By Carter B. Horsley
About a decade ago, I was strolling down East
8th Street with my mother on a lovely spring day when a short,
fairly unkempt, elderly man with twinkling eyes ran up to her
and hugged her. Apparently, she knew him for they chatted animatedly
non-stop for about half an hour as I stood patiently to one side.
Finally, they waved good-bye and I asked my
mother, "Who was that?"
"Oh, sorry, that was Bill de Kooning,"
she said casually.
"What?" I exclaimed, wondering whether
I was annoyed at not having been introduced, or just impressed.
My mother knew all the great artists in New
York in the 1930's before she got sidetracked into being my mother.
She would run into them at parties over the next three decades,
and occasionally at the Cedar Bar on University Place between
8th and 9th Streets where she would imbibe some bourbon with a
New York University professor of chemistry and physics who had
5 doctorate degrees and whose family had owned Mouquin's, the
great saloon painted by William Glackens.
My mother had studied anthropology and was
head of the textile division of the Treasury Department's Works
Progress Administration's art program in the 1930's. Although
she had been interested in modern and tribal art, by the time
I started going to school in the mid-1940's she had fallen in
love with the Hudson River School of landscape painters of the
19th Century whose paintings were auctioned off for a few dollars,
literally, then at the various auction houses where we spent most
Saturdays on University Place like Kalisky and Gabay and Lawners,
and the nearby Astor over on Broadway.
I grew up with the Hudson River School paintings
and therefore was a little impatient with more recent work, but
as we ambled through the lovely auction galleries of Parke-Bernet
on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets a few years later,
she would point out the paintings of many of her former friends
and acquaintances like Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko,
Burgoyne Diller, Guy Pene du Bois, who lived in our building at
20 West 10th Street, and others, including de Kooning. I came
to appreciate them, but I always had a problem with de Kooning,
whose large paintings of women just were too messy for my taste
(and still are).
I asked my mother what she and de Kooning had
talked about on the street, and she smiled and shrugged off the
question in quite an imperial manner and said, "Friends."
She had not seen him for at least a couple
of decades and I gather they had never been too close, but I also
gather from other conversations I had had with my mother that
she had been very much a center of attention among many New York
artists for a few years in the 1930's because of her ebullient
enthusiasms, striking beauty, sharp wit and, most importantly,
She always chided me about my quick artistic
judgments and urged me to try to paint to see not only how difficult
it is but also to learn to observe and understand technique. De
Kooning was one of the few very artists on which we were not in
How sad, then, that my mother died a few years
ago and could not see the current de Kooning exhibition of his
late work at the Museum of Modern Art!
She would have loved it and appreciated the
fact that I love it.
For a naïve like myself, the show is a
revelation of painterly lines whose dynamics are scintillating
and energetic and whose style is a total surprise in comparison
with his earlier work.
There are about 30 large paintings, of only
two sizes, in the exhibition and they are uniformly bold and richly
colored. The immediate sensation is minimalist, but that is wrong
for these are deep works of considerable complexity. The first
associations that come to mind are of Leger and Lewitt and Klee
and Twombly and Diebenkorn and early Picabia and the Russian Constructivists.
But such comparisons are puerile and irrelevant.
These de Koonings are simply staggering, notwithstanding
some academic questions about his "senility" and what
role his "assistants" may have played in these creations.
They are not all masterpieces. Indeed, many
have minor "flaws" of composition and even delineation
and a few are a little odd in their palette, mostly the greenish-yellows.
Most of the paintings have a bright white background whose texture
is extremely lovely and relatively smooth as opposed to what I
probably called the "mud pies" of his early women.
But almost every one has a great rhythmic force
and all make you not only want to see more because they are quite
different from one another but also to see color variations. De
Kooning's lines are alive here, but not the fabled slap-dash splatter
of Abstract Expressionism, of which he was a founding father,
but in the greatly dimensional and sinuous sharpness of a Botticelli.
These paintings are intensely vital and facile,
a remarkable achievement that delivers a sense of spontaneity
despite both the large scale of the works and the fact, nicely
demonstrated in the exhibition, that most of the oil paintings
were dramatically reworked in many layers.
Applying Rorschach-tests is a passé
pastime nowadays, but some of the paintings appear to have quite
realistic roots in a chair or a bare back. There is a real, palpable
sense that these works are not merely abstract doodling, but refined,
reduced imprints of visions. There is human mystery and purpose
here, and a snippet of an overheard lecture by the curator in
the galleries indicated that in some the painter alludes to earlier
work. Indeed, his "Night Square" painting of 1951 with
white, squiggly lines against a black background, not included
in the show, was a two-dimensional stylistic precursor of the
late almost 3-dimensional works A run through the museum's other
galleries after viewing the exhibition comes as a shock as few
of de Kooning's fellow Abstract Expressionists seem to be in the
same league as the paintings here. There are a couple of earlier,
small and dark de Koonings that are quite interesting, however.
The exhibition's catalogue is, thankfully,
relatively inexpensive at under $30, but unfortunately its color
reproductions are not too accurate and do not convey the vibrancy
of the works.
If his early work was ominous, his late work
is luminous. There is a space within these paintings, in which
perspective floats and changes, in which there is almost an holographic
immersion. Each stroke, so it seems, defines new planes, some
penetrating and twisting, some emerging.