A Fresh Look at Willem de Kooning

Rosalind E. Krauss talks about the life and work of the American abstract expressionist painter
Rosalind E. Krauss, Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Rosalind E. Krauss, Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

How did you first encounter Willem de Kooning’s paintings? What is it about his work that appeals to you?

The Phillips Collection in Washington D. C. has a particularly beautiful de Kooning: Asheville, 1948. I was always fascinated by it but frustrated that I couldn’t articulate its effect on me. It made me want to look for other de Koonings and to read the literature on his work—initially that in Art News, such as Tom Hess’s “De Kooning Paints a Picture.”  I was disappointed by this literature which I found merely effusive rather than analytical.

What motivated you to write a book about his work?

I had written my senior thesis on de Kooning at Wellesley College; then, when I saw the 2011 MoMA retrospective, curated by John Elderfield, I felt I had things to say about the paintings that no one had expressed before.

Willem de Kooning, Woman and Bicycle (1952-3)
Willem de Kooning, Woman and Bicycle (1952-3)

Could you say a little bit about the title, Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme?

De Kooning’s most famous works are his monumental Woman paintings: Woman I through VI, and Woman and Bicycle. They were famously difficult for him to finish, as was his preoccupation with the subject. This continuous return to the female subject accounts for the “nonstop” part of the title, as well as Cherchez la femme.

How can studying de Kooning’s work help to dispel the myths that surround abstract expressionist painting?

The myths surrounding The New York School arose from what came to be called  the “10th Street touch”—a rapid-fire application of thickly smeared paint, often running and blotting on the canvas. This touch was at the base of Harold Rosenberg’s treatment of the movement as “action painting,” calling the canvas “an arena in which to act,” that act preceding an idea of the finished painting in the mode of Existentialism’s credo of existence preceding essence. To uncover de Kooning’s constant return to a premeditated formal structure is to reveal what I call a “template” in the book. Such formal discovery and repetition punctures the myth of the slapdash execution of his work.

The book is beautifully presented, and includes colour reproductions of works by a variety of artists. Why is it important to see de Kooning’s work alongside that of others?

De Kooning’s “template,” developed in relation to the compositional structure of the artists he admired, above all Picasso, Ingres, Matisse, and Vermeer. As he studied their works so must we.

How can we read de Kooning’s work in its broader cultural and historical context?

Like many of his contemporaries, de Kooning developed in the context of the Depression Era WPA—a Federally funded program to employ artists and architects on public projects. All the bridges and over-passes on the Merritt Parkway were designed and funded by the WPA. This was the context for the meeting between de Kooning and Arshille Gorky, whose friendship led to their joint exploration of the midtown art galleries and the Metropolitan Museum as well as MOMA. Their analyses of the works they had seen were reported as endless.

Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning

Your book plays close attention to de Kooning’s representation of women. Could you say a little bit more about that?

The series of monumental Woman paintings are generally seen as misogynistic, since the rendering of them with bloated bodies and grimacing faces makes them menacing. In my own attempt to answer the two questions—why could de Kooning never finish with the subject and why was his representation of it so distorted—I theorized that woman was de Kooning’s fetish: the representation of her as the phallic protection against castration anxiety.

What do you mean when you write that de Kooning ‘had the misfortune to accede to a posthumous life’?

During his own lifetime he saw a transformation in the art world that rejected Abstract-Expressionism in favor of Pop Art and Nouveau Realism.

This occurred not only at the Sidney Janis Gallery but also at the Guggenheim Museum when the exhibition Abstract-Expressionists and Imagists, was mounted in 1961. The “Imagists”—“color field” artists, such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland—crowded out the New York School Paintings of de Kooning, Pollock, and Gorky, as though they no longer represented the American avant-garde. Even worse, Clement Greenberg delivered his 1962 lecture “After Abstract-Expressionism,” in this context, dismissing de Kooning’s work as “minor” and calling his famous touch “homeless representation.” The final irony was the visit Robert Rauschenberg paid him in 1953 to ask for one of his drawings, not to keep it but to erase it. De Kooning replied to the burgeoning Pop artist, “I know what you’re doing,” and gave Rauschenberg a drawing made with pencil, charcoal, and crayon. It took Rauschenberg two years to erase it, but the gesture was like “erasing” de Kooning from the sweep of history.

For those new to his painting, can you recommend a place to start? Do you have any favourite critical works?

The best analysis of Abstract-Expressionism—and hence de Kooning—is Clement Greenberg’s “American-Type painting,” which examines the formal structure of the works, seeing them as elaborations of Picasso’s close-valued and geometrically organized Analytic Cubism; accordingly, he speaks of “Picassoid Space.” Greenberg eventually responded to the idea of Action Painting with the essay “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name.”

What’s next for you?

I am unsure of my next project, but I am considering writing a book on Roland Barthes.

Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme is available from The University of Chicago Press.


About the Author

Rosalind E. Krauss is University Professor at Columbia University, where she was previously the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. She is cofounder of October and has written many essays and books. She has also curated many exhibitions at leading museums.

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