De Kooning Paints a Picture

The former ARTnews editor traces the “Hamlet-like history” of an Abstract Expressionist classic

In the first days of June, 1950, Willem de Kooning tacked a 7-foot-high canvas to his painting frame and began intensive work on Woman—a picture of a seated figure, and a theme which had preoccupied him for over two decades. He decided to concentrate on this single major effort until it was finished to his satisfaction.

The picture nearly complied to his requirements several times in the months that followed, but never wholly. Finally, after a year and a half of continuous struggle, it was almost completed; then followed a few hours of violent disaffection; the canvas was pulled off the frame and discarded. After that three other related pictures were begun (and these have since been finished).

A few weeks later, the art historian Meyer Schapiro visited De Kooning’s Greenwich Village studio and asked to see the abandoned painting. It was brought out and re-examined. Later it was put back on the frame, and after some additional changes was declared finished—i.e., not to be destroyed. This was mid-June, 1952.

When the canvas was mounted on a permanent stretcher prior to being taken to the Janis Gallery (where De Kooning is having a one man show this month, which includes Woman), another alteration was made. Then Woman escaped by truck from its creator.

The painting’s energetic and lucid surfaces, its resoundingly affirmative presence, give little indication of a vacillating, Hamlet-like history. Woman appears inevitable, like a myth that needed but a quick name to become universally applicable. But like any myth, its emergence was long, difficult and (to use one of the artist’s favorite adjectives) mysterious.

Invitation au voyage
It would be a false simile to compare the two years’ work that resulted in Woman to a progress or a development. Rather there was a voyage; not a mission or an errand, but one of those Romantic ventures which so attracted poets, from Byron, Baudelaire, through Lewis Carroll’s Snark, to Mallarmé and Rimbaud (Ingres’ harem, Delacroix’s Barque, Van Gogh’s Berceuse who was to accompany lonesome sailors are parallels in painting). There is a certain revulsion preceding and even causing the metaphysical (for the journey is inevitably around the walls of a studio) embarkation. “The flesh is sad, alas, and I’ve read all the books,” complained Mallarmé. In De Kooning’s case there was dissatisfaction with an almost totally non-figurative style, the symbolism of which, perhaps, had become too introspective to play the ambitious pictorial role demanded by the artist. But in all such journeys there is also confidence (Mallarmé’s “ennui” still “trusts the supreme adieu” of waving handkerchiefs), and belief in the journey.

The stages of the painting which are reproduced on these pages illustrate arbitrarily, even haphazardly, some of the stops en route—like cities that were visited, friends that were met. They are neither better nor worse, more or less “finished,” than the terminus. They are memories which the camera has changed to tangible souvenirs. Some might appear more satisfactory than the ending, but this is irrelevant. The voyage, on the other hand, is relevant: the exploration for a constantly elusive vision; the solution to a problem that was continually being set in new ways. And the ending is like the poets’ ending, too; the voyage simply stops. You are not necessarily “home again”; need for the particular journey no longer exists. The result, like that of all works of art, can be compared to a new map of the human sensibility.

Procrustes improvises
Some artists like to work from an easy chair which is riveted to a concrete slab which is anchored to the center of the earth. Others, and among them De Kooning, prefer to keep off-balance. They insist that everything is possible within the painting, which means they must devise a system for studying an infinitely variable number of probabilities.

De Kooning has devised a method of a continuous series of drawings which are cut apart, reversed, exchanged and otherwise manipulated on the painting. It is like Procrustes, who cut or stretched travelers to fit his bed, but with the important difference that his Procrustes does not know the dimensions of his bed. He needs such doubt to keep off-balance.

