depths of those two parallel inner spaces’ – namely, ‘the psychological interior of the artist and the illusionistic interior of the picture’. In Art since 1900, she presents a more nuanced view of the relation between de Kooning’s art and Rosenberg’s idea of it, describing Rosenberg’s ‘action painting’ as involving an ‘act of projection and perception’ that was ‘to be as unrepeatable as it was ephemeral’, while de Kooning’s use of the image of Woman was something ‘pre-given, repeatable, a fixed convention’. The ‘proto-Pop, serial quality of these images … their lack of individuality’, she wrote, ‘makes their relation to existential aesthetics problematic’.

You wouldn’t know from reading Willem de Kooning Nonstop that there’d ever been a change of heart. The opening chapter is full of confirmed adoration (‘his pre-eminence secured’, ‘widely considered a masterpiece’, ‘major artist’), with no return to Bois’s or Krauss’s own earlier denigrations of de Kooning in favour of Pollock, who is as scarce a figure here as de Kooning was in Art since 1900. Where Pollock is mentioned, he and de Kooning seem to be in tandem, not in opposition, so that there is as much of Wölfflin’s ‘painterliness’ in ‘the open webs of Pollock’s art’ as in ‘the smeared brushstrokes of de Kooning’s’ – though she notes that according to Greenberg it was only in the latter case that painterliness ‘hardens into mannerism’. Nonetheless, she reinterprets Greenberg to suggest, implausibly, that his preferred art of the next generation, the colour field painting of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, was ‘the future that had developed in the aftermath’ not just of Pollock, but also of de Kooning.

The ‘Nonstop’ in Krauss’s title refers to de Kooning’s notorious inability, at certain crucial points in his work, to finish a painting – and, by extension, his difficulty in completing any series that he began, or to let go of a motif once it had entered his work. ‘Cherchez la femme’ is chosen as her subtitle because first and foremost among de Kooning’s unfinished, unfinishable motifs was the figure of Woman, not just in the famous Woman I begun in 1950 – and, as Krauss says, ‘only “completed” when Sidney Janis whisked it away in 1953 for an exhibition at his gallery’ – or in later iterations such as Woman, Sag Harbor (1964), but also in ostensibly non-representational works, including those whose general inspiration appears to have come from landscape.

Neither idea is exactly news. As reaffirmed by the inclusion of Woman I in the recent exhibition Unfinished at the Met Breuer in New York, de Kooning’s uncertainty about when to let go of a painting is legend. ‘The outstanding thing in his art is his doubt, his equivocating about it,’ his friend and fellow artist Joop Sanders said, but de Kooning himself did not always see incompleteness as subjective. Painting, he thought, had to do with space, and ‘one thing nice about space is that it keeps on going.’ As for the presence of the female figure in everything de Kooning painted, I am surprised that Krauss hasn’t quoted the painter’s own admission: ‘The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.’

De Kooning’s capital W does not imply idealisation. On the contrary, Woman is always to him an astonishment, and often endowed with an exuberantly vulgar terribilità. She’s got teeth. Early on, he had painted men, sad, listless, trapped melancholically in their chairs – portraits of his own sense of ineffectuality. When he started painting women – the first was modelled by Elaine Fried, who became his wife, then his ex-wife and eventually his carer – the paintings began to burst with energy. Woman was his model in more ways than one; by painting women he was showing himself how to embody the shrewd ignorant verve he wanted as a painter and that he strove to portray in person. He knew and had read plenty, but preferred to play the innocent, the observant but befuddled immigrant who could manifest his naivety in the act of denying it: ‘I’m not a – how do you say that? – country dumpling.’

Among the most suggestive aspects of Krauss’s reading of de Kooning is her insistence on the cogency of his lecture ‘The Renaissance and Order’ from 1950, which she calls, hyperbolically, ‘a treatment of the visual vectors internal to Western painting that surpasses anything written to that point on the implications of perspective’. She takes as programmatic his reflection on the need of the Renaissance painter ‘to be, so to speak, on the inside of his picture’:

He took it for granted that he could only measure things subjectively, and it was logical therefore that the best way was from the inside … He became, in a way, the idea, the centre, and the vanishing point himself – and all at the same time. He shifted, pushed and arranged things in accordance with the way he felt about them.

