In Conversation

John Elderfield, Jennifer Field, Lauren Mahony, and Delphine Huisinga with Phong Bui

Nearly 200 works, including the artist’s paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures, constitute de Kooning: A Retrospective (September 18, 2011 – January 9, 2012). John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, who organized the exhibition along with his associates Jennifer Field, Lauren Mahony, and Delphine Huisinga, paid a visit to Art International Radio to talk with publisher Phong Bui about the remarkable life and work of Willem de Kooning.

Willem de Kooning, “Seated Woman,” c. 1940. Oil and charcoal on masonite. 54 × 36”. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Albert M. Greenfield and Elizabeth M. Greenfield Collection. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Phong Bui (Rail): I suppose with the exception of two large exhibits, one in May 1994, which I saw when it was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., shortly after de Kooning’s 90th birthday, curated by Nicholas Serota, David Sylvester——

John Elderfield: And Marla Prather.

Rail: Right. Then it traveled to the Met—and then eventually to the Tate Gallery. The other was at the Whitney Museum from 1983 to 1984, which included paintings, drawings, and sculptures. But why did the National Gallery exhibit exclusively focus on the paintings made between 1938 and 1986?

Elderfield: At that point, the National Gallery had a rule that they could not do retrospectives of living artists, so in response, Sylvester, Serota, and Prather organized it as a relatively small—only 80 paintings—but highly selective exhibit. The Whitney one was a larger exhibit which was intended as a drawing exhibit, however; there were simultaneously two other museums in Europe.
Delphine Huisinga: Academie der Künste in Berlin and Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.

Elderfield: Both were preparing a painting and a sculpture exhibition independently, so the three curators, Paul Cummings, Jörn Merkert, and Clair Stoullig, decided to merge them. But by the time they had made that decision, certain works which should have been in that show, such as “Excavation”from the Art Institute of Chicago, and “Woman I” from MoMA, were not included. I mean, it was great to see all the works, and looking back to realize that de Kooning himself was in a fascinating moment in his career, which wasn’t so visible from the exhibition but in retrospect, it must have been quite extraordinary for him to see so much of his career as he was moving into, really, the last phase of his art.

Willem de Kooning, “Pink Angels,” c. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 52 × 40″. Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rail: Would you consider the 1968 Thomas Hess exhibit a mid-career survey or a retrospective? Given the fact that we all know that de Kooning hated the idea of a retrospective of an artist who’s still alive, and I remember in Hess’s introduction of the catalogue——

Elderfield: Yes, de Kooning said, “They want to treat you like a sausage, tie him up at both ends, and stamp on the center ‘Museum of Modern Art.’ ” We know that he resisted having a retrospective, and that there had been earlier attempts to do it, again by Hess arguing for one. Frank O’Hara, who was at MoMA at the time, had wanted to do it as well. We know that de Kooning generally didn’t even like gallery exhibitions, and his first one-person exhibit at Charles Egan Gallery was in 1948, when he was 44, which now seems astonishing, when we hear artists who show their work at the age of 12.

Rail: Can we say, surely, that this is the first retrospective?

Elderfield: It’s certainly the first retrospective since de Kooning’s death in 1997.

Rail: How and when did the idea of this retrospective come about?

Elderfield: It was about six years ago, and it came about in the typical MoMA process in thinking ahead to what sort of exhibitions MoMA should be doing, and since MoMA had presented an exhibition of the late work in 1997, and previously the National Gallery of Art exhibit in 1994, both in their different ways were really illuminating, but we still needed a real retrospective. So I did a formal presentation before the exhibition committee about the history of de Kooning’s exhibits, and we all realized that there hadn’t been a chance to look at the entirety of his work. There was a proliferation of smaller shows, but even so, certain critical aspects, which one would have perhaps expected to have been treated, hadn’t been. For example, why wouldn’t there be an exhibit of the black paintings of the late ’40s? There had even been a display of the Woman paintings of the early ’50s at the time the National Gallery’s East Building first opened in 1978, but that was a long time ago.

Rail: True. So given this vast amount of literature, which you all had to cover and digest before re-contextualizing with fresh insights, and adding new scholarship, and so on, I wonder how it all divided up into chapters concerning de Kooning’s growth as a painter. How did you manage to negotiate who wrote what? In addition to your long, leading essay, “Space to Paint,” John, you also wrote three other chapters (Chapters 3, 5, and 9). Meanwhile, Lauren takes Chapter 1, dealing with de Kooning’s early formation, then Chapters 4 and 7.

Lauren Mahony: It really started with the checklist, which was a much larger number, and narrowed down exactly what we would have in the show, which was 200 works. We then worked with a model to see what would fit in the galleries. And since John and Stephanie D’Alessandro from the Art Institute of Chicago had done a catalogue for the Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 exhibit, which was very thorough with individual entries on works, we adopted a similar catalogue design for the de Kooning exhibit, though with very in-depth entries on groups of works. For example, those very early works that de Kooning made in Holland that are in the show are one group, and “Excavation”has almost its own chapter with the work surrounding it. We came up with an outline that really narrowed it down—what the different series were—and then we had many meetings where we sat down, divided up, and decided on who would write about which section.

Rail: Was there a fight? Was there a struggle? [Laughs.]

