Unreal Nature

April 4, 2017

The Hazard That Has Been Left to You

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:29 am

… I just wipe it over with a rag or use a brush or rub it with something or anything or throw turpentine and paint and everything else onto the thing to try to break the willed articulation of the image, so that the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously …

This is from ‘De Kooning I’ (1993) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… As a theorist — except that he is deliberately not so much a theorist as a diarist — de Kooning is independent and cutting. For instance: “The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.”

The great charm of his utterances is twofold. They have the rare merit among artists’ statements of not being a means to sell his work to himself: they do not seek to give it an ideal shape. And they have a highly sophisticated way of subverting received ideas as if from simple-mindedness: “At one time it was very daring to make a figure red or blue. I think now that it is just as daring to make it flesh-colored.”

There is a strong central message in his utterances. It’s that all the theoretical prescriptions entailing exclusiveness are absurd: “Art should not have to be a certain way”; and, on painting a figure, “I really think it’s sort of silly to do it. But the moment you take this attitude it’s just as silly not to do it.”

De Kooning is pluralistic: his origins are extremely mixed and his heirs have all sorts of direct and indirect relationships to him. To change the metaphor, de Kooning sits there in the middle of the map of this century’s art like a great railway junction: lines arriving from various points above converge there; lines depart from there to spread out in various directions below.

… In terms of working methods, de Kooning, Giacometti, and Bacon were improvisers whose gestures tended to be rapid but who worked repeatedly on pieces in an attempt to take them further and were still rarely satisfied with what they did. They had tremendous problems about knowing when a work was finished and often remained uncertain after it had left the studio, and photographic records of successive states of certain pieces often show that they had been better in an earlier state or states.

[line break added] In consequence, a great deal of work was destroyed. I am not talking about Giacometti’s repeated destruction of his sculptures as he brought them into being in plaster or clay: there were some sculptures he did destroy once and for all, but mostly he was simply beginning again, as all three artists did with their paintings, sometimes after removing existing paint, sometimes obliterating paint with paint.

[line break added] The effective destruction was what happened to paintings by all of them as a result of repeating those processes too often. This could mean totally losing precisely those paintings in which they got most involved. As Bacon put it, “I think I tend to destroy the better paintings, or those that have been better to a certain extent. I try and take them further, and they lose all their qualities, and they lose everything.”

Bacon’s deliberate courting of risk was, of course, close to the mystique of the action painters, as was his cult of openness, the idea that anything could happen, anything could result from the interaction between the artist’s behavior with the paint, in all its unexpectedness, and the behavior of the paint itself, in all its unexpectedness. As Franz Kline put it: “Paint never seems to behave the same — even the same paint, you know.”

[line break added] Each situation in the duet between painter and paint was to be met and dealt with as it came along, and the painters’ hope was that they would not impose their will upon the situation but collaborate in the emergence of something with a life of its own. In Bacon’s case, however, as in de Kooning’s there was an insistence that life must also be an equivalent for sensory experience of reality.

“Surely this is the cause of the difficulty of painting today — that it will only catch the mystery of reality if the painter doesn’t know how to do it …

“If anything ever does work in my case, it works from that moment when consciously I don’t know what I’m doing …

“You see, you don’t know how the hopelessness in one’s working will make one just take paint and just do almost anything to get out of the formula of making a kind of illustrative image — I mean, I just wipe it over with a rag or use a brush or rub it with something or anything or throw turpentine and paint and everything else onto the thing to try to break the willed articulation of the image, so that the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its own structure, and not my structure. Afterwards, your sense of what you want comes into play, so that you begin to work on the hazard that has been left to you on the canvas. And out of all that, possibly, a more organic image arises than if it was a willed image.” [Francis Bacon]

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.

-Julie

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