What you’re looking at is an old Romantic. De Kooning is at the end of his run, the last of his bunch. But it turned out he had one thing left to do. Throughout his career he had held on to his European painting heritage unlike the homegrown AbExers. It was a smart move. He had taken Cubism and Expressionism and made them more physical, more material, and in that way, more American – but those works were still rooted in the tradition of outwardly directed visual painting. De Kooning never confronted the optical spirituality and inner experience of his American painter colleagues. This optical experience in American painting is the beginning of what has become the predominant Postmodern subject matter – the all consuming ground. It’s the point where vision changed from seeing to experiencing, from visual thought to optical interaction. For the American Romantic it’s the ground, the “arena” where the deeper issues of experience begin to take place. In a funny way this is a post-existential stance where Hell is no longer the other because the subject, the other, has been submerged into the ground – there is no “other” only the “one.” What we are talking about is the dematerialization of the self into something larger, more powerful, and this kind of evangelical spiritual experience threads all through AbEx painting, and that’s its final, explicit subject matter. It’s in these last years, fighting age and dementia, that De Kooning finally dissolves his rising subject into the field of American Romantic painting.
Now I know for most of you, your eyes will be rolling about in your head at this moment. WTF ‘s up with this “spirituality?” To which I say, “Well for Christ sakes mate – have you read Rothko or Newman?” If somehow you’ve missed those heated tomes then you really haven’t a freakin’ clue as to why the new downtown crowd in 1950s NYC could only take so much of the AbEx moralizing – both in person and in paint. To put it succinctly, most of the best American painters sounded like Evangelicals, and whether we like it or not, this strain of American Romanticism certainly comes out of this country’s faith-based historicism and the never-ending struggle to match belief with reality.
Let me tell you all something straight out. AbEx truly drained the well dry of visual transcendence for the generations of thirsty, wild eyed artists that came after them. Since 1960 any declaration of deep experiential spirituality and otherworldly experience contained in one’s work will clear a room in 15 seconds flat. And by that I mean that any kind of OTT testifying, especially in Postmodern NYC, will mark you as unprofessional, and more possibly, a yokel from the sticks. To combat this perception and keep alive some semblance of the American Romantic tradition this evangelical strain of theoretics has been mitigated and professionalized among artists. Instead of heated rhetoric or purple prose about life and death, we use other coded words like “beauty,” “critique,” or “craft” to urge the viewer to rummage through a historical, experiential rolodex winding one back into the coded theoretics of the sublime. We have professionalized transcendence in order to make it palatable for a public looking for indulgent popular entertainments.
Look, in the late 40s the entire world was still recovering from the viciousness of industrialized warfare. A lot of American Artists had struggled through the Depression, the War, endless rejection and poverty, loneliness, and personal demons that you and I don’t have a clue about here in our fat, Postmodern comfort zone. They bathed less, sweated more, had bad teeth, fretted harder and got old and sick real fast. There wasn’t a lot of time for these painters to fuck around with the concept of professionalism when the moment, the opportunity, to succeed finally came. Paris lay in ruins, bereft of ideas, and Americans were in a great position to take the lead in the Art game. At first you could forgive a few good artists a bit of narcissism about their connections to larger than life issues. Something different was actually coming into being in the studios on 10th Street, and if these works were about the larger issues of life and death all the better. Like Newman said – a still life or a portrait just wouldn’t cut it anymore.
But the 1950s were a bit different and attitudes were beginning to change. Money was coming in, collectors were lining up, and worldly success was a REAL possibility. The career game was the goal for a new class of university trained professionals, and AbEx with its hard times and lean world view, began to look a bit dated, a bit too strident, and a bit too moralistic. New money wanted bigger entertainments, more clubbiness, more interaction with personable careerists. And like any newly powerful class they wanted to be lionized by the great artists of their day. For this American equestrian class, the new corporate elite, Pollock pissing in a fireplace was a happening entertainment. An artist was expected to be a bit different after all…But in this new economy and with these new captains of industry footing the bill there really wasn’t much room for preachers of any kind.
“The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”
“Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our dramas: art’s most profound moments express this frustration. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy. It became fond of the dark, and enveloped its objects in the nostalgic intimations of a half-lit world. For me the great achievements of the centuries in which the artist accepted the probable and familiar as his subjects were the pictures of the single human figure – alone in a moment of utter immobility.”
Both quotes from Rothko – “The Romantics Were Prompted.”
