Willem de Kooning

Art Criticism journal, volume 20, number 1.
[Images, not originally in Art Criticism, have been added here]

Martin Ries                       


"Perhaps I am more of a novelist than a poet." 

-Willem de Kooning 

"What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

-Harold Rosenberg

               One of the important experiments in American art education began in Asheville , North Carolina , in 1933. Black Mountain College was conceived at a critical moment in history; its founding occurred concurrent with ominous events abroad: Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and the Nazi terror of book-burnings, street beatings, political arrests of Jews, communists, homosexuals and others, and incinerations in concentration camps. The Nazis closed the famous Bauhaus, the innovative school of art, architecture, and design. Josef Albers came to Black Mountain College as director, bringing his Bauhaus experience to encourage artistic cross-fertilization. By the time the College closed in 1957 it had attracted a venerable Who's Who of the avant-garde, including Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Eric Bentley, Robert Motherwell, Paul Taylor, Alfred Kazin, and many others. Willem de Kooning taught there in 1948. [1]

               In the late 1930s and early 1940s Abstract and Cubist art were formalist structures that did not necessarily embody transcendent, universal themes. Inspired by the Freudian method of free association, the Surrealists put great emphasis on the instinctual and invented "psychic automatism" to breed buried images unavailable to the conscious mind. The goal of forward-looking American artists (fellow artist Jacob Kainen called them "the alert artists") was to synthesize the modern movements into an entirely new pictorial style; what interested them about Surrealism was its processes, its attitudes toward creativity and the unconscious, and its emphasis on content as opposed to form. A few of the Surrealist artists "painted responses to the political and historical events of the period ... Picasso's Guernica more successfully captured the Americans' imagination as a direct response to disaster..." [2

               The Europeans had shown the way; yet the avant-garde American artists had to work desperately to break away from the influence of the School of Paris and especially from that Olympian, Pablo Picasso. Like the Collective Unconscious or the dreams of childhood, Picasso's images and icons kept creeping in while the Abstract Expressionists used both Surrealism and Abstraction to break the Spaniard's stranglehold. Discussing art in the 1930s and 1940s, Jackson Pollock complained, "Damn that Picasso, just when I think I've gotten somewhere I discover that bastard got there first;" Arshile Gorky mourned that they were "defeated" by Picasso; while de Kooning said, "Picasso is the man to beat."

De Kooning drew on the School of Paris (Pollock called him a "French" painter); his "apparent aim is a synthesis of tradition and modernism that would grant him more flexibility within the confines of the Late Cubist canon of design," stated Clement Greenberg; "... there is perhaps even more Luciferian pride behind de Kooning's ambition than there is behind Picasso's." [3]Thomas B. Hess wrote, "He will do drawings on transparent paper, scatter them one on top of the other, study the composition drawing that appears on top, make a drawing from this, reverse it, tear it in half, and put it on top of still another drawing. Often the search is for a shape to start off a painting..." [4]Harold Rosenberg, who upheld the idea of "high art" in defiance of mass culture, applied existential relationships between artists and the world: "The vision of transcending the arts ... rests upon one crucial question: What makes one an artist?" [5]He did not see abstraction as a projection of individual emotions so much as a reflection of overall psychic need. Abstract art in its final analysis, he asserted, was transcendental.

            De Kooning admired Cubism for its emphasis on structure; [6yet Asheville, (1948, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) its surface sensuality dominating compositional logic, is both linear and

Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948
Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948, oil and enamel / cardboard, 
64.9x81 cm (25½x31-7/8), The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.  

painterly as well as structural. The need for the ordered geometric background structure of Cubism did not begin to disappear from de Kooning's work until he increased his gestural activity, probably under Jackson Pollock's influence, by loosening shapes and allowing the paint to run in such paintings as Light in August.  

