7. Endless Beginnings

The exact ratios are unknown, but combine benzene, linseed oil, and water. (You can also substitute kerosene for the benzene). Using a whisk, beat the mixture into an emulsion – the whisk is never indicated, but how else would you get the foam, which contributes so much to the desired effect? At some point you can add a quantity of spackle, presumably to give the whole thing more body, and then your oil colors. The resulting concoction was an example of what the artist called his “cookery,” but he wasn’t making salad dressing, you can be sure of that.

Willem de Kooning’s chemical experiments, driven by his stubborn demand for a liquid, brush-able, but slow-drying painting medium, took him to extremes, something that conservators warned him against even during his working life. And they were right; many of his most famous paintings are in bad shape today. His cookery was prompted by the epic periods of time he would take to complete a painting. The working, scraping back, and re-working of the landmark canvas “Excavation” (1950), for example, famously went on for months. Often, the home-brews weren’t enough, and physical interventions were called for: the artist would lay sheets of newspaper on the surface of the paintings to keep them wet overnight, then peel the coverings off the next day, leaving both impressions of printer’s ink on the wet paint and default monotypes on the newspaper.

All of this, and many other fascinating aspects of studio practice, are detailed in the commanding biography de Kooning, an American Master (2004) by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

Book
The deep-dive

An insight into the reasoning behind de Kooning’s sometimes crazy process is revealed by an account they give of his only stint as a painting instructor. It was at Black Mountain College, the summer of 1948. One of the students present for his first class tells the story:

“Finally this little Dutchman comes in, says how do you do, and starts setting up a still-life. He spent about two hours setting up this simple, simple little still-life. Backing up and looking through the window of his hands seeing how it was, changing it a little bit, finally we were wondering what he was doing. Not talking much. Finally he stops and finishes it and looks around and he says, ‘Vell, ve’re going to spend all summer looking at this ting. On one piece of paper or one canvas and we’re going to look at it until we get it exactly the way it is. Then we’re going to keep working on it until we kill it. And then we’re going to keep working on it until it comes back on its own.”

The anecdote came to mind a few weeks ago when I was thinking about that phase in their work that direct painters call “the start” (It’s in blog entry # 4: “Start, then stop”). Nothing could seem simpler: you want to make a painting, so you start. And yet, nothing is more complicated: you want to make a painting, but where do you start? I think that vexedness was exactly what de Kooning seized upon. In different ways, so much of the work in his 50 year career feels to me like he was hunting for a way to stretch out that initial moment, to create an endless beginning, even if that meant killing the painting only so you could begin it again – after all, what better start could there be than a resurrection?

But this was never just a matter of starting a painting, and then walking away. Consider pictures from three different periods in his career:

 

The Springs
Morning: The Springs, 1983 (detail)

This work is about prolonging the initial moment, extending it, making it last. This is why de Kooning needed paint that didn’t dry. His starts were not instantaneous, they were enduring – and operatic. In the words of his biographers: “Every painting seemed about to become another painting, and de Kooning actually created them through a literal process of metamorphosis.” Which raises the question: is there a difference between a painting that seems to be continually engrossed with its own metamorphosis, it’s own potentiality, and a painting that is simply unfinished? “Non-finito” – the art historical term for unfinished work – is a venerable idea; the principle goes back to the ancient Romans, and was notably revisited by Michaelangelo, who often left his work intentionally incomplete. But it was also a familiar idea to Modernists who appreciated the way a loose, sketchy style could bring welcome freshness to an image. Think of Matisse.

Nevertheless, I think a fascination with the start of things is very different from leaving work unfinished. Prolonging the start is not about putting off closure. It’s about stoking hunger – the hunger to drive forward, to move, to keep going. That’s the very principle of creativity: to make, to invent, to cut fresh furrows. With a painter like de Kooning, you witness creativity not by its products or outcomes or effects. You witness creativity as a force; the restless, uncomfortable, disruptive force of new beginnings. There is certainly something beautiful in that condition, but  a state of continual upheaval, continual disturbance is also deeply unsettling. It brings you to the very rawness of being itself, as described by the Existentialist philosophers that de Kooning admired.

We think of the post-war America that painters like him inhabited as an optimistic place, flush with having defeated fascism, riding a wave of progress and economic opportunity. But change like that also brings uncertainty. And anxiety: fear is a close companion of exhilaration. For all their volcanic energy and enthusiasm, birth in a painting by de Kooning is always pressed up against dread.

 *

This sequence of entries on the question of “the start” in painting began with blog entry #4: “Start, then stop,” but was interrupted by the arrival in Los Angeles of the global pandemic that has forced all of us to shelter at home. For me, this time has meant learning how to move an MFA seminar class to an online format in mid-stride – fast. But it has also meant spending time with some favorite books, including the de Kooning biography I mention here.

That book appeared in 2004 to great acclaim, and for good reason: its majestic sweep, its unflinching look at a specific social world, it’s exhaustive research. But one thing that went unmentioned by admirers was how well the book also serves as a corrective, particularly for a generation that knows Modernism primarily as that which post-Modernism came along to rebuke. The unflinching part of this biography covers the stuff that really does merit rebuking: the chauvinism, the arrogance, the eventual excess.

But the posture of postmodern critiques can also become pat and self-serving. Being an avant-garde artist in the New York of the 1930s and 40s involved challenges many of us in today’s artworld would probably never accept: Grinding poverty. Real marginality. A totally precarious existence. These artists were real counter-culturalists, and they paid a price for it. Yes, there were problems – terrible sexism, for example. But there were also very important, strong-willed women in the community – and they were players. History has not been considerate of the part they played, but in this biography they are included.

Artists of the New York School were also intellectual and politically aware. That doesn’t always factor into the image of them that many young artists get in our MFA programs, or even the image you might get from the “grand narrative” art history books. To understand both their faults and their achievements, and to value what they contributed to the artworld we inherited, you have to do some time-travelling and go back to the New York City they lived in: the one that was not air-conditioned in the relentlessly humid East Coast summers, where beer was watered-down by prohibitionists, where if a woman opted for an illegal abortion, she might be left bleeding for months and months and months, with nowhere to turn for help, where people of color were segregated and invisible, where there were no university programs to guide you into the artworld, where the hang-outs really were dumps (until a younger generation made that dumpiness chic). I am pulling these vignettes from the book itself, which fully elaborates on all of them. The commentary on the paintings is fantastic, but the evocation of the social milieu is no less arresting.

It’s certainly possible to appreciate this art without knowing any of this background. But it will change your perspective if you do understand the world an artist like Bill de Kooning inhabited. This book takes you there.

Just don’t try any of his recipes.

 

 

 

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