This well describes de Kooning’s own way of working, which involved, as Thomas Hess described it in his essay of 1953, ‘De Kooning Paints a Picture’, making ‘a continuous series of drawings which are cut apart, reversed, exchanged and otherwise manipulated on the painting.’ Krauss has no trouble citing other examples of de Kooning’s reflections on his desire to find a perspective from inside the painting: ‘I am always in the picture somewhere,’ he said in a panel discussion in 1950. ‘The amount of space I use I am always in, I seem to move around in it, and there seems to be a time when I lose sight of what I wanted to do, and then I am out of it. If the picture has a countenance, I keep it. If it hasn’t, I throw it away.’ And her analyses of particular paintings are animated by her determination to demonstrate this ‘inside’ perspective at work. What she doesn’t face is that de Kooning’s understanding of painting as something to get inside is clearly derived from Pollock’s justification of his method of working on an unstretched canvas spread out on the floor, which had been published in 1947:

On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image etc, because the painting has a life of its own … It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

For the Krauss of Art since 1900, Pollock’s insistence on the horizontality of the canvas was crucial. Now, it seems that Pollock’s and de Kooning’s distinct ways of finding a way to work from the inside of the picture are equally plausible.

De Kooning, like many others of his time, calls his works ‘pictures’ while Pollock refers to his as ‘paintings’; it was only later that artists, especially but not only abstractionists, began making the use of ‘painting’ a point of honour. ‘Picture’ implies a picture of something or other, and this probably justifies Krauss’s unexplained and otherwise possibly misleading use of the word ‘model’ to refer to the woman depicted in de Kooning’s works, even though, in his mature work at least, he didn’t have a model sitting there in the studio to paint from. This isn’t the book’s only descriptive puzzle. In an otherwise shrewd demonstration that de Kooning was already working with a tripartite structure (painter/picture/model, as compared, say, with Pollock’s two-part structure artist/painting) in the 1930s, she shows how two ostensibly abstract studies, one from 1935, the other around 1939, were patterned on Picasso’s artist-and-model paintings from the late 1920s, in which we see the model ‘becoming representation before our very eyes’. What’s strange is her conclusion that ‘both de Kooning and Picasso rotated the horizontal panorama of artist/canvas/model ninety degrees to layer them one behind the other, the painter at the forefront as implicit point of view.’ In fact, and in accordance with the modernist tendency towards flatness, the figures are not layered in any of the paintings she mentions. Rather, the depicted artist, canvas and model all face the viewer from more or less the same plane; the ‘staring eyes’ in de Kooning’s untitled work of around 1939 stare at the viewer, and therefore at the real painter who painted them, as much as they do at the depicted model.

The artist who represents himself in painting becomes his own model. Perhaps this has something to do with de Kooning’s beginning to drop the male figure in his mature work – from 1940 on. The artist’s viewpoint becomes implicit, and too mobile to be figured directly. Following T.J. Clark, Krauss suggests that the ‘abstract parkway landscapes’ that occupied de Kooning in the late 1950s and early 1960s are built on a similar ‘tripartite template’. As soon as it’s understood that the implicit viewpoint is from inside a moving car, it ‘can be plotted by understanding the windshield, with its plane of representation, as a kind of “canvas” onto which the model of the landscape seen through it is imprinted in turn’, with the artist as implicit focal point. She could have gone further, and pointed out that if this is so, then the artist is no longer afforded an active role, and the paradigm is no longer that of the painter’s studio but of a photographic apparatus: the windshield is the lens and the artist merely the film on which the model leaves its trace.

‘Asheville’ (1948)
‘Asheville’ (1948)

That Krauss ignores de Kooning’s photographic paradigm shows how surprisingly traditional her reading of his work remains. She barely follows up on her earlier intuition of ‘the proto-Pop, serial quality of these images’, though this is probably in great part what accounts for their present strength, and despite the fact that all the clues were already there more than sixty years ago when Hess published ‘De Kooning Paints a Picture’. Hess understood that de Kooning’s way of putting a painting together as a mechanism with movable fragments made for ‘a sort of montage effect, a jump in focus, as if someone had abruptly changed the lens through which you were looking’. He points out de Kooning’s use, in his sketches, of found imagery, ‘mouths cut from advertisements and posters, sometimes with enlarged lips, often with teeth accentuated by black verticals’, and recognises that de Kooning’s way of connecting figure and ground was conditioned by his intuition of a modernity that is what would later be called a ‘context of no-context’. De Kooning, according to Hess,

