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.

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