De Kooning: An American Master
by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Knopf
By the middle of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's biography of Willem de Kooning, the artist's life is a mess. He wakes every day to the shreds of his marriage, to his utterly unrecognized career as a painter, to a dingy tenement studio, and to pockets so empty he's reduced to scarfing down food in a cafeteria line hoping not to be noticed by the cashier. It was the late 1940s and the New York art world had fallen on hard times too, trapped in the wake of European modernism and still seeking an American audience or idiom. It was a moment of such despair and desperation that, according to Stevens and Swan, the whole scene was permeated by "an attitude best described as fuck it"--or "the fuck it," as they term it elsewhere. The fuck it was personal and cultural: it was a loosening of the strictures that had kept American artists in a rut. It summed up a different attitude--one that didn't treat art as "high-flown or precious." Jackson Pollock was the master of the fuck it, and de Kooning, unable to afford oil paints, "adopted an elegantly fuck it solution" to the problem by using commercial enamel paint instead. Two pages of the masterful De Kooning: An American Master is devoted to the fuck it, the crucial hinge between the wane of surrealism and the birth of abstract expressionism.
Now, there has to be a better way to describe this moment without resorting to the language of a high school boy who's discovered his girlfriend made out with some other guy at a party. Or does there? Throughout De Kooning--a comprehensive, dazzling study of both an enigmatic, fascinating man and a period of seismic cultural shifts--the authors run up against the intractable problem of how to chronicle a solitary, intuitive process guided by priorities and struggles that don't lend themselves easily to words.
De Kooning's life story is a biographer's dream, full of tragedy, triumph, and salacious, page-turning detail. The son of a nagging brute of a mother, he fled the working-class gloom of Rotterdam for New York (via Hoboken) when he was 22. He was broke for decades yet died a millionaire. He devoted himself to a difficult, lonely career and ultimately came out on top. He was a notorious womanizer who used different doorbell codes to keep track of the flow of dames coming in and out of his apartment. Frantically in love