Unreal Nature

April 11, 2017

Soft Surfaces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… It invites us into it, yields itself up, envelops us, makes us part of it.

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

Woman I is not meant to be a resolved work, as Mark Stevens has emphasized: “Modernists had long appreciated the open-ended quality of unfinished art. The purposefully not-finished, however, is not the same thing as the unfinished. Woman I was not unresolved out of indecision or weakness, but out of strength: it was left to its imperfections by the aggressive decision of a great artist, in order to increase the work’s disruptive, expressive power. In the rapid succession of Woman paintings that followed, de Kooning was becoming more interested in loosening the compositional joints of painting than in bringing them together.”

Willem de Kooning, Woman I

Woman I could be compared to certain of Monet’s façades of Rouen Cathedral. (I am not bringing in Monet because I think he has any special relevance to de Kooning but to exemplify a way of handling pictorial space.) The rectangle of the canvas is filled with highly charged brushmarks presenting a certain amount of tonal variation but little emphatic contrast; the rectangle of the image is almost entirely filled by the mass of the compact motif. Between this and ourselves there is a very limited space into which we can move before we come up against the looming wall which has certain shallow recesses but nonetheless confronts us with an impenetrable barrier which there is no way through and no way round.

[By contrast] In a typical Monet of the following decade, one of the Water Gardens, with the motif, a pond and the sky reflected in it, inevitably filling the rectangle of the canvas, the space before us offers no resistance. It invites us into it, yields itself up, envelops us, makes us part of it. An analogous enveloping space appears in de Kooning’s Women of the decade after that of Woman I. In, for example, Woman in Landscape III of 1968 we too are in the landscape, in it, not looking at it, and we are enveloped, moreover, not only by the landscape but by the figure of the woman.

[line break added] (This receptivity of the space, as with the Monet, is achieved without any sacrifice of the integrity of the picture-plane.) All this is typical of de Kooning’s later paintings of Women, paintings which, by the way, are usually much warmer in palette, as in, say Amityville of 1971. There was a vivid sentence about them by Marla Prather in a wall notice at the Washington showing of the current exhibition. “At times the figure seems virtually formless, engulfed by the wet, slippery medium of oil paint de Kooning has developed.”

I take this to be a metaphor as well as a description. These close-ups of the female body are marvelous in their evocation of soft surfaces and entrances and liquid desires, their intimation of fusion, tender and violent, with another body. Their meaning is not at all elusive or ambiguous, and what they so palpably signify throws light on the problem of the unconscious meanings of Woman I. Seen in that light, Woman I can only be what Elaine de Kooning famously said it was. “That ferocious woman he painted didn’t come from living with me. It began when he was three years old.”

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




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