The opening passage of “Burnt Norton,” the first part of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets,” begins: Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past./If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable./What might have been is an abstraction/Remaining a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation./What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.1 Willem de Kooning’s artistic career followed a temporally circuitous path that in hindsight resonates with Eliot’s profound verse. One of the undisputed leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement, or New York School, de Kooning blazed a distinctive trail through the history of mid-twentieth-century art in which his innovations were inevitably followed by his retraced steps and subsequent new discoveries. For the artist, his past was always vividly present.
By the late 1940s, de Kooning had established his singular gestural style of abstraction—alongside another practitioner of “action art,” Jackson Pollock—whose biomorphic forms and rhythmic lines reminiscent of Asian calligraphy coexisted within his often turbulent compositions. With his Women series of paintings and drawings, de Kooning would become the cause célèbre of the art world for supposedly turning his back on nonobjective, pure painting by returning the figure to prominence in his work.2 The artist defended himself by pointing out that the figure had never actually left his formal repertoire. He also was (and still is) widely (and arguably unjustly) criticized for his misogynistic depiction of women as menacing and predatory; critics read the bestial disfigurement and feverish intensity of the slashing strokes of his pencil or paintbrush as virtually enacting violence against womankind.
In a 1953 Artnews article by de Kooning’s friend and champion, Thomas Hess, he described the artist’s two-year ordeal to execute one of his most celebrated paintings from this genre, Woman I (1950–1952).3 Hess revealed de Kooning’s working method, stemming from his practice in the 1940s of making charcoal __tracings on transparent paper of large sections of previous works in order to jump-start his creative process or productively throw it off balance. Once the paintings were underway, the artist made change an inherent component of his artistic process. He would frequently scrape away large areas of the canvas, leaving behind faint pentimenti and underpainting, while also concealing unresolved passages with a thick coat of paint.4 He also went to great lengths to keep his canvases moist, so that he could return to them day after day.5 Hess wrote elsewhere that de Kooning had “gone back continuously to older shapes, re-creating new ones from them, as if he were impelled to bring a whole life’s work into each section of each new picture.”6
The paintings that de Kooning embarked upon in the 1980s continued this tendency toward rigorous, constant revision and self-quotation. He kept paintings from his distant past as well as works in progress constantly on view in the studio, so that he could freely refer to forms and colors; in addition, he used homemade flash cards and projected images of previous works as formal crib sheets. He also sanded over used canvases and incorporated the remaining skeletal marks into his compositions, and continued the use of transparent vellum to trace and superimpose images ad infinitum. Another technique that he used to keep things fresh and unstable was to rotate the canvas on the easel so that there was no definitive top or bottom, right or left side, until he declared it finished. With all these tricks of his trade, de Kooning was able to maintain disequilibrium and indeterminacy, conditions that had long been of interest to him.7
The artist stopped painting almost entirely between 1978 and 1980 as he—with the aid of his estranged wife, Elaine de Kooning, and several dedicated studio assistants—was slowly and painfully loosening the grip of several decades of alcohol abuse. It was also at this time that those closest to him began to remark on his forgetfulness and general distraction. (The diagnosis in 1989 was Alzheimer’s disease.)8 Nonetheless, from 1980 to 1981, he immersed himself in his work, and the result was a remarkable corpus characterized by flatly luminous ribbons of sensual color interrupted by poetic expanses of white, a clear shift from his heavily impastoed, landscape-inspired canvases of the previous decade. Not surprisingly, these paintings still evoked the figure—although what remained were powerful vestiges of lyrical curves and ambiguous protuberances. In 1980, he produced only a handful of canvases. By 1983, according to his studio assistant, “he just breathed them out.”9 In 1987, de Kooning’s pace had slowed and the work, “despite extraordinary passages, lost its overall structural coherence.”10 Three years later, de Kooning laid down his paintbrush for the last time.
T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” in “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1930), 117. ↩
De Kooning exhibited his Women series for the first time at Sidney Janis Gallery in the spring of 1953. The Museum of Modern Art acquired Woman I (1950–1952) that same year. ↩
Thomas Hess, “De Kooning Paints a Picture,” Artnews 52, no. 1 (March 1953): 30–33, 64–67. This article was illustrated with the work of another of de Kooning’s close friends, photographer Rudy Burckhardt. ↩
Hess also demonstrated that it was at this same time that de Kooning began photographing his paintings in progress, so that he could study the evolution of his forms or return to compositions that were obliterated in the process of working. The artist would continue this practice in the 1980s. Progressive states of the 1980s paintings are illustrated in Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s, Gary Garrels, ed., exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 38–79. ↩
Richard Shiff discusses various techniques used by de Kooning to extend the drying time, including covering the canvases with wet newspapers and creating his own special formula of paint mixed with an emulsion of safflower oil, water, and one or more solvents. See Richard Shiff, “Water and Lipstick: De Kooning in Transition,” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, Marla Prather, ed., exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 35. De Kooning once remarked, “I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface.” See Hess, “De Kooning Paints a Picture,” 65. ↩
Thomas Hess quoted in Shiff, “Water and Lipstick,” 34. ↩
Shiff makes this point in his essay, ibid., 33. ↩
For an insightful and balanced account of de Kooning’s battles with alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease, and the impact his physical and mental health had on his artistic production, see Robert Storr, “At Last Light,” in The Late Paintings, the 1980s, 38–79. ↩
Tom Ferrara quoted in ibid., 53. ↩
Ibid., 48. ↩