Mahony: [Laughs.] No fights.

Elderfield: We organized it almost similar to a Chinese restaurant menu: when got to nine, we realized, well, first of all, Delphine had made it clear from the beginning that she wanted to do chronology, which delighted us all, and which would introduce each of these nine chapters, and then that left three of us, and therefore we obviously had three each. We decided that we should each do one of the first three, then similarly with the next three, and then the final three. The other way, of course, would have been to divide it by period and some of us would have done all the early work while the others all the middle work. But I think we all felt that it was going to be more interesting and lively for us to have something in each broad period. In other words, if each of us had concentrated on contiguous areas, it would have been an easier task. But we felt that we weren’t doing it to make life difficult for us, but to make life interesting for us. It was great.

Rail: So, Delphine, you chose to do the chronology, and given all the available materials from the Willem de Kooning Foundation’s archives, and numerous other sources, you not only did an impeccable job in compiling them, but essentially you rewrote them all.

Willem de Kooning, “Orestes,” 1947. Enamel on paper mounted on plywood. 24 1/8 × 36 1/8″. Private collection. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Huisinga: Yes, among the other sources I gathered from previous books and catalogues, I also had at my disposal the amazing biography of de Kooning that Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan had published (de Kooning: An American Master, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004) and my challenge was how to do a chronology not using only the materials that they had already used in their book. I really went out of my way to find some other materials that they may have not found, and treat it differently.

Rail: What’s remarkable, I think, as a historical literature, is that the readers will end up with this amazing chronology in this luminous catalogue once the retrospective comes down on January 9, 2012.

Elderfield: Delphine is being too modest about this because, as she was putting information together, it was clear that the sources she was using were often in conflict with each other. I suppose this is the time to make it clear: While we benefited a great deal from the first two monographs by Hess of 1959 and 1968, he had at times a somewhat casual relationship to chronology, and would in one place refer to something as having happened at a certain date and then later, in the same publication, retract it as having happened at another time. This all had to be reconciled. This related to the general difficulty of understanding when de Kooning’s early works were made since he didn’t have an exhibition until 1948 and prior to that had works included only in maybe three shows. And the fact that he hadn’t sold much, and many of the works weren’t dated at all. So as we would all meet together, we would lay out images on long tables and try to understand what seemed to be the right sequence. At that point, we were working with far more images of works than we included in the exhibition, mostly because we needed to have them all in order to understand all the relationships. The early period was particularly difficult, but once we got to 1950, everything was fairly straightforward. In addition to Charles Stuckey who had done some very good work on the 1948 exhibit, and all the available resources from the de Kooning Foundation, which had also done some significant archival work, our task was to pull all of those combined sources together. I think we’ve advanced knowledge of what was in that show.

Rail: The chronology, which is divided up so as to demarcate each of de Kooning’s periods according to where he was, what he was doing, so on, was extremely helpful. But one other question for you, Delphine: Did you finish the chronology first before everybody else finished with their chapters, or was it being worked on simultaneously?

Huisinga: I wish! It would have been great. I was the last one with the chronology. John, interestingly enough, wrote Chapter 9 first.

Rail: Oh! John went backwards.

Elderfield: Well, just like de Kooning at times. [Laughs.]

Rail: Jennifer, you wrote Chapters 2, 6, and 8. How do you fit in? What was the sequence now that I know John began to write Chapter 9 first?

Jennifer Field: I started with the early works—his figure paintings and abstractions that he did long before his first solo exhibition in 1948. In fact, Chapter 2 took me the longest to write, mostly because there was more literature on those works than there was for my subsequent chapters. As for Chapters 6 and 8 there actually was very little existing scholarship on the works, which presented another kind of challenge, but it was also very exciting because it meant reevaluating them and going back and reaching out to people who might have known de Kooning at that time and were working with him on certain works like the sculptures or the prints.

Rail: Especially with the sculptures, which he made in less than five years, from ’69 to ’74. And after having done a few lithographs in the late 1950s, then he came back to the Hollander Workshop in 1970 to explore the medium while making the black oil paintings on paper. Could you tell us more about that segment of his works?

Elderfield: One thing that was a revelation to all of us was to see the sculpture integrated in with the rest of the work. But also to understand far better how they were made, according to Jennifer’s research. We were all dumbfounded. Nobody knew this.

Field: De Kooning was living in Springs, Long Island for several years since 1963. But it was on a trip to Rome in the summer of 1969 that he made 13 very small sculptures at an old friend, Herzl Emanuel’s, small foundry. He had them cast in bronze, and then one of them was enlarged when he came back to New York by a young sculptor named David Christian. When de Kooning saw the result—there are various versions of this story—he was impressed by the enlargement and was inspired to produce a new round of sculptures at a larger size. But he hadn’t really worked with sculpture before. This is when he asked Christian to actually become his live-in assistant, which Christian did for five years, to help him to make the sculptures. It was an incredibly elaborate and very spontaneous process. De Kooning liked his clay very, very wet, like his paint. He was improvisational, so Christian had to build very intricate and elaborate armatures that could be turned and twisted according to different orientations. In other words, if de Kooning wanted to change the orientation of a limb, or the head completely on the spur of the moment, then the armature had to accommodate those very spontaneous changes.

