Unreal Nature

April 27, 2015

Style Is a Fraud

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… “I came across the phrase ‘To be purified is to will one thing.’ It made me sick.”

This is from the essay ‘Space to Paint’ by John Elderfield in the exhibition-accompanying book, De Kooning: a Retrospective (2011):

… the painter and critic Lawrence Gowing observed, originality often gets caught in “a history of inveterate misunderstanding.” Gowing was thinking of Paul Cézanne, and of how the modernist history of increasingly refined abstraction that artists, critics, and art historians constructed after Cézanne’s example would have been unacceptable to that nineteenth-century painter. For de Kooning, that same history, which preceded him, was unacceptably confining: and its continuing influence has impeded appreciation of his own originality.

De Kooning reluctantly accepted being called an Abstract Expressionist, saying, “you are with a group or movement because you cannot help it.” In fact he became the most celebrated and influential of all of them, especially during the half-decade after Jackson Pollock’s death, in 1956. In the early 1960s, though, an adjustment occurred: Pollock’s paintings, together with Barnett Newman’s, Mark Rothko’s, and Clyfford Still’s seemed to speak more articulately to the interests of materiality and the nonrelational, stripped of imagery, in the new, Minimalist art. There is truth in the frequent observation that de Kooning’s canvases, especially his Woman paintings, do not hang well on gallery walls with works by such Abstract Expressionists. (This has long posed problems at the Museum of Modern Art.) The conclusion sometimes drawn from this observation, however, is improperly disadvantaging: that his paintings are lesser because they do not fit easily with those works thought to maintain a history of increasingly refined abstraction.

Nonconformity has its advantages. Owing to their unexpectedness, de Kooning’s canvases can appear less firmly attached than those of his contemporaries to the historical moment of their creation, and therefore more present and immediate to us many decades after they were made. Still, it will not do to take them from the race of their time — de Kooning’s virtues were far from fugitive and cloistered, being shaped and having flourished within the public critical climate of mid-twentieth-century modernism in New York. “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself,” he said in 1959. “It’s not self-evident. It needs a history. It needs a lot of talking about … It is part of a whole man’s life.”

de Kooning, after telling us that “in art, one idea is as good as another,” gives a brief catalogue of trembling — Michelangelo, who “starts to tremble,” down to Cézanne, who “was always trembling but very precisely” — and then devoted the middle of his talk to the tyranny of an art with one idea: “Art should not have to be a certain way.” “Style is a fraud. I always felt that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns. It was a horrible idea of [Theo] van Doesburg and [Piet] Mondrian to try to force a style.” “To desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.”

… So-called “allover” painting with its weight of incident more or less evenly distributed across the surface, looks backward to early modernist perceptual painting — to the modular uniformity of Impressionism and Analytical Cubism — and forward to post-Abstract Expressionist, Minimalist painting of literal flatness, painting that, having become all “outside,” all “plane surface,” is truly without any “inside.” Poised in the middle of this modernist history, de Kooning, I believe, found it confining in its continuing utopianism — its cultural dream of a coherently bounded “one-ness” (witness the titles of critical paintings, Pollock’s One [1950] and Newman’s Onement [1948], part primal, a prelapsarian fantasy of art “before” or “beyond” figuration, and part modern American, a political fantasy …

… “I was reading Kierkegaard,” the artist recalled, “and I came across the phrase ‘To be purified is to will one thing.’ It made me sick.” No purity means no oneness. But de Kooning’s will to impurity, to many things rather than one — which is to say, to something incomplete in its unification — was not a doctrine either; it was simply that the “desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety,” and better to make a picture that trembles with anxiety than one that is static because stylistically pure.

-Julie

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