February 28, 2005

'Dutch boy paints'
a review of 'De Kooning: An American Master, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan' (Knopf, 752 pp., $35)

by James Panero

The American painter Willem de Kooning escaped Marx only to be done in by Freud. De Kooning enjoyed little time--perhaps only a few years in the late 1940s--between the maturation of a personal style, free of Depression-era politics ("We divorced politics from our art, although we were political," he once said), and his leveling by drink and fame. "I saw Jackson in his grave," he proclaimed at Jackson Pollock's funeral. "And he's dead. It's over. I'm number one." That was in 1956. He was already in decline.

It is hard to feel sorry for de Kooning. Add up the mistresses, abortions, and outbursts, and "Bill" comes off as The Great Cad. This is perhaps the lasting value of a new biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, art critics for New York magazine and Newsweek, respectively, who chronicle de Kooning's dalliances in excessive detail. For money and women, de Kooning immigrated from Holland to New York stowed away in a ship's boiler room; and he never seemed to care for much more. Once he had acquired both, in the 1960s, his art lost its snap of urgency. De Kooning was a product of his age, and he inhabited his time and place with little apparent self-awareness. Critics like Harold Rosenberg praised him for the same reasons that drove him to excess. De Kooning was hailed as an id with a paintbrush; for a few moments this id was the darling of the art world, for which fame he is now best remembered, more than for his achievements on canvas.

But the life of de Kooning now seems somehow less interesting than the life around de Kooning, so thoroughly documented by Stevens and Swan: poverty in Rotterdam, his tyrannical mother, the Dutch academies, modernism in '40s New York; the art of Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, and John Graham (early influences); and the selling of American art in the 1950s and 1960s.

De Kooning's childhood reads as though it were tailor-made for movies; Stevens and Swan write with a cinematic eye, if not a critical one. Painting for de Kooning began not as a means of expression but as an escape from it. The art world in Holland provided him with academic discipline and a retreat from home life. The authors quote appropriately one of T. S. Eliot's comments about poetry, one that could apply equally to de Kooning's first encounters with art: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

De Kooning took refuge in the labors of art. He found early work in Dutch department stores and in commercial design. The style then in vogue was Nieuwe Kunst-the Dutch version of Art Nouveau. One of the revelations of this biography is how the sensuous surfaces of Art Nouveau, not to mention its commercial applications and faith in "art for art's sake," fundamentally affected de Kooning's art throughout his career. It saved him from the political pitfalls of the 1930s, certainly. (The like-minded Gorky put it best: "Proletariat art is poor art for poor people.") Art Nouveau also distanced de Kooning from the more spiritual painters of the New York School--Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, for example, who drew on the Symbolist traditions of 19th-century art. While they looked for depth in abstraction, de Kooning attacked his surfaces, obsessively.

"His unashamed celebration of painterly richness," write Stevens and Swan, "especially the whipped-up surfaces and strange pastel tonalities in his art, may stem partly from the hothouse cultivations of the time." Undoubtedly Art Nouveau led to Painting (1948), de Kooning's great early achievement, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This painting's ominous squiggles marching out of the picture plane "confounded the systematic, rational construction of space," writes one art historian, in a way that went beyond Cubism. Painting was de Kooning's breakthrough, and an appropriately titled one.

By mid-century, de Kooning had turned not only to the figure but also to autobiography; specifically, to his obsession with sex. He combined the techniques developed in Painting with the diabolical image of a woman--some say of his wife Elaine. Woman I (1950-1952), and the whole series of Women paintings from the period, became de Kooning's signature work. Woman I, alone, took two years to complete.

As novel as these paintings might have been-some critics believe they were less persuasive than Painting--indulgence was beginning to spoil de Kooning's freshness. "Woman I still appears eternally out of place," write Stevens and Swan, "homeless among the masterpieces at the Museum of Modern Art. Woman I'is personally, socially, culturally, and artistically fraught with uncertainty." Harold Rosenberg, a natural salesman who had developed such icons as "Smokey the Bear" for the Advertising Council, turned de Kooning's obsession over the Women paintings into art-world mythology. If "what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event," as Rosenberg famously pronounced, then de Kooning was producing quite a show.

It was bad advice. Expressionism for its own sake, which ran counter to Eliot's admonition for "an escape from emotion," soon overtook de Kooning's art and life to the point of farce. Stevens and Swan write that he "appeared to be a textbook case for Freudian analysis, so fashionable at the time. Not only was he often blocked and subject to anxiety attacks, but all the world seemed to know that he had titanic problems with his mother." While Elaine stood by, de Kooning ran through one young woman after another; when he was not sleeping around, he was often drunk and abusive. He was art's number one for a short time, but he fast became the end of something and not the beginning: the end of sexed-up abstraction, the end of expressionism, the end of the New York School, the end of the id. The art world slowly turned against him. De Kooning devised his dream house and made plans to move to The Springs--Pollock's old town near the Hamptons--which he eventually did.

De Kooning outlasted almost everyone, dying in his studio on March 19, 1997, after more than a decade of "Alzheimer's-like dementia," during which he had continued to paint with the aid of assistants (not to mention Elaine, his dealers, and his lawyer). As he slowly cleared his late canvases of expression, he returned to where he had started--to Art Nouveau. But his achievements after the mid-1950s were minor. Reflecting on Gorky, Kline, Pollock, Rothko, and the other painters of his generation who died in their prime, one wonders whether de Kooning's reputation would have better survived had he not. My guess is no. As he became Abstract Expressionism's Living Master, and a profitable one producing salon work, he was able to cement a reputation he never fully deserved.

Stevens and Swan make few distinctions between good and bad de Kooning. In compiling this document of facts, the writers have abdicated to others their responsibilities as critics, and the book suffers for it. Their writing wisely avoids the jargon of theory, but too often lapses into such groaners as the following: "The unsettling power of the pictures--and their originality--lay in their way of mimicking the sexual act itself. It almost seemed as if the artist were screwing the women rather than painting them."

What finally makes the book worthwhile is the mass of detail the authors have dug up about de Kooning's work, especially concerning his "cuisine of art." His selection of paint, and his "novel use of sunflower oil, water, and benzene," distinguished de Kooning as a painter's painter. His talent was not for life but for canvas; if only he could have better distinguished between the two, he might have truly become an "American Master."