Willem de Kooning, Light in August, 1947
Willem de Kooning, Light in August, 1947,
55x41½, Museum of Contemporary Art, Teheran

               The use of the sign painter's liner brush [7] allowed him to get the precipitate look of a quick expressionist sketch; each stroke is integrated with every other stroke that shift ceaselessly as forms merge with background as well as with other forms to mold a single consolidated surface. Art dealer and friend of the artist, Allan Stone, described the forms as opening up and flowing into the background, "creating fluidity and movement which can be termed 'liquification of cubism.'"  [8]

               The push toward a new expression in Asheville is beyond literal legibility. [9] Nevertheless Charles F. Stuckey says the sulfuric color scheme of ocher, red, black and white "evoke flames, smoke and ashes"; [10] he reads a large dark "eye" to the right as looking like a "cigarette burn in cloth;" he also sees "torn and displaced legs, elbows, and torso", body parts [11] scattered like martyr's attributes, as well as "lips cracked to expose teeth", and finds a "darkened left side of a mouth that

Diagram of Ashville
Diagram of Ashville

 seems to curl forward to suggest the way paper curls when it burns" (there is a plethora of gnashing teeth in Picasso's Weeping Women ["postscripts" to Guernica, summer,1937]). 

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Women 1937
Pablo Picasso, Weeping Women 1937 

However, Stuckey also finds these conflagration similes in the frantic brushstroke of de Kooning's Light in August as they refer to the fire episode in William Faulkner's Light in August, a novel the painter especially liked. The titles of several of de Kooning's black and white paintings at this time: Dark Pond, Night Square, together with Black Friday (the darker name for "Good Friday," the day of the Crucifixion) and Light in August, are "drawn from the Bible, Aeschylus, and William Faulkner." [12]

               The title of Light in August is derived from the novel of the same name by Faulkner. Heir of the Symbolists, he was little appreciated until Malcolm Cowley's Portable Faulkner was published in 1946. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a similar fate: when he died in 1940 none of his books was in print, "The revival - or, better, the apotheosis - of [The Great] Gatsby began after the author's death ....  That was in 1941. It took another five years for a new generation to rediscover it." [13] De Kooning, a "fervent reader," [14] may have been part of that generation and read about "the macabre valley of ashes presided over by the eyes on a billboard" in Gatsby.

               F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda embodied the "flaming youth" [15] in the 1920s before she suffered a mental breakdown. Zelda was confined to mental institutions throughout the 1930s and 1940s until her tragic death in March of 1948 when fire destroyed the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was a patient. De Kooning may have read about Zelda's death in the New York Times of March 12, 1948 : "Flames quickly engulfed the four-story central building of the Highland Hospital for Nervous Diseases. ... Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, widow of the author and a victim of the hospital fire, had been ill for some years and went to the Highland Hospital three months ago..."

               Assuming de Kooning read of the tragic fire at Highland Hospital, he probably would have recalled the devastating fire in Gorky's studio, Gorky's Charred Beloved of 1946 and Agony of 1947 (Gorky committed suicide while de Kooning was working on Asheville), as well as the flames in Picasso's Guernica (fig. 2) and related studies. Stalin's scorched earth policy, the fire-storms of England, Germany, and Japan during the war, as well as the frequent blazes in New York City , may have also occurred to him.

            De Kooning's penchant for the soot and detritus of the city is the reverse of Marcel Proust's "golden morning brightness of a Parisian sidewalk" and more like Baudelaire's "botanist of the sidewalk." Edwin Denby, poet and friend in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled the artist's attraction to minute details encountered in his environment:  "I remember walking at night in Chelsea with Bill ... and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions - spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflection of neon-light..." [16] Indeed, Rosalind Krauss similarly has commented on Picasso's turning the dross of collage into art [17] as he shaped "these bits and pieces into an organized montage." [18] In Apollinaire's Zone, written just as Picasso was embarking on collage, the poet praised what the artist saw in the streets: "The inscription on the sign boards and the walls ... You read the handbills, catalogs, posters that sing out loud and clear  ..." [19

Willem de Kooning, Abstraction, 1949/50
Willem de Kooning, Abstraction, 1949/50, 
Thyssen-Bornamisza collection,