One of the simplest steps in the method is illustrated in the second drawing from the left on the top of p. 31. Two charcoal studies on paper have been cut laterally in half at the figure’s hips and combined to make another figure—the top part frontal; the bottom, three-quarters’ view. The result is something like an “animated” study; the body has been given a progressive motion by a substitution of new parts. In this context, readers of ARTnews may remember an oil-on-paper sketch by Ingres for The Turkish Bath [Nov. ‘52] or a reclining nude with three arms, or, for that matter, Huck Finn’s description of the drawing of a lady who had as many arms as a spider because the artist could never decide which was the best pose. De Kooning achieves similar multiplicity, but each of his figures can be studied with its correct allotment of anatomical parts—a necessary aspect for this artist. It is inconceivable, at this stage of his thinking, that he would paint a three-eyed or one-legged figure. He insists that everything and only everything appropriate be represented in the painting.

More complicated applications of the Procrustean method are illustrated in the stages of the work-in-progress [pp. 31-32], especially numbers 1 and 2. Before making changes, De Kooning frequently interrupted the process of painting to trace with charcoal on transparent paper large sections of, or the whole composition. These would be cut apart and taped on the canvas in varying positions. Thus in stage 1, the position of the skirt and knees has been shifted by the overlay; in 2, that of the figure’s left arm and hand.

This device serves two purposes, one technical, the other conceptual, but it is a single device and its technical and conceptual uses are separated only to simplify discussion. In practice it is one action; it can be described partially in two ways.

Technically the method permits the artist to study possibilities of change before taking irrevocable steps. It also keeps a continuous if fragmentary record of where the picture has been. De Kooning often paints on the paper overlays, testing differences of color and drawing. Furthermore, when he goes back to the canvas it can be in relation to an area in two different stages of development—the overlay and the state beneath it. Off-balance is heightened; probabilities increase; the painter makes ambiguity into actuality. And ambiguity, as we shall see, is a crucial element in this (and almost all important) art.

Conceptually, the method is used to approach what De Kooning calls the “intimate proportions” of anatomy. He attempts to recapture “the feeling of familiarity you have when you look at somebody’s big toe when close to it, or at a crease in a hand or a nose or lips or a necktie.” Uninterested in “artistic proportions”—the traditional ratios of limb to trunk to height, etc.—he seeks an anatomy that will be stylistically relevant, and also become, as it were, “so many spots of paint.” R.P. Blackmur has defined style as the individual qualification of the act of perception, and De Kooning’s perceptions focus on the New York he daily observes, populated by birdlike Puerto Ricans, fat mamas in bombazine or a lop-sided blond at a bar. Such are the observations he is ambitious to translate—or rather to synthesize—with the plastic means he controls.

One approach to “intimate” perception is by interchanging parts of the anatomy. The artist points out that a drawing of a knuckle, for example, could also be that of a thigh; an arm, that of a leg. Exactly such switches were often made during the painting of Woman, attempting always, in the continual shifts, re-creations, replacements, substitutions, to arrive at a point where a sense of the intimate (i.e., what is seen and familiar in everyday observation) is conveyed by proportion—among other means.

So if Procrustes does not know how long and wide his bed is, he knows exactly what kind of a bed the visitor must fit. The refusal to define the dimensions becomes another link in the chain of ambiguities that will finally measure the surface of Woman to the artist and spectator.

(Parenthetically it should be added that De Kooning’s dissatisfaction with conventional proportions—which have satisfied such older re-inventors of anatomy as Picasso—is based on long experience with them. Years of training at the Academy of his native Rotterdam, and a later period of what might be termed tyrical Ingrism, gave him the mastery of tradition essential to discarding or changing convention.)

The skin
The physical appearance of Woman, as has been mentioned, gives no clue to the length of its history. Paint is applied in consistent impastos which thin out to the canvas in a few places and rise elsewhere to heavy ridges “I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface,” says the artist, who refuses to capitalize on the process of correction and the happy accidents it so often produces. Changes, made after prolonged study or in moments of emphatic refusal, are preceded by scraping back to the canvas.

The pigments employed are a wide variety of standard tube colors; titanium white; the medium is a mixture or turpentine, stand oil and damar varnish. Surfaces are kept fresh and evenly moist. In this respect it should be noted that although Woman took two years to complete, De Kooning is a fast worker, and the entire picture frequently changed in a few hours time. The voyage may have been long, but its tempo was hectic.