Willem de Kooning, “Dark Pond,” 1948. Enamel on composition board. 46 3/4 × 55 3/4”. Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rail: How long would he work on it? Do we know?

Field: I don’t know the exact time, but I have the feeling it was very much like his paintings. He would work on sculpture for quite a while, and go through these various iterations. For example, he would make five different versions of the head before settling on one that he felt was finished. They began, like his paintings, with figure drawings very often. A drawing that may be projected onto a piece of plywood, or traced onto a piece of plywood, and that would be cut out with a jigsaw and mounted on a metal armature, and eventually Christian would see these heads come and go and decided to start preserving them. So there are actually three casts of heads which are not in the exhibition, but are sort of a way of recording the different stages that these sculptures have gone through.

Rail: Well it’s one of my favorite rooms, just to see the sculpture “Clam Digger” (1972) right across from the two paintings, “Woman Sag Harbor” (1964) and the luminous “La Guardia in a Paper Hat” (1972). I’d like to shift the subject a little bit: one thing that strikes me about de Kooning’s work, which made him such a wonderful non-conformist was that, I felt, he has a very intense historical sense. I mean a historical sense that reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s landmark essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where tradition is a matter of wider significance. It’s involved perception not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presentness. Both being simultaneously coexisting. What do you think?

Elderfield: Absolutely. If not quite from the beginning, certainly by somewhere in the 1930s, he was trying to keep his work open in a variety of ways, one of which was a definite openness to the past as he moved into making what were to him very modern paintings. For example, if you look at that small wall of 1930s W.P.A. works, which are small, very flat, modernist abstractions, but jewel-like beautiful, and then look around and see whatever else he went on to do on the other walls, you would immediately understand why he couldn’t stay with that body of work for very long because it was too limiting.

Rail: Some of them, like “Untitled” (1937), are opaque watercolors and pencil on paper that weren’t even finished.

Willem de Kooning, “Excavation,” 1950. Oil and enamel on canvas. 81 × 100 1/4”. The Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; restricted gifts of Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Noah Goldowsky, Jr. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Elderfield: Exactly. You could imagine that he wanted to create artwork that allowed him to incorporate features which were more associable with earlier art. It’s interesting that really the only critic at the time who actually understood de Kooning’s ambition was Clement Greenberg, who would eventually lose interest or become disdainful of de Kooning’s achievement. Nevertheless, de Kooning wanted to be a modern painter, but he wanted to find the kind of volume and contouring which was associable with Baroque painting. I think all the way through, there is a sense of de Kooning trying to do both of these together, and always being open to the past.

Rail: One can say that it was not fashionable to paint the figure in the early-to-mid-’30s, during which time every other artist who belonged to the American Abstract Artists (AAA) was making geometric abstractions. I mean de Kooning was making Ingres-like-through-Picasso’s Neo-Classical, delicate sort of drawings! The only artist we can think of is Gorky, unless we bring in the example of John Graham. The “Portrait of Elaine” (1940 – 41), drawn probably with 8H pencil, is breathtaking.

Elderfield: I think that the need to keep figuration and abstraction open was parallel to his wish to keep himself open to the past. It’s fascinating to think that this is the moment when the course of artistic careers was really changing. The kind of diversity one associates with the work of early Modernist artists like Picasso, Matisse, or Miró—where there’s a lot of change through their careers while recognizing that it’s the one artist, it’s only something that de Kooning himself wanted to hold on to; when one looks at the careers of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still, one recognizes the struggle to realize a signature form, which is then maintained. There was this whole idea that what artists do is find one manner, or styles which continues today. I’ve had artists walking through the exhibition saying, “I have one career, but he’s had seven or eight!” It’s compelling and actually rather moving that de Kooning was just determined that he was going to preserve for himself that kind of flexibility and openness. There is something truly heroic about that determination.

Rail: I definitely agree. Another good example is in the early men pictures of the late ’30s to early-to-mid-’40s. Jennifer, you brought up the references to the circus performers in the paintings of Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods, as well as Walt Kuhn’s portraits of vaudeville entertainers. I, for some reason, thought of the Soyer brothers (especially Isaac and Raphael) because of their portrayal of the impoverished conditions during the Great Depression. And we see this similar condition in de Kooning’s paintings of men. Despite their monumentality and official portraiture-like appearance, there’s a prevailing sense of loneliness and marginality in them, intensified by the ambiguous background or environment.

Field: Yes. They have been referred to as very specific Depression-era figures. De Kooning was definitely, as John just said, tapping into both that classical portrait tradition as well as responding to the prevalent mood of his immediate surroundings at the time. He also discussed knowing vaudeville performers and circus performers. His first girlfriend in New York, Virginia Diaz, was a tightrope walker, so these are people who were around him at that time.

Willem de Kooning, “Woman, I,” 1950-52. Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas. 6’ 3 7/8” x 58”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rail: And there were so many terrific paintings right after the men paintings, leading up to the “Pink Angels” (1945) and the black-and-white paintings.