               De Kooning often began several pictures with related images; Asheville [20] and Abstraction (1949/50, Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Madrid) have much in common. The floor line in the ashen-hued Abstraction, leading in from the bottom right corner, creates a "nook" on the right side (and a resting place for a dark skull - an unusually non-abstract and specific image for the artist at that time) which "houses" a ladder, window, and door, as well as the torso, leg, and rectangular structure at bottom left. The vibrant yellows, blues, and fuchsias are dispersed by black strokes within modified white areas. There is a Picassoid hoof-form in the upper left corner, a house structure in the upper right (the same double-bar as in Asheville, a visual abutment which undoubtedly corresponds to the window edge in Guernica and related sketches), as well as several rectangular window and door shapes and a ladder from Minotauromachia.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica , 1937
Pablo Picasso, Guernica , 1937, 
oil / canvas, 349x777cm (137-3/8x305-7/8),
Museo Nacional de Arte
Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Pablo Picasso, Minotauramachia, 1935
Pablo Picasso, Minotauramachia, 1935, 
etching, 49.5x69.2 cm (19½x27¼).

Is the ladder a metaphor for escape? A fireman's attempt at rescue? A passage from one plane to another? The ladder of life and the time-honored symbol of ascension, the primal idea that one climbs the ladder of one's forebears (however Olympian) as with Jacob's Ladder?

               In Asheville de Kooning depicts a book of charred matches (left) which he seems to have used from his earlier Still Life with Matches (c.1942, collection Mr. & Mrs. Stephen D. Paine),

Willem de Kooning, Still Life with Matches, c.1942
Willem de Kooning, Still Life with Matches, c.1942, 
13.9x19 cm (5½x7½), Mr & Mrs Stephen D. Paine collection.  

very much as Thomas Hess described his working methods. This detail is topped by a blackened circle that probably was originally a thumbtack (top left) to keep fragments of drawings in position as the artist worked. A second folded matchbook is at the top just below the "thumbtack." Are the shapes references to squares, rectangles, openings, windows, doors, and other apertures? Are they meant to appear burnt and damaged? Geometric shapes, imbued with implied order, are usually inserted in an effort to stabilize the picture, but they keep getting lost in de Kooning's shuffle of shapes. Certainly the series of rectangles on the left of Asheville includes a "spent book of matches" (Stuckey); they are also similar to the ladder in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Abstraction, both of which may have been prompted by the ladder in Picasso's Minotauromachia, and/or the many ladders in Joan Miró's and Paul Klee's and other Surrealists' works where the Jacob-like ladder leads upwards to a fusion of tangible and intangible, a transcending union of heaven and earth, to "higher realities."

            Indeed, below the spent safety matches is a form very much like the leg of the dying horse in Composition Study for Guernica comparable to the form in the lower left of Asheville, both in similar

Pablo Picasso, Detail, Composition Study for Guernica, (II), 1 May 1937
Pablo Picasso, Detail, Composition Study for Guernica, (II), 1 May 1937,  
pencil on blue paper, 21x27cm (8-1/4x10-5/8), Museo Nacional de Arte
Reina Sofia, Madrid.

areas of both paintings, not to mention two very Picassoid horse's hoofs, bottom center (also bottom center in Guernica). The foot of the Rushing Woman in Guernica is comparable to the shape in the lower right corner of Asheville (similar areas of both paintings); the rectangles in the upper right corner of Asheville are like the right-angled edges of the window of the burning house in Guernica (similar areas of both paintings).  

            Picasso's Guernica and Minotaur images, often reproduced in Cahiers d'Art and Minotaure magazines, could have been seen in the late '30s and early '40s by American artists. The mural itself was exhibited in New York at the Valentin Gallery in 1939, and an extensive Picasso exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art in the same year. De Kooning was undoubtedly familiar with the first important book on Guernica [21] with its related studies and photographs of the mural in progress.

            If Asheville is turned upside-down, the matchbooks relate to the more recognizable rectangles, apertures, and ladder in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Abstraction, as well as to Picasso's many ladders.  
Other paintings at that time indicate fragments of drawings are shuffled and scattered in the search for new paintings. Specific forms in such as those in the upper right are identical to the forms in.  

