… Author of several of the great masterpieces of modern art — and to no other artist of his era is the honorific “master,” in both its artisanal and paradigm-setting sense, better suited — de Kooning nevertheless regarded his “minorpieces” and outright failures as of almost equal importance. With the works of his final years above all, we should do the same, for we have never before seen their like.
The story of how they came into being is complicated in detail but simple in essence. It is a melancholy and, occasionally, a distressing one as well. The purpose in telling it is not to add to the legends associated with artists of his generation– legends that have tended to obscure their work and caricature their natures in the minds of the general public and specialists alike. Instead, the reasons for the narrative analysis that follows are twofold. The first is to dispel the ill-informed speculation that has tainted the authenticity of these paintings and so endangers the artist’s reputation as a whole.
[line break added] The second is to describe the actual conditions and profoundly human constraints under which de Kooning worked during the 1980s so that those approaching the paintings, rather than being distracted by what they don’t know about them, can be freed by what they do know to lose themselves, eyes and mind open, in the brilliant undulating space de Kooning suffused with his ultimate energy and into which he then disappeared.
… As delighted as those surrounding de Kooning were to see the new work when it came, no one in 1979 and 1980 had anticipated the quantity of paintings or the evolutionary changes they entailed.
… all who closely watched the change in momentum occur agree on its basic causes. “By then,” [studio assistant Tom] Ferrara believes, “he’d made a conscious decision to be less self-critical, to err on the side of underworking rather than overworking [as he tended to do during the 1940s and 1950s]. He was trying to simplify, to concentrate on something he was best at, which is drawing. He had a warm, a cool, and a white. He knew his days were dwindling and he was propelled. He was not struggling. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. He was just doing. It became like breathing. He just breathed them out.”
… Whether expressed as solicitude or apologetic disparagement, the critical overcompensation for age frequently shown these paintings derives, I think, less from their appearance than from the way they disturb the composite mental picture many people have of the New York School of the 1940s and 1950s. Abstract Expressionism, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, was not a country for old men. As things turned out, in fact, relatively few of de Kooning’s generation reached that status. Hard living took its toll early …
… in surveying the turgid mass of average 1980s painting, one is forced to conclude that the future of the art form rested at least as much with the old hands as with a rising vanguard that too often contented itself with acts of appropriation that recycled the images and mannerisms of its predecessors.
Setting the terms of this intergenerational relationship, Guston’s artistic transformation from Abstract Expressionist prince to Neo-Expressionist frog not only laid the groundwork for younger artists working in similarly bold, iconic modes but placed him — despite obvious differences of motive and experience — in a forward position among their ranks that would have made any falsely “hip” move on his part look ridiculous and any unearned old-masterisms on their immediately detectable.
[line break added] His activity reinforced theirs and vice versa, making him in this period of aesthetic transition the artistic peer, not the parent, of Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, and their contemporaries. If you wanted to know what a brush could do, how forms reacted to pressure, or how it felt to be alive at that time, you could look at Guston, just as you would artists thirty or forty years his junior, and be assured that the answer forthcoming was in the present tense. Although he died in the first year of the decade, Guston’s late work is as much a part of “The Eighties” as it is a chapter in either his own unfolding story or that of his exact coevals.
De Kooning’s canvases of the 1980s are “Eighties” paintings by the same token. The difficulties he posed and the license he gave himself set a mark by which others then active can be measured. In scanning the thinly apportioned webbing of Brice Marden’s mid-1980s to mid-1990s canvases, for example, one inevitably thinks of de Kooning’s discursive tracery.
[line break added] Conversely, the raked color sediments of Gerhard Richter’s recent abstractions flash in the mind as one scrutinizes the scraped-down layers of de Kooning’s palette-knife drawn pictures from 1980 to 1982. Stylistic debts or coincidences are of less interest in this regard than decisiveness and freshness of effect. While he plainly could not match the strenuous exertions of those who gave “The Eighties” its period look, de Kooning did not need to make his presence felt.
[line break added] Instead, he could occupy a place on the scene much like the one Merce Cunningham, in recent years, has assumed amidst those performing the choreography he once danced full tilt. Shuffling through the racing flurry of younger bodies, Cunningham now arrives on stage, plants his painfully arthritic feet squarely on the floor, and extends his arms in stop-start motions of such space-shaping precision and emotional eloquence that the movements of the finely trained chorus around him may seem, by comparison, cramped and jerky.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled VI, 1983
… The de Kooning of anguished uncertainties is but one dimension of the painter’s complex and evolving character. The de Kooning who suffered and aged but succeeded in creating images of an almost disembodied beauty is another. Looking forward to these paintings from those of his youth and maturity, there is much to be learned. Looking back from them to his earlier, more celebrated work should, in time, correct the myth-restricted perspective long imposed upon it. Looking at them as a self-sufficient group, they reveal a formal and emotional scope that is astounding.
[line break added] Lastly, looking at them one by one, they provoke a bright mortal vertigo that only an artist of rigorous talent could have brought back from the edge to show us — and that only de Kooning has done thus far. In the end, therefore, it is not just identification with or compassion for the man that compels our attention, though as we watch him approach the final days of his creative existence such feelings play a justly greater part in our appreciation of his work. It is what he saw in the evanescent light and what he made of it that matters most.