Elderfield: Well, in the early part of the ’40s he was clearly trying simultaneously to integrate abstraction on one side and figuration on another. And yet, in a way where they’re not entirely isolated, but, as you look at the figures, which increasingly have separable arms and so on—which was also true of Gorky’s paintings during this same period—they look more abstract, especially with possibly interior or exterior scenes. Although he was interested in how abstract forms could also have character to them, for example “Summer Couch” (1943) or “Untitled (‘Matchbook’)” (1942–45), which remained a constant fascination for him. What is really so extraordinary was, by 1944–45 one can see in “Pink Lady” (1944) that he was willing to allow the process of the making of the painting to be shown as a complete picture. In other words, by accepting the nature of its incompleteness he was able to pull the abstract and the figurative current together, so after 1945 it’s really impossible to say whether these paintings are abstract or figurative because they’re both things at once. “Pink Angels” (c. 1945) was definitely a breakthrough picture, which led to others, for example “Judgment Day” (1946), “Fire Island” (1946), or “Special Delivery” (1946).

Rail: Most definitely.

Elderfield: And I think that once he gets to that point, there comes a huge change in his work. I’ve found myself going through the show saying, if he died in 1945 would we esteem him as a great artist? And, yes, I think we would. I think the achievement is there, although we would think of him as a far more limited artist.

Rail: Similar to his simultaneous embrace of abstraction and figuration, which seems to have existed from the outset of his career, I always felt that he was attracted to two or more artists simultaneously. The two still life paintings from 1927 and 1929, and an “Untitled” interior of 1928, refer both to Matisse and de Chirico. In the men paintings of the late ’30s to early-to-mid-’40s, we see de Kooning taking cues from Neoclassicism, either from Ingres, or Picasso, while at the same time there was that whole attraction to the subtle and muted palette or palimpsest surface in Pompeii fresco. And then, if we were to go directly to “Woman I,” as he said to Rudy Burckhardt, he wanted to paint both like Ingres and Soutine at the same time. Would you say that kind of simultaneous attraction to two or more things remains consistent throughout his life?

Elderfield: I think once we get into the ’60s, certainly into the ’70s, it’s different, but through the early 1950s one really does sense that he’s trying to take in as many artists as he possibly can at any time. He did once say he couldn’t open an art book without being influenced by what he saw in it. When we look at “Pink Angels,” for example, not only do we see the reference to Picasso, Matisse, Miró, but also, particularly when you look at the creature-like head at the bottom left of the painting, it reminds us of the big fish swallowing a figure in the bottom left of Brueghel’s print, “Last Judgment” (1558). It’s fascinating that work which is so nominally eclectic doesn’t actually suffer from being eclectic as a lot of eclectic work does. It seems unformed and unregulated as a kind of assemblage of influences. I think he was already driving his art so strongly that he could just carry with him all of these sources together, and then quite ruthlessly drop them when he didn’t need them anymore. In the early ’40s he was able to drop the extraordinarily beautiful drawing style which he’d developed with the “Portrait of Elaine,” and whatever else that was no longer necessary could be just jettisoned. The next big jettison really occurred in 1950 when, after having painted “Excavation,” he just simply jettisoned it. And in jettisoning it he really pushed to one side the development of everything since the mid 1940s. I think the period from ’45 to ’50 is just one of the great adventures of modern American painting. It’s really extraordinary to see what he’s doing in a very methodical way, going from one thing to the next, working his way through—I mean, ultimately dealing with the fact that Cubism was the dominant style of Modern art, and when he gets to “Excavation” it’s as if he says to himself, “Okay, I’m going to nail this once and forever, and this will be my last Cubist painting.” I found myself thinking it’s the last, great Cubist painting of all time. There is that sense of finality about the painting. Yet after having made this great painting, he turns around and, what is it, Lauren, a month later?

Mahony: Yes.

Elderfield: A month later he sort of gives it up and moves on to the “Women” paintings.

Rail: Amazing. Just imagine walking away from “Excavation”! But where did this all come from? We know that he’s so well trained, certainly more than a lot of his peers of the New York School. We can even say that de Kooning had a certain natural and technical skill, which he never contended with, on one hand. But on the other, he had an unusual sense of commitment to what he loved, and a huge appetite for learning. You can tell by not just looking at the complete concentration of the early works but also the way he can just switch on a total recall of what was taught to him, phrases like, “Draw from what you see, not from what you think,” or the Academie’s “All-in-one” doctrine, and so on. He seemed to absorb it all, and he could tell you the exact details of what he was taught in each of the four years at the Academy. How can we equate this to the beginning of de Kooning’s alchemy?

Mahony: Well, what we have set up in the first room is really showing this two-sided training he had in Rotterdam. De Kooning had not only an academic training where he took a drawing course in the evenings and learned the proper techniques of laying out a drawing, which we can see in “Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher and Jug)” from 1921, which supposedly took him almost a year to finish so perfectly. Actually, de Kooning had painted a still life in 1916-17, before his academic training commenced. But also, from the age of 12 to about 16, he was an apprentice at a decorative arts firm (Gidding & Zonen) where he learned all sorts of decorative art skills, like learning how to do faux wood grain and marble, as well as make sign painting and lettering, and so on. So having this two-pronged side of his education, coupled with him coming to New York and being exposed to European Modernism for the first time, which he wasn’t exposed to in Rotterdam, you could only imagine he was prone to deal with different sides of his attractions. So consequently he begins experimenting with abstraction and organic forms on one side and the early figure paintings with the men and the women on the other side, and everything comes together with “Pink Angels,” which seems quite natural to his evolution. I also like to point out his use of tracing paper, which was a constant component of his painting process, where he derives his compositions from those drawings. He would cut them up, then pin them to different locations on the canvas in order to test out a different idea, and see how they would work with the rest of the painting, and so on. (You can see it in Harry Bowden’s photographs of his studio in 1945, ’46). And that’s something he did all the way through “Excavation,” and “Woman I.”