The American artists under discussion create a truly abstract world which can be discussed only in metaphysical terms. These artists are at home in the world of pure idea, in the meanings of abstract concepts, just as the European painter is at home in the world of cognitive objects and materials. And just as the European painter can transcend his objects to build a spiritual world, so the American transcends his abstract world to make that world real, rendering the epistemological implications of abstract concepts with sufficient conviction and understanding to give them body and expression.
They start with the chaos of pure fantasy and feeling, with nothing that has any known physical, visual or mathematical counterpart, and they bring out of this chaos of emotion images that give these intangibles reality. There is no struggle to go to the fantastic through the real to the abstract through the real. Instead the struggle is to bring out from the nonreal, from the chaos of ecstasy something that evokes a memory of the emotion of an experienced moment of total reality.
Both quotes from Newman – “Response to Clement Greenberg.”
In the 1950s this kind of proselytizing was hard stuff for many younger artists coming of age. It was even worse when the second wave of AbEx painters invoked the same philosophies and expectations to legitimate they’re academic knock offs. For the younger artists with different ideas that second generation was just hanging at The Club or the Cedar Bar, styling their works after the old men and faking the large issues. The new, hungry crowd weren’t having any of that posing. By 1960 brush strokes and grounds were simply optical experiences of “pure beauty” or coded language to be deconstructed. De Kooning had been “erased” by a young upstart and “sent up” with a couple of beer cans by another – “Somebody told me that Bill de Kooning said that you could give that son-of-a-bitch (Castelli) two beer cans and he could sell them. I thought, what a wonderful idea for a sculpture.” – Japer Johns.
AbEx, the first real fine art of American culture, quickly took a back seat to a new generation of younger, hipper, and quite frankly, more American artists that were coming into view. They had different ideas about what Art should look like, how it should be produced and what it should be about. This was also the moment when the institutionalization of AbEx marked the aesthetic decline and intellectual bankruptcy of the AbEx generation. The ideas stopped, the progress stalled, and most of the remaining Masters fell victim to their own hubris.
The criticism through the Postmodern decades was fierce. De Kooning went out to Long Island and worked to reconnect to a larger history through his own life. So what was the difference for De Kooning in those later years? What happened in those late works that brought a new kind of “American-ness” to his painting? The big change is his willingness to jettison the visual need to put a “thing in a field” that so defines European painting. This used to be seen in the isolation of the subject, the connection of the subject to visual thought, but now, for Willem, it carries a difference. In these later works De Kooning has moved in on the rising subject, he has found the ground in the subject itself and stretched it across the surface of the painting. You are looking at both the thing on the wall and the visual confrontation with the subject, the other. This is not vision in the physical, fleshy sense. It is vision enhanced, enlarged and connected more to physical touch. In these works we have to confront the idea of the lens and the close up, we are moving into a more feeling vision a more grappling kind of subjectivity, one closer to the optical field and the experiential vision of the other AbEx painters. But unlike the American Romantic he never lets go, he never shuts out the world in front of him. He must react to the subject, carry the subject into his transcended painting. The ground rises up to swallow our vision but De Kooning pushes us back into that very subject again and again. We feel the limb, the torso, the movement of the thigh, but we can’t really “see” it as we do with Picasso or Matisse. This vision has been abstracted into the stroke, the smear, the scumble – we feel the vision through our enhanced encounter. Rothko’s late works were all about the ground rising up and swallowing us into their blackness where we are no longer able to see, where all that was left was the experience of color. But De Kooning fought against this optical urge to dematerialize and submerge into the ground. He still needs the outward viewpoint – he is not interested in submerging, he is interested in grappling with his own visual understanding, his memory, his own flesh.
This is the beginning of a different kind of Romantic encounter, both visual and optical at once – transcendent and physical. It’s different than Postmodernism because it’s steeped in memory, in real world encounters with human experience. These works aren’t about media or about critique. Nor are they appropriations of second hand experience. They don’t rely on the physicality of materials or the primacy of surface and side. These works are about the passing of life, time, memory and vision – an older form of Romanticism, one connected to the primacy of individuating visual experience. It is vision that puts us up against another. It pulls optical abstraction through the flesh, it connects us visually to one another in a way that the “transcended” AbEx painters never could. Late De Kooning, for me, is brave work from an old man furiously hanging on to his memories, his touch and mostly, his vision. It is in these works that he became the quintessential American Romantic.
We’ll continue Romanticism…