Brushed Off

Why Willem de Kooning’s late works shouldn’t be.

“Willem de Kooning: ‘The Late Paintings, the 1980s’ “
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Through April 29, 1997

About 15 years ago, painter Chuck Close went out to Springs, Long Island, to meet Willem de Kooning, one of the greatest American artists of this century. As Close describes him, de Kooning was a wreck. Stooped and vacant-eyed, shuffling around in pajamas, the aged artist couldn’t identify friends or participate in conversation. He drifted away from his guests to the television, where Close found him channel surfing, staring at the procession of silent images as they blinked past, his once-legendary attention span splintered into nothingness.

Before Close left, de Kooning’s wife, Elaine, suggested that Bill show Close his recent paintings. Nervously, Close followed de Kooning into the famous hangarlike studio. As de Kooning crossed the threshold, a transformation took place. He straightened up. His eyes brightened. He began speaking articulately about each of the paintings in turn. He modeled the air with his hands, making the beautiful, precise gestures that earlier visitors had described. He was himself.

Or rather, as Close realized, he was two selves: De Kooning the man had long since disintegrated. Asked a factual question, he was helpless, ignorant of the date, of where he lived. But de Kooning the artist was still healthy. He would continue to paint for nearly a decade, long after he had lost the ability to sign his own name.

Some critics see these late paintings as flaccid and incontinent–channel surfing on canvas. Others think they document the de Kooning whom Close saw in the studio: an old man still young in his art. The paintings themselves have rarely been exhibited. But 40 of them, beautifully installed at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, now make it possible to judge the case for oneself. Whatever one’s opinion of the paintings’ success, they tell a poignant story of resilience and frailty, and of an artist who was passionately unwilling to put away his brushes.

The story begins at a low point in de Kooning’s life. In 1979, at age 75, with his short-term memory already failing, de Kooning quit drinking and entered a period of lethargy and depression. It looked as if his most recent works would be his last. Those works were large, oceanic abstractions that incorporated a kaleidoscopic range of color. Like Cézanne’s last views of Mont Sainte Victoire, or Monet’s water lilies, they had the slightly incoherent grandeur often associated with an altersstil, an old-age style. But when de Kooning pulled himself together and began painting again in earnest, in 1981, his paintings looked unlike anything he had made before.

Untitled I (1981), the first painting in this show, is a transitional work, a preamble to the new style. Using masonry knives and pieces of cardboard instead of brushes, de Kooning smears paint across the canvas as if it were Spackle. The resulting swaths of color, like beach towels rippling on a laundry line, create a planar kind of abstraction, with large areas of smooth, erased whiteness. His palette, once so full of nuanced colors, here shrinks to play-school primaries, colors that refer to nothing but paint. Both changes signal a stripping down, an old man’s effort to simplify, relearn, restart.

In the next painting, Pirate (also 1981), de Kooning picks up his brushes again. But he uses them in an uncharacteristic way. The strokes are isolated and tentative, gliding over the smooth paint surface like someone ice-skating the day after a cast comes off. In Untitled III (1981), a scattering of snail-shaped blue brush strokes have been cropped and re-contoured. Their streamlined edges help create a new mood in de Kooning’s art, one of delicacy, radiance, and calm.

For many people, such calmness amounted to a betrayal. De Kooning was, after all, the artist for whom the term “action painting” had been first coined. Explosive splashes and drips were supposed to be integral to his art, proof of the painting’s volcanic authenticity. I remember, in art school, watching otherwise mild-mannered students hyperventilate, grimace, and lunge at their canvases, trying desperately to imitate de Kooning’s slashing gestures. Some critics still subscribe to this view of de Kooning as a kind of Dutch dervish. Writing recently in The New Yorker, Calvin Tompkins complained that the 1980s paintings lacked the “messy viscous slathers of pigment, the turbulence and turmoil, … the sheer velocity of a style that allowed no room for refinement and contemplation.” To Tompkins, these weren’t just surface effects, but “the essential elements of de Kooning’s greatness.”

Forty years before, similar complaints had been leveled. His grotesque, sardonic “Woman” paintings were seen as a betrayal of his earlier abstract phase. Today this controversy is a dead issue. The abstractions and the “Woman” paintings hang side by side in museums. My bet is that the current objections will prove equally temporary. As the unfamiliarity of the early-’80s paintings wears off, a new, amended sense of continuity will emerge. Our eyes will focus not on velocity but on volatility, on de Kooning’s ability to make his images wriggle and buckle, never quite settling into the seat belt of a single compositional scheme.

D e Kooning’s best paintings, from the ‘40s as well as the early ‘80s, flirt with refinement and turbulence. They avoid the ideological options–an anarchic expressionism or traditional composition. Delicacy doesn’t undermine this balancing act. A greater sense of control seems, on the contrary, to highlight it. One of my favorites among these paintings, Untitled V (1982), is built around a repeated shape that is like a dark letter “S.” But “repeated” isn’t an accurate description here, since the shape is never the same twice. It bends, tilts, swells, enlarges, and shrinks in each new appearance, like a vacuum chamber full of snakes. In the center of the picture, two asymmetrical oxbows form a configuration like a grappling iron, anchoring the composition. The sense of order here is slight, but it’s enough to give the picture a momentary, precarious unity. To my eye, this is the essential de Kooning: not a slatherer but a destabilizer. He creates a kind of equilibrium that is always mobile, always about to tilt off to one side and disappear.

In 1982 and ‘83 de Kooning, undistracted by an outside world he could no longer understand, painted at an unprecedented pace, completing nearly a picture a week. His fat serpentine strokes and lacquer-smooth planes twisted around each other, arriving at exuberant new combinations that sometimes echoed his old friend Arshile Gorky as well as Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, painters whose final work was similarly buoyant. This brief period may have been the most fertile of his career.

In 1984, however, the paintings changed again, marking the start of decline. De Kooning continued to paint rapidly, but now he seemed to be able to juggle fewer elements. Stretching his paint strokes into long, narrow ribbons, he retreated toward a kind of linear drawing in three colors. The paintings became sinuous lattices, like the web of a deranged and brilliant spider. Within them, an endless inventory of shapes and rhythms appears. The compositions become ever more undulating and graceful. But at this point the difference between supporters’ and detractors’ views begins to narrow. The pictures’ precariousness, their de Kooningness, has unmistakably begun to leak away.

Gradually, the paintings exhibit a restriction in emotional range as well. They take on a cartoonish, uniform cheeriness. The paintings from 1987 are full of charming facility, but their decorativeness is repetitive. De Kooning himself seems to have left the room.

Still alive at 93, de Kooning is now neither artist nor channel surfer. Immobilized by Alzheimer’s disease, he sits in his home in Springs, having lived beyond what Auden called “his last afternoon as himself.”