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Lineage: de Kooning and His Influence

Installation view of Lineage: de Kooning and His Influence, Skarstedt gallery, 2018. Photo: John Berens.

“You have to change to stay the same.” — Willem de Kooning

Aptly named in witty double entendre, Lineage: de Kooning and His Influence focuses upon the physical lines painted by Willem de Kooning and the subsequent impact of these lines on contemporary painters as diverse as Joe Bradley, George Condo, Brice Marden, Albert Oehlen, Sue Williams, and Christopher Wool.

On View
Skarstedt Gallery
September 13 – October 27, 2018
New York

From the 1950s until the late 1970s de Kooning’s pictorial practice, whether addressing figural themes or landscapes, was characterized by its lack of line—his titular figures obscured in vigorous gestural smudges and flesh tones, or his landscapes basking in sweeping swaths of generously applied paint, as in the early 1960s. In utter contrast, the artist’s late works  are emphatically linear, and occasionally, exclusively composed of webs of colored lines. Three of these works are on view at Skarstedt: Untitled (1985); Untitled VII (1986); and Untitled XXIX (1986). Each of these paintings was executed as he was battling with Alzheimer’s¾de Kooning abandoned painting for good in 1990. Paradoxically, these paintings are imbued with cogent clarity, lightness, and directness—all virtues that appear to bring to resolution the artist’s notorious proclivity to divisiveness, and even, self-contradiction. Each of the three predominantly white paintings is accented with lines of blue, red, and in Untitled VII, a blush of yellow that activates the surface into fiery, almost comical, dialogues. As throughout the 1980s de Kooning’s mind and body grew weaker, and he experienced memory loss and an overall gradual decline, the fraught finale of his pictorial career proved to be one of his most fecund periods of the artist’s life, despite (or maybe even, because of) all these hardships. As in many of the works produced throughout the 1980s, de Kooning replaces overt tactility and muddled figures bathing in puddles of vivaciously applied brush marks, in favor of swift Matissean lines painted with a sense of decisive fluidity. Their undulating paths do not amount to a unified composition, each lengthened stroke of primary color maintains its independence, floating in negative space. The mind’s eye may try to conjure other images within these canvases, but to do so would deny the autonomy of each stroke. However, it would be wrong to think that de Kooning was suddenly dispensing with his earlier methods: this was more a case of revisiting and reworking earlier concepts. The formal parallels between Untitled (“Still life”) (c. 1945), and Untitled XII (1986), clearly present themselves in the crowded, biomorphic shapes and primary hues. In his maturity, de Kooning developed an undeniable confidence in his mark making.

Installation view of Lineage: de Kooning and His Influence, Skarstedt gallery, 2018. Photo: John Berens.

Untitled, Untitled VII, and Untitled XXIX are framed as predecessors to contemporary, gestural works at Skarstedt. Sue Williams’s Zipper is perhaps the most faithful of these companions, echoing the forms of de Kooning, while modernizing them in dripping Pepto Bismol pink. Earlier on, Brice Marden offers a natural choice, given his complete dedication to wavy, abstract lines—and this pictorial dialogue is contemporaneous with de Kooning’s late years. Most striking is the pairing of de Kooning’s Untitled with George Condo’s Abstract with Black and White Lines, taking us to the other end of our time spectrum, since the latter was painted early this year. Condo has long been known to share with de Kooning what was recently referred to as a dual fascination for “the caricatural and grotesque.”

Installation view of Lineage: de Kooning and His Influence, Skarstedt gallery, 2018. Photo: John Berens.

While the juxtaposition of living artists’ experiments with “painted lines” made for a stimulating curatorial venture, one ought to be wary of equating aesthetic resemblance to direct artistic influence, kinship, or dependency. De Kooning himself warned us against the dangers of art historical teleology in a 1951 talk entitled, “What is Abstract Art?” given at The Museum of Modern Art. On Cubism, Futurism, and Neo-Plasticism he stated: “I have learned a lot from all of them and they have confused me plenty too. One thing is certain, they didn’t give me my natural aptitude for drawing. I am completely weary of their ideas now.”

The exhibition at Skarstedt, more than an homage to de Kooning, produces an ensemble of works by living artists who, all in often staggeringly different manners, have delved into the problem de Kooning took on (possibly a legacy from Matisse himself): how to paint lines of color that transcend drawing and painting altogether—forming the base for a new language, which, as [Kirk] Varnedoe was arguing in his last Mellon lecture, was occurring as de Kooning himself was losing access to daily language, and was struck with aphasia.

Contributor

Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

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