If the materials are conventional, they were applied in many different and unconventional manners—as one might expect from the motivating style. In addition to the usual selection of long-handled artists’ brushes, De Kooning uses about a dozen inch to inch-and-a-half house-painters’ brushes; a wide, slanted palette knife; and a number of “liners”—brushes with about a dozen 6-inch bristles attached to a flat ferrule. These are used by display and scenery painters to make emphatic, fluid lines (the artist supported himself when he first came to the U.S. in 1926 by painting houses, signs and decorations, and his early training had included the crafts of commercial art; he is one of the few to have made personal uses of the many tricks of the trades). With these instruments he is able to give the skin of his painting a breathing vitality and spontaneity, an idea of which is suggested by the little oil-on-paper sketch reproduced at the top right on p. 31.

“Impossible” passages often appear: a torrent of color will suddenly disappear into strokes of other hues running at right angles. Some of these effects are deliberately produced by masking—i.e., placing paper over the surface adjacent to the one being painted and running the strokes over the paper, which is then removed, leaving a clean edge. More of them—and more important—have a sort of montage effect, a jump in focus, as if someone had abruptly changed the lens through which you were looking. De Kooning says that his wife, Elaine (herself a painter, whose writings have frequently appeared on these pages), was the first to notice this and to attribute it to the use of overlays. The record of a shift in a unit’s position is retained in perceptible but unaccountable shifts of plane. Here the masking is not in paint, but in ideas. The effect, however, is similar, and gives an illusion of shallow space in which edges flicker up and down the surface—as they do in some Cubist painting.

Color has been called De Kooning’s weakness by some of his colleagues; they point to his many works in black and white and to the emphasis on draftsmanship in his paintings and studies. The artist himself freely admits he is not a colorist as moderns have come to accept this term as equivalent to Matisse or Bonnard. He cannot predict where he wants to put a specific blue or rose—or even which blue or rose he wants. (At the opposite extreme is Bonnard, who walked around a group of paintings with a brush loaded with crimson, putting a bit on here, a bit there. He knew he wanted to use that crimson, on those paintings, that day.) De Kooning often starts his colors from the commonplace—the intimate—objects around him: the blue of a curtain, the red from a box of soap flakes, the off-grey of a wall seen across the street. There are no limits; but the hues must be gay, which, as will be seen, is the ambience of Woman. As work progresses, colors change with shape and meaning of shape, fluctuating as delicately as they might in a Mondrian. They give hints of location, space and texture on the figurative level; they differentiate and accentuate the tensions established on the surface; they relate to each other in the various contradictions of flat surface and apparent depth. In the entity of Woman, they become unanalyzable components of form which add to its air of opulence, violence and laughter.

In the little oil sketch, second from the right at the top of p. 31, and in all the stages of the work in progress, a mouth is attached to the painting. In the sketch, it is the ruby smile of the Lucky Strike lady with the “T-zone.” In the stages, it is other photographed mouths cut from advertisements and posters, sometimes with enlarged lips, often with teeth accentuated by black verticals. This is not an overlay—which is a point of change—but a point of rest, the center, unturning point of the wheel around which all else moves. The fragment of trompe l’oeil reality becomes a reference within the painting to the actual woman outside it. It is always present, but will be finally discarded. To return to the metaphor of the voyage, the smile is the passport, the silly bit of paper which you must have with you at all times to continue the journey. It also adds a further element of ambiguity and suggests more probabilities to the work in progress.

Where is the woman sitting; what is behind her; what are the names of her appurtenances?