Rail: It’s an early form of cut and paste for sure.

Mahony: Right. And he continued to use it all the way through the early ’80s with vellums. Quite a few of them, if they survived after being put on top of wet surfaces of oil paint, without getting cut up or thrown away, were declared as finished works of art.

Rail: I just can’t imagine how quickly he would execute them. There’s a certain speed involved in that kind of frantic working-out of problems.

Elderfield: Yes. We have this record of him working on pictures for a long time, which really meant that he would develop them quickly and get rid of them just as quickly, and do it again and again. It’s extraordinary how he could replicate what he had done, almost. Even in verbal form: we found in one interview he would tell a particular story and in another he tells the same story almost identically. Or sometimes in the same interview. For example, there’s one in 1959 with Kenneth Snelson and Michael Sonnabend that has that great sequence about the bouillon cube and the stew, where he tells it, and then shortly afterwards he tells it again and it’s almost word-perfect. And it’s quite extraordinary. There is a segment in a film made in the late ’50s of him working in the studio on the wall on paper using his liner brush, making these marks, and he puts one down and smiles, and then puts the same mark down next to it. So we can safely say that de Kooning is involved in these sort of constant replicatory changing processes all the time, I think, in a very, hands-on way with his medium. We are quite sure, for example, that with the black paintings of the late ’40s he worked on them flat as well upright; he had to rotate them; he had to use paper to compose them, that there’s probably paper under the surface of some of them; he may even have waited for the enamel to get almost dry and used a knife and peeled it off like skin. There’s always this sense that he’s there in a very bodily engagement in all of his paintings, which is one reason why we sense this extraordinary intensity generating from them.

Rail: Which brings us to his other equally compelling attribute: de Kooning’s visual acuity and sensitivity to his surrounding environment throughout his entire life. I’ve always felt the black-and-white paintings of the late ’40s seem to refer, as we’ve heard stories of him walking late nights in the Bowery, to the nasty grease or black oil spilled from a truck that parked during the day, on the gutter, and then the rain would fall on it, which doesn’t mix in with oil, so the water just skates on the surface. I always have that sense when I look at a painting like “Dark Pond” (1948), for example. I like how Jim Coddington describes it in the catalogue as being “a sum of resistances.” I wonder if he even mixed water with the oil paint so that when the water evaporated the white gestures would look either broken or dried brushstrokes?

Elderfield: We know with great certainty that from the mid-’60s onwards, he mixed canola and safflower oil and water into the paint and, obviously, water and oil don’t mix, and it had to be shaken up like making a vinaigrette, really. And there in those pictures like “Two Figures in a Landscape” (1967) or “…Whose Name was Writ in Water” (1975) you can see, since the water does evaporate out of the painting, the little, pitted holes in the surface where the water came out, but of course the oil stays in these pictures. That kind of free invention with the medium, which obviously was there all the way through, I think is not simply a kind of anecdotal interest, or an interest in terms of his biography, but an interest in recognizing it in the paintings, which is one way he gets you to engage with them. You just really don’t understand how they were made. Of course you can argue that great paintings are the ones that could actually stop you in your tracks and make you look at them. And part of the mechanism of de Kooning’s machines is that you have no idea how all these parts are put together. I mean in looking at the black-and-white paintings you would have a difficult time in seeing what’s on top or what’s underneath, so your eyes are mobilized all the time. We’ve looked at these paintings with conservationists and I’ve asked them, “Okay, tell us what’s on top,” and they’ve said, “We can’t tell you what’s on top.” However, with the ’70s paintings, you can. And that’s actually one of the marvels of them, that he was able to get them the way they appear. I find that wall of five paintings done from 1975 – ’77, including of course “Screams of Children Come from Seagulls” (1975) and

“…Whose Name Was Writ in Water”, one of the most amazing walls of paintings I’ve ever seen. Each time I understand for myself more how he got them to do what they do, and talking with painters, who work in a very improvisational way, about how they were painted, I would ask them, “Well, what do you think?” One consensus I’ve gotten, one reason for the massive medium he used, wasn’t simply a declivity of the movement across the surface, which it certainly was, but also, allowing that free movement, you can actually layer in wet-on-wet paintings, because most wet-on-wet paintings pull up color from underneath.

Rail: Which, when not done right, can get very muddy.

Elderfield: That’s right. Yet in his paintings it’s amazing. With absolutely vivid blues on top of reds without the muddying bit. Actually, this business of him saying at one point that he boils his brushes, which seems totally weird, but obviously if the brush is so soft he can slide it with the loaded paint across the surface on the canvas. And the other thing, of course, is the more medium added to the mixing of the paint, the more the elements of pigment are dispersed, and therefore light, or light hitting the white canvas behind the color and coming back out, illuminates the pictures.

