Pink Angels (1945)
Black Friday (1948)
Summer Couch (1943)
"Painting is something that takes place among the colors, and one has to leave them alone completely, so that they can settle the matter among themselves..." (Rilke)
I'm still recovering from seeing the de Kooning retrospective at MoMA yesterday. It fills the museum's entire 6th floor. I went through all the galleries and then staggered out and collapsed onto a bench by the bookshelves, where I remained for an hour until I came back to myself somewhat. I plan to return at some point- it just opened and is up through Jan 9- but I couldn't wait to see it. One might be surprised that I am an admirer of his work, since on the surface there are many differences between his style and my own, but I was drawn to this and to the work of other 'abstract expressionists', such as Krasner, Mitchell, Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, Reinhardt, Newman, from the time I first really began to learn about painting.
For me there was an instinctive thrill that overtook me as I looked at their paintings, combined with a desire to learn about what was behind all those sweeping brushstrokes, lush fields of color and seemingly nonobjective shapes, the drips and skeins of paint. I surprised myself, blushing as visceral associations came unbidden to my mind, as I faced the often colossal canvases in their organic, showy physicality. I felt overwhelmed and thoughtful. It was a great counterpoint to the other kinds of art I was taking in, of a more representational sort which would have a more direct influence on my own subject matter. But wait! Wasn't this also observational, in an abstracted way? The imagery had to come from somewhere, and it did. Instead of a long, lingering look, a stillness which, for example, Hopper's work embodies, this was like suddenly catching a glimpse of something, "this flash which seduces," the acceptance of disequilibrium. Once-familiar forms, like letters and words and the female figure, scattered and caught in layers of paint, creating abstract allusions. It's a glance that I get lost in.
De Kooning said once, "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity." I didn't warm to every painting, in fact, some I turned away from quickly, the way I sometimes must turn away from "the tremendous proliferation of visual sensations" that assault me when I am moving through busy places, or taking in some kind of media stimulation. Yet it's all energy and fire and ugliness and beauty and death, it is the sublime and the ludicrous that comprise a life. I think I am drawn to the long moments of contemplation and stillness that permeate my paintings, the spaces and the time it takes to consider and render an object. The emotion lies beneath a quieter surface.
So perhaps something in me revels in and clamors for the chaos in these lushly painted surfaces that exuberantly and unapologetically betray emotion in every stroke. In other cases, it really is more about the application of paint and structure of line, a rigorous composition of shapes and colors, and I admire these as well, for varying reasons. But this show, this kind of work, gets me deeper down, with those "slipping glimpses" and "slippery blisses," tangles of paint, wrestling and nestling, like "a wind blowing across the surface" of a canvas. Seeing originals which I'd only seen in reproduction is one of the best rewards for going to museums. One painting I knew, Summer Couch, looked completely different in color and scale than it did in my book, but the O'Hara poem which referenced it came right into my head, and I smiled at the wall: "Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning/ to aspire to. I think it has an orange/ bed in it, more than the ear can hold"...
(quotes are notes from the catalog or the wall text)