Willem de Kooning, Painting, c.1950
Willem de Kooning, Painting, c.1950, 
76.5x101.6 cm (30-1/8x40), David Geffen collection,
Los Angeles

 Willem de Kooning, Little Attic, c.1949
Willem de Kooning, Little Attic, c.1949, oil / paper / press board, 
77.4x10.1 cm (30½x40), Dr. Israel Rosen collection.

            The imagery in these two works, both the same size, presumably derived from a single drawing and then migrated from one painting to another. [22] These "specific forms" are similar to the progression of rectangular forms on the left side of Asheville. Other forms in Geffen's Painting, such as ladders and gaping mouths, are repeated throughout the compositions of this period (the heart shape on the right in Little Attic is reminiscent of the shape of testicles in much of Picasso's depictions of bulls. Both organs relate to man's emotional life, they bind male psyche and male soma).

            The Olympian Picasso continued to possess his progeny.

           De Kooning often used window-like rectangles (usually delineated with black paint) in his early work to organize the background and relate the composition to the edges of his canvas. With no directional trajectories, the tension of the window shapes make enclosure dynamic rather than ambiguous. An aperture for penetration into space, a window often symbolizes the eye* of the artist opened for revelation; one can look in as well as out [23] into larger vistas, or greater consciousness.


After death, the eyes of the deceased are closed; this gesture symbolically shuts the "window of the soul."


               De Kooning was probably familiar with Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, (N.Y., 1947) where he attributes to colors certain universal meanings: "Black is something burnt out, the ashes of a funeral pyre ... The silence of black is the silence of death ..." Completed shortly after the artist's black and white period, Asheville combines color as well as black and white, but none dominates. Generally, color isn't abstract in the sense that it involves nuances of mood, while black and white is more abstract because it relates less to nature.  However, we're often disconcerted by color schemes with values of equal importance when there is no dominant hue.

               Space is a pre-condition of all that exists, its appearance is emptiness, and therefore can contain everything; or as de Kooning explained, space contains "billions and billions of hunks of matter ... floating around in darkness according to a great design of nothingness." [24] De Kooning's picture plane, to which any shape or image could be attached, is not dissimilar to the relativistic unified field theory that tries to integrate into one comprehensive idea the many clashing bits of data and complex uncertainty of randomness that is modern physics.

            In the manner of Levi-Strauss's bricoleur, the handyman, tinkerer, or inventor of myths, memory accumulates appealing images and materials that can then be reshaped and used over and over again. Many of the abstract shapes in Asheville look like fragments from previous works, a kind of visual promiscuity, or what another critic called "willful pentimenti." [25] Although there are many unrecognized and suggestive abstract forms in the painting, they pass before us almost without our recognizing them, like fleeting images in a dream. Yet Asheville , with its loopy liner brush lines and sooty colors, is certainly one of de Kooning's most regal works.  As Rudolf Arnheim explained, in reference to Picasso: "The creative process has systolic and diastolic stages. The artist condenses his material, eliminating unessentials, or paints an abundance of shapes and ideas, recklessly crowding the concept. Rather than grow consistently like a plant, the work often fluctuates between antagonistic operations." [26]

            Or, as Harold Rosenberg said, abstract art in its final analysis is transcendental.


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[ 1 ] Martin B Duberman, Black Mountain : An Exploration in Community, Peter Smith, Gloucester , Massachusetts , 1988. p.283: The artist and Buckminster Fuller became "great friends, really extraordinary friends," said Fuller. "I used to have to go to Asheville to get things for my structures, for my classes...and Bill de Kooning used to like to ride along with me and talk philosophy. Bill is a very, very wonderful thinker."  
S. Naifeh and G.W. Smith, Jackson Pollock: American Saga, Clarkson Potter, N.Y., 1989, p.710: de Kooning and Rosenberg shared a thoughtful if not deep philosophical streak; when asked if he would rather be a "half-assed philosopher or a great painter, de Kooning replied, "Let me think about that."

[2] Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge University Press, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney, 1991, p.28.

[3] Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961, p.213.

[4] Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, Museum of Modern Art , N.Y., 1968, p.47.

[5] Harold Rosenberg, The De-definition of Art, Horizon Press, N.Y., 1972, p.13.