Rail: That makes sense.

Elderfield: And, obviously, understanding that he does it by these technical means doesn’t actually make it any less miraculous to look at. They still have extraordinary power in spite of various speculations or readings.

Rail: No doubt. Let’s go back a bit: where does surrealist’s automatism fit in, Delphine? It must have initially started just before the black paintings. We know that Robert Motherwell created his Subjects of the Artist school, which only lasted for a year from 1948 to 1949.

Huisinga: That’s right. Then the Artist’s Club was created in the end of 1948. And it was definitely in the Artist’s Club and at Motherwell’s school that he did give some lectures.

Rail: Right. And we know that it was Matta who introduced automatic drawing first to Motherwell and William Baziotes. Motherwell then related the idea to Pollock, Gerome Kamrowski, Peter Busa, and de Kooning.

Huisinga: Right, there is a story of Matta visiting some artists’ studios and introducing that idea, but it’s not that clear who started what.

Elderfield: I think the black-and-white paintings were highly determined, even though they have been thought by some to be of less interest than, say, Pollock’s allover paintings precisely because they were painted with the wrist, and that the kind of apotheosis of American mid-century automatism has been seen as the freeing of the hand which Pollock did with his dripping techniques and the canvas being on the floor, and by moving paint automatically with his hand and his whole body, obviously with extraordinary control, which is required in order to produce the kind of real sense of alloverness that he achieved. I think this is something which de Kooning actually did not want. I also think that with all the artists of the New York School, he’s the only one who wasn’t influenced by surrealism, except for his brief attraction to Miró’s biomorphic forms early on. Clearly what he’s doing is at least tangential with the automatism of other artists. This potentially could be an interesting exhibit that includes paintings made by various artists in New York, let’s say from ’47 – ’50, so we can see variations of how they utilized automatism. Just recently seeing the very early Pousette-Darts at Luhring Augustine (October 28 – December 17, 2011) was an amazing example of this issue. I’d just never seen any of those sculptures (1949 – 1950) of his, which was his attempt to deal with isolated imagery within a web, it’s actually somewhere between what Pollock and de Kooning were trying to do at one point. So it’s yet another discovery of how these big subjects in the history of modern art haven’t actually been excavated properly. There’s still a lot to find out. And I think what we four have managed to do for de Kooning has advanced quite a good distance, but it’s also opened a lot of questions. But precisely this is what these projects are supposed to do.

Rail: Absolutely. But regarding your early comments on the movement of the wrist in the black paintings, John, when exactly do you think de Kooning was liberated into a full arm sweep?

Elderfield: 1957. Is that right, Jennifer?

Field: Yes, 1957, he makes what Tom Hess called large “abstract parkway landscape” paintings, such as “Bolton Landing.” That’s really the first time we see de Kooning using this full arm sweep, and there isn’t really a lot of preliminary work or underdrawing underneath those works. It’s really him with the brush and with the paint going directly onto the canvas. And as you look at them they give the impression of riding in a car and seeing a blurred landscape as you’re riding by.

Elderfield: And it’s not till then—and this certainly wasn’t something we knew before technical examination of these pictures was done—that he painted with hardly any under-drawing. There’s a wonderful series of Dan Budnik photographs where de Kooning painted a picture for him in the studio and you can see he starts with a few lines, and it’s a little hard to be quite sure what’s going on, but then on that very basic framework de Kooning starts to lay out these big marks. I think it was this same picture that Budnik was surprised not to see in the 1962 exhibit at the Janis Gallery and he had asked de Kooning about it, which de Kooning said, “I just did it because you wanted me to do one to be photographed.” So it of course raises this question, which we wouldn’t have been able to answer without technical examination about whether the other ones were also done with such spare beginnings. But by 1963 certainly he was back to his old method beginning with figural drawing and then letting the image come out of it. That actually continued until 1986. In the final gallery of the exhibit, only the three paintings that are on the back wall, do not show a lot of preliminary work. Even the very spare, minimal ones show a lot of preliminary work, being condensed into that form. So there are only two brief periods in his career where he is really making a kind of enlarged drawing on canvas in the very broad way in ’57 to ’60 and in the more arabesque way from ’86 to ’88.

Willem de Kooning, “La Guardia in a Paper Hat,” 1972. Oil on canvas. 55 3/4 × 48”. Private collection. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rail: Jennifer, just to follow what John has just commented on, how do you describe the transformation from “abstract parkway landscape” to “abstract pastoral landscape”?

Field: There were a few things that happened right after the ’59 exhibit at the Janis Gallery, which was a huge success. De Kooning took trips to Rome, and to the San Francisco Bay Area, and he moved into a large studio on Broadway that had very high ceilings—it’s the largest workspace he had had—with skylights. Then, soon, by 1963 he’s spending more and more time working on a new home and studio in Springs, Long Island, so his sense of light is changing. He told Harold Rosenberg that he really wanted to capture the sense of atmospheric light and the light of the coastal landscape in his work. So there’s a certain luminosity that emerges from his palette, there’s definitely more use of white, which helps to intensify a sense of vibrancy. Also, something else that happens during this phase, from 1959 to 1960: de Kooning would take small squares of cardboard or paper, which measure about 7 by 8 inches, and which he had painted on, and enlarged them or use them as sort of compositional studies or inspiration for larger canvases. The same ratio as his large canvases which, he preferred 70 by 80 or 77 by 88 inches, as the two formats.