At first Woman was sitting indoors in a chair. Then a window-shape at the upper right established a wall and distance—but she could have been outside a house as well as inside, or in an inside-outside porch space. This state of anonymous simultaneity (not no-specific-place but several no-specific-places) is seen more clearly in the few “objects” which appeared, then disappeared around the seated figure. De Kooning 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. The Renaissance man saw and visualized, let us say n things. Today, fed by still, cinema and television cameras, we experience n to the 100th power, and, of course, the ns become similar because our brains become numb to their differences. Distinctions weaken. Finally the environment of the modern artist—the objects which he names in his pictures—appertains to the pictures only. The decision is neither one of purification or narcissism—it is, in its way, social comment.

But note that the reasoned lack of identity of objects adds another major ambiguity to the painting—each object is purposefully shown as liable to many interpretations.

Woman and the pictures related to it should be fixed to the sides of trucks, or used as highway signs. Like those more-than-beautiful girls with their eternal smiles who do not tempt, but simply point to a few words or a beer or a gadget. Like the girl at the noisy party who has misplaced her escort, she simply sits, is there, and smiles because that is the proper thing to do in America. The smile is not fearful, aggressive, particularly significant, or even expressive of what the smiler feels. It is the detached, semi-human way to meet the world, and because of this detachment it has a touching irony and humanity. It can be properly compared to the curling lips of the Greek Kouros and the mediaeval Virgin.

An interpretation along such lines perhaps accounts for the actual smile pasted to the canvas for two years. The center of realism had to be at the spot where gesture had psychological significance—and ambivalence. And the smile demands a setting of gay color with its intimate derivation from objects in the studio. Intimate proportions, too, become necessary, for without the detachment they give, the smile becomes caricature or sentimental.

Ever since Van Gogh, sentimentality has been the curse of the painters, who took the liberty to distort. Lips or foreheads stretch plastically, but emotionally they urge the spectator to weep with the artist for all the sorrows of the world. The painters of the Expressionist movements often have been tricked into self-pity by their liberation from convention. The older, the more rigid disciplines could help keep the essential remove between expression and self-analysis. When these became bankrupt, they also devalued a multitude of minor talents who might have become capable decorators, but ended up as rather obnoxious snivelers. For specific examples, there are the novels of Thomas Wolfe, and their opposites but equals in the hard-boiled school, especially in its Gallic phase, like Bosquet. The smiling Woman is De Kooning’s notable solution to this problem, and it can be compared to Balthus’ adolescents, with their unwavering stares, or (and here the connection is more direct) Picasso’s cow-faced girls with crazy hats.

The triple thinker
Edmund Wilson took the title of his recent book from a phrase of Flaubert’s, “and what is an artist if he is not a triple (i.e. triply a) thinker?”

Ambiguity exactingly sought and exactingly left undefined has been the recurrent theme in Woman. Ambiguity appears in surface, parts, illusion of space, in masking, overlays, interchangeable anatomies, intimate proportions and colors, no-environment, etc. The artist suggests a further complication of meaning, and points out that his “idolized” Woman reminds him strongly of a landscape—with arms like lanes and a body of hills and fields, all brought up close to the surface, like a panorama squeezed together (or like Cézanne). Then you notice again the openness of certain forms, where contiguous objects seem set in different planes, and the width of the eyes opens up the face to a vista.

The thinker is on many levels; to make the number three: the paint, the woman, the landscape. Each level could be divided into several others, and interrelated in more ways. This was perhaps one reason for the length of the voyage, for in less than twenty-four months, the accretion of subtleties and multi-interpretations might not have occurred.

The fact that the picture was never really ended—never satisfied—and that it brought a number of paintings and sketches through with it, might have been predicted from the conditions laid down by the artist at the start. But all that we need care about is that the image, in all its complexity, came through to the end.

Last change
After Woman was declared finished by the artist it was prepared for stretching on a permanent frame. De Kooning had purposely used an over-size canvas, and had covered the unused edges with aluminum paint, so they would not “make a plane,” but still allow room for shifting the format. After the color-plate on p. 33 was made, the artist decided to use about 8 inches of the right edge in the picture, thus throwing the figure more definitely off to the left (somewhat like stage 5, p. 32). This is the state in which the painting will be exhibited this month.

Originally appeared March 1953.

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