[6] Willem de Kooning, "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, Spring 1951, p.7; reprinted in Hess, p. 146. De Kooning also described Cubism as "a poetic frame ... where an artist could practise  his intuition;" in Hess, p. 146.

[7] Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, essays by Cornelia H. Butler, Paul Schimmel, Richard Shiff and Anne M. Wagner, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles , Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford , 2002. Elaine de Kooning's brother, Conrad Fried, remembered that de Kooning made his own brushes with extra-long floppy hairs designed to make "fast," whiplash lines. Shiff, p.158.

[8] Allan Stone, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, Allan Stone Gallery catalog, New York, 1994, p. iii.

[9] Willem de Kooning: "I feel certain parts you ought to leave up to the world" in "The Renaissance and Order", trans/formation 1, 1951; quoted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, Museum of Modern Art , N.Y., 1968, p.141; and in Robert Goodnough, ed., Artists' Sessions at Studio 35, N.Y., 1950, p.16.

[10] Charles F. Stuckey, "Bill de Kooning and Joe Christmas," Art in America, vol.68, no.3, March 1980, p.78.

[11] Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, essays by Cornelia H. Butler, Paul Schimmel, Richard Shiff and Anne M. Wagner, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford , 2002. Shiff, p. 164, n. 1: "I nevertheless believe that nearly all of de Kooning's "abstractions" either began with a reference to the human figure or incorporated figural elements along the way."

[12] Sally Yard, "The Angel and the demoiselle - Willem de Kooning's Black Friday," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol. 50, no. 2, 1991, p.15.

[13] The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, introduction by Charles Scribner III , N.Y. , 1992, p.xviii]: The Great Gatsby "led the Fitzgerald rediscovery and restoration of 1945-50..." Fitzgerald wrote of "...the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes ... commensurate with their capacity to wonder." as well as the "...sporting life at Asheville ..." [The Great Gatsby, preface and notes by Matthew J. Bruccoli, N.Y., 1992, p.23].

[14] Numerous friends, associates and critics have cited de Kooning's wide reading, from Kierkegaard, Melville and Proust to Dostoevsky, Joyce and Whitman.

[15] John Tytell, Passionate Lives, Birch Lane Press , New York , 1991, .p.77. Fitzgerald said Zelda had "a more intense flame at its highest than ever I had."

[16] Elaine de Kooning, "Edwin Denby Remembered - Part 1," Ballet Review 12, spring 1984, p. 30; also, Edwin Denby, Willem de Kooning, N.Y., Hanuman Books, 1988, p.46.

[17] Rosalind E. Krauss, The Picasso Papers, N.Y., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, p. 72, quoting David Cottongton's "turning the dross of the vernacular into the gold of art" in Picasso & Braque: A Symposium,  (ed., Lynn Zelevansky) N.Y. Museum of Modern Art, 1992, p. 69.

[18] Krauss, p. 42.

[19] Krauss, p. 72-73.

[20] The painting is inscribed as Ashville [sic] on the back of the panel, with the emphasis on "Ash." Charles Moore Brock, unpublished Master's Thesis, "Describing Chaos: Willem de Kooning's Collage Painting Asheville and its Relationship to Traditions of Description and Illusionism in Western Art," 1993, University of Maryland , p.8.

[21] Juan Larrea, Guernica: Pablo Picasso, introduction by Alfred H Barr, published by the art dealer, Curt Valentin, N.Y., 1947.

[22] Hess, p. 47-51.

[23] Carla Gottlieb, The Window in Art: a Study of Window Symbolism in Western Painting, Abaris Books, Pleasantville , N.Y. , 1981.

[24] De Kooning, p. 7; reprinted in Hess, p. 146.

[25] Sally Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York - 1927-1952 ( New York : Garland , 1986, p. 57.

[26] Rudolf Arnheim, Picasso's Guernica: The Genesis of a Painting, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles , 1962, p.56.  

This paper was written with the help of a Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island University at Brooklyn . I wish to thank John Ott, educator, computer scientist, and mathematician, for his suggestions in preparing this study.





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