Rail: Was Mercedes Matter the one who suggested to Franz Kline, once she saw his small black ink drawings of interiors, especially with rocking chair, and table, and so on, that he should blow them up with a slide projector to make them into large paintings?

Elderfield: I think de Kooning was involved in this. Wasn’t that right, Delphine, about getting the opaque projector for Kline to work with?

Huisinga: Yes, exactly, and that was in the late ’40s, then he would again reuse it in 1985.

Rail: That’s remarkable. What he suggested, gave away, he took back later. [Laughs.]

Elderfield: Certainly looking at the Rome pictures you feel, if my chronology is correct, that Kline had just stopped doing black-and-white paintings by 1960, ’61. He began then to work with color and you sense that de Kooning may have been thinking, “Wow, this is available, I will take this over,” and he takes it over with a vengeance. It’s actually a great test of looking, a lot of people see those from a distance and say, “They look like Franz Kline,” and of course I say, “Do they really?” You stand in front of them, they don’t look like Franz Kline at all. Again somebody needs to do a show of de Kooning in Rome.

Rail: True. The speed of execution becomes slower, which led to those incredible, luminous pastoral landscapes such as “Rosy-Fingered at Dawn Louse Point” (1963).

Huisinga: That’s actually painted in 1963, just before he moved permanently to Long Island. Then the first painting he painted when he arrives to his new home/studio is “Clam Diggers,” (1963) and that’s Lauren’s section.

Rail: That’s when the figure reemerges, but now she’s outdoors and in the sunlight, she’s no longer in an interior looking so anxious.

Mahony: Well, he moves to Long Island in the spring of  ’63 and initially his new studio that he’s building for himself is not finished, so he’s working in a very small studio space. It’s actually a garage in the back of the house, and so he’s making much smaller works. He does a series that Hess calls the “Fourth Woman series,” which is in the early 1960s, ’61 and ’62. “Clam Diggers” is a relatively small painting (201/4 by 141/2 inches) of two bather-like figures that were inspired by Rubens. They are very exuberant and joyful. The black outline of the figures of the 1950s is completely gone, they’re just painted of pink and white with very soft brushstrokes. They seem to be floating, and he talked about the effect of water—as if the figures were reflected in water, so it’s a completely different outlook, just similar to what we were talking earlier about his sensitiveness to his immediate surroundings. Also, I was surprised to read recollections of “Clam Diggers” and the other works of that period that he did spend a long time on them, knowing that he would often spend weeks and months on a painting. To me they look like they’re done pretty spontaneously compared to “Woman I” and others. But evidently he did, even though it’s a work on paper. He did scrape it down and he got rid of the initial drawing so he did spend a lot of time contemplating redoing it over and over again.

Rail: And then gradually, by mid 1960s, he begins to basically bury her body under the earth, which becomes landscapes.

Elderfield: Yes. The first great large works of the early-to-mid-1960s are doll-like paintings, such as “Woman, Sag Harbor” (1964) or “Woman Accabonac” (1966), but certainly by 1969, with “Montauk I,” the figure is disintegrated. This is really a reprise of what had happened in the early 1940s where the wholeness of the figure breaks into parts, and also of what had happened in the early 1950s, where the wholeness of the earlier third series of Woman paintings fragments by the time of “Woman VI.” There’s a constant swaying between the wholeness of the image and the image getting dispersed in the paint. Certainly by’69, it’s kind of body parts floating in the fluid. I think that he, having gone through this one more time, seems to struggle a little bit. And this is why sculpture, drawing, lithography all seem to be the other activities that really absorb him. While there are paintings from the early ’70s, and we do have two in the exhibit, they don’t resemble the similar apex as the ’75 to ’77 series that what had been predicated in the Montauk paintings, where the parts are so fully absorbed that you can hardly recognize them. I mean, after you’ve looked at a lot of these paintings, you do know what to look for, which are mainly legs and high heels. But by then it’s all pretty much absorbed. When he famously saw some of those paintings at the Guggenheim exhibition (Willem de Kooning in East Hampton) in 1978, he said to his assistant, “I can’t go wrong with these pictures,” which was obviously a sign for him that he better stop doing them. So late ’78 to ’79 are years of not great productivity, a lot of very adventurous drinking, and then he really begins again, you really feel the whole wheel turning again, although I think he only paints five pictures in 1980, which include these extraordinary pictures done in thalo green, such as “Untitled V,” which we know as a color was to never be used.

Rail: Yeah, thalo green and Prussian blue are both disastrous colors.

Elderfield: Yes. And I think it was almost an equivalent to the kind of difficulty he set for himself by the predominant whites in the early to late 1980s so he could actually mobilize his art again. And it’s out of this that he starts making the ribbons with the broad knife that he’s using to paint with that lead directly to the 1980 pictures but with, of course, a broader color range and much thinner pigment than before.