claims that the modern scene is ‘no-environment’ and presents it as such. To make his point, he opened a tabloid newspaper and leafed through its illustrations. There was a politician standing next to an arched doorway and rusticated wall, but remove the return of the arch – the wall might be a pile of shoe boxes in a department store, or ‘nothing’. The outdoor crowd scene with orators on the roof of a sound truck could be the interior of Madison Square Garden during a prize-fight. The modern image is without distinct character probably because of the tremendous proliferation of visual sensations which causes duplicates to appear among unlikes.

It’s not surprising that within a few years of saying this, de Kooning would be taking parkways as his inspiration – ‘no-environments’ par excellence. The ‘proliferation of visual sensations’ creates a constant flux in which any sense of self-orientation is merely momentary and tentative. De Kooning was impressed by Cézanne’s intuition that ‘every brushstroke has its own perspective,’ adding: ‘He didn’t mean it in the sense of Renaissance perspective’ – which is oriented toward an overall order, however subjective – ‘but that every brushstroke has its own point of view.’ De Kooning’s aesthetic of negative capability – I don’t know if he was familiar with Keats’s phrase, but he’d visited the poet’s grave in Rome and later gave one of his paintings the title … Whose Name Was Writ in Water after the inscription on its stone – requires a similar willingness on the viewer’s part to desist from any irritable reaching after a predefined order. Perhaps that accounts, to some degree, for his critics’ continuing inability to impose an order on their reflections. Krauss’s essay is just fifty pages long, yet it is remarkably digressive, and the same was true – on a much larger scale – of the last major publication on the artist, Richard Shiff’s Between Sense and de Kooning (2011).

Whether de Kooning’s art can be completely explained by its ‘formal logic,’ as Greenberg would have preferred, is left an open question, as Krauss seems to accept the dismissal of the existential interpretation as ‘fashionable’ while accepting de Kooning’s own view that it was an ineluctable element in the atmosphere in which he worked: ‘I read the books, but if I hadn’t I would probably be the same kind of painter. I live in my world.’ Krauss goes on to trace the signs of de Kooning’s interest in Sartre, Kierkegaard and Merleau-Ponty, and plausibly suggests that Sartre’s writing on Giacometti may have stimulated de Kooning’s interest in him, which is visible in the sculpture he began making himself around 1969. The new medium gave de Kooning new ways of not stopping – ‘with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back to it the next morning and if I don’t like what I did, or I changed my mind, I can break it down and start over’ – and new ways of seeing Woman. Krauss doesn’t make clear what this sidestep into sculpture means for Greenberg’s critique with which the train of thought began. And her implicit promise of an account of de Kooning’s repetitions, his unwillingness to let go of a motif, is hardly fulfilled – only itself repeated and rehearsed. A very brief final chapter, like an afterword, looks at the series Clam Diggers (1963), ‘paintings and drawings of figures standing in water and of their reflections and the reflections of those reflections’ – evocations of a freedom without anxiety, or, in the painter’s own words, ‘no fear but a lot of trembling’. Krauss’s last thoughts on de Kooning do not offer a conclusion, but leave us suspended at a pleasantly wobbly point midway through the artist’s long career.

In the past, Krauss has been a bracingly polemical writer, as happy to make enemies as enlist allies. When in 1976 she surveyed the field of video art to discover ‘an aesthetics of narcissism’, or when in 1977 she demolished the idea, proposed by critics as various as Donald Kuspit, Suzi Gablik and Lucy Lippard, that the art of Sol LeWitt should be seen as rationalistic, you knew exactly where she stood. In the woozier world of Willem de Kooning Nonstop, it is much harder to find a parti pris. Quoting the divergent views of Greenberg, Rosenberg and Hess, the possibilities are weighed but ultimately left undecided. What accounts for the change? Perhaps Krauss is nostalgically returning to her roots. An aside planted in the acknowledgments reveals that de Kooning was the subject of her Wellesley College senior thesis. That would have been 1962: the past recaptured.

[*] Frances Richard reviewed Art since 1900 in the LRB of 6 April 2006.