Master Bill at MoMAby Irving Sandler
In my memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists, I wrote that encountering Franz Kline’s “Chief” around 1952 began my life in art. I soon saw Bill de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which impressed me even more strongly than Kline’s. The Tanager Gallery, which I managed from 1956 to 1959, was next door to Bill’s studio and when he came down for a breather I was there to greet him. He became my friend and his insights into art meant more to me than those of any other artist or critic I knew at the time. So it now seems fitting to end the second and final volume of my memoir by writing about Bill and the astonishing show of 200 of his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art.
As I moved through Bill’s retrospective on several Mondays, I was arrested, as I always had been, by his black and white abstractions of the late 1940s, notably “Night Square,” circa 1949. In the next room I saw “Excavation,” 1950, Bill’s largest and most imposing painting to that date. The open forms in “Night Square” and “Excavation” hold together, but barely, underpinned by a fragmented synthetic cubist infrastructure. However, the space in both abstractions is radically unstable and ambiguous, fundamentally different from that of Picasso and Braque, which had been central to modernist art in the preceding four decades. Bill’s ceaselessly shifting and interpenetrating biomorphic forms and the dislocated space they generate are new in art and peculiarly of his historic moment. Indeed, they touch the pulse of the anxious and chaotic mood of the hot- and cold-war ’40s and ’50s.
At the same time that Bill’s paintings were avant-garde, they also referred to the history of Western painting. He said to me that he was “grappling for a way to say something new,” but “I have this point of reference—my environment that I have to do something about. But the Metropolitan Museum is also part of my environment. I change the past.”* I marveled at Bill’s ambition to emulate old and modern masters while deflecting their work in a new direction. His need to paint pictures that were figurative was also a sign of his traditionalism, but he painted abstractions too—and everything in between. I was awed and exhilarated by Bill’s heroic drive to encompass as much of art and human experience as he could. No wonder his innovations and relevance inspired younger artists like Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Alfred Leslie, and many others. In fact, Bill was the most influential painter of his generation.
The forms of “Night Square” and “Excavation” are related. But the two canvases are different. “Night Square” is painted flatly. The drawing in “Excavation” is executed with the paint-filled, freewheeling brush, radically different from Picasso’s and Braques’s compositions of clearly defined shapes filled in with matte color. Bill’s fleshy pigment suggests “the stuff people were made of,” as Bill once said, and points the way to the brushwork of “Woman I,” which he began the month after he finished “Excavation.” The particulars of this critical transition in Bill’s work had not occurred to me before I saw the MoMA retrospective. And they revealed the interconnectedness of Bill’s paintings, no matter how varied they were over the decades, the indication that they were all issued from the inner core of the artist. A master painter, for me he set the standard of aesthetic excellence in contemporary art. I must admit that since I first encountered Bill’s painting, few works of art, even those I found interesting, measured up to its quality, the standard was too high.
Looking at “Excavation,” I surprised myself by thinking of a possible relation to Jackson Pollock’s outsize drip paintings, above all the Metropolitan Museum’s “Autumn Rhythm,” 1950. Both canvases had been painted in the same year and both were history-making. Later I recalled that Alex Katz once mentioned in passing that Bill painted “Excavation” to outstrip Jackson. It didn’t register then, but I remembered Alex’s remark when I stood in front of the picture.
I knew that Bill and Jackson were rivals. They bad mouthed each other at the Cedar Street Tavern. But I also knew that they respected each other. Grace Hartigan told me that when she first came to New York, she visited Jackson and asked him who else to look up, he replied “de Kooning.” And when she asked Bill, his answer was “Pollock.”
It occurred to me that nothing I had read alluded to any connection between “Excavation” and “Autumn Rhythm.” To check this out, at a meeting of some four dozen leading experts knowledgeable about Bill’s achievement invited by John Elderfield to visit the exhibition and discuss the paintings, I raised the question and got blank stares. To be sure, I had no way of knowing what Bill was thinking, but it seemed to me that a comparison of “Excavation” and “Autumn Rhythm” reveals much about the two works and the two artists.
Jackson’s picture is open and expansive, seeming to extend beyond the canvas edges. Bill’s image is contained within the picture limits; congested, it seems to implode. Jackson’s poured pigment is thin and fluid, Bill’s brush is heavy and physical. Jackson’s field painting is suggestive of prairie space. Bill’s impacted imagery evokes the city.
Bob Berlind once asked me to imagine the de Kooning and Pollock side by side and challenged me to choose which was the greater painting. Startled, my response was, it’s a tie.
* Irving Sandler, “Conversations with de Kooning,” Art Journal 48 (Fall 1989).
Excerpt from Irving Sandler’s forthcoming memoir Act II: An Art Critic in Postmodern Art.