Rail: “Pirate (Untitled II)” (1981) being one of my favorites. In fact if you look close on the top, off the center to the right, there’s about an inch and a half long of carmine red paint, squeezed out of a tube, which looks so funny. It’s like a little worm crawling on the beautiful and uniformed slick surface. I pointed it out to Richard Shiff, when Terry Winters and I were all at the exhibit at the same time. Richard returns the favor by taking us to see “February,” which he shows us these two amazing rather large piles of nasty spit, or vomit on the surface.

Willem de Kooning, “Still Life,” 1916/17. Oil on cardboard. 13 1/2 × 15”. Private collection. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Willem de Kooning,
 “Untitled I,” 1985. Oil on canvas. 70” x 6’ x 8”. Private collection, Germany. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Elderfield: Well, you can just imagine him looking at his palette and scraping this leftover paint and whacking it on the surface. It’s like this tradition of artists who in realizing that, as they’re bringing a painting to conclusion, the great difficulty is not leaving it unfinished but actually leaving it too perfected. One artist who I knew well was Richard Diebenkorn, who would talk regularly of having fixed one part too many times, and found suddenly it evaporated for him and he had to stop himself from fixing that last bit, or rather, if he couldn’t do that, to put something in the painting which would actually pull it away from completion and finish. We know that Cézanne and Matisse did the same thing. So did de Kooning. So when we look at these pictures and we see these anomalies, they are what keep the painting open.

Rail: It’s true. In retrospect when one looks at his paintings from the early ’80s, onward, one thinks of the so-called “Old Age” style, where the artist either goes one way, which intensifies his emotion with greater full-on contradiction, like the late Titians or Rembrandts, or he does the opposite, where things get simpler, like Matisse. De Kooning takes the latter case.

Elderfield: David Sylvester believed that the ’70s paintings were the grand style, by which he meant they followed the Titian, Venetian model. Sylvester was therefore a little ambivalent about the ’80s paintings, partly because he wanted de Kooning to finish as a painter in the Venetian tradition, which he was so invested in. So to see de Kooning in the ’80s, he would have said to himself, “Everybody thinks they know what I’m doing. Well, I’m going to once again do something unexpected.” It was troubling for Sylvester at first, although he got over it, but many of his supporters didn’t get over it, as we know. There were all the stories about the Alzheimer’s paintings, and so on, because people weren’t looking at the paintings, which weren’t what they expected, therefore leading them to utter disappointment. But in all truth, de Kooning had been doing this all his life. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the unexpected. I myself, while recognizing the affinity with Matisse or, say, with certain aspects of Cézanne’s watercolors, one also thinks of other artists who set colors against the white background or in white as de Kooning did with the last works’ all over radiance. First of all, they’re very mobile, as much as they’re about an exchange of figure and ground. I find particularly poignant the light ones where he’s working from the projected imagery from the opaque projector to project drawings onto the canvases. And I’m presuming that originally some of the projections were slightly disengaged from the canvas, so that part of the image fell on the wall. Recognizing that what he saw was his great pictorial advantage: to have paintings where the image seems disengaged from the ground and seems to be sliding off of the picture.

Rail: That’s a very insightful observation. Meanwhile, what would we make of “Door to the River”? Is it the same door as in the middle at the bottom of “Excavation”?

Mahony: Doors and windows appear as early as the late 1930s up to the Woman paintings of the late 1940s, though with “Woman I” onward he sort of eliminated both the window and door shapes, which previously were used as architectural references as well as a cubist device, so that we may recognize that an interior or an exterior. Harold Rosenberg claimed that the door in “Excavation” was the last thing he painted. We don’t know if that’s true, because we have documented photographs of the painting without his signature, so the signature is the last thing he painted. But then he took the door theme to the next level by painting on actual doors in the mid-’60s with works like “Woman, Sag Harbor.”

Rail: Well, the painter David Reed once said that the door in “Excavation,” which is slightly opened, and that if you read de Kooning’s signature on the bottom right, it becomes the teeth of the skull, which Reed thinks in reference to the skull in the crucifixion, it’s the skull of Adam, who is the first man. And Adam is then redeemed by the blood of Christ, the second man. In other words, Reed went on to suggest that he has discarded his former self as he walked through the door of “Excavation.” It’s a very compelling reading. Just one more question, John, from the very start of the long essay: You show two paintings, one is a still life which he made when he was 12, and the other is an “Untitled” abstract painting of 1985, which resemble one another. How remarkable.

Elderfield: Matisse once said, “If you want to understand my art you should look at my very first paintings.” And it’s an interesting question about whether an artistic career is about playing out things, which an artist did without consciousness of the implications of them. Nevertheless, the two components of his art were there in that early still life, which were the flat patterning in the background and the volume being the coffee pot and the cup on the table in the foreground. Although this 12-year-old obviously didn’t realize that, having done the painting he was setting himself on, you know, 70 years later he would still be trying to deal with volume and patterning.

But the mechanics, obviously essential to the whole thing, which are not consciously structured. I think this is why we’re so moved by his paintings, partly because of the connotations that, when we look at his paintings, early or late, the volume of our bodies can relate to the volumes that are visible in the paintings. What he didn’t know was that he had laid out the course for himself at 12.

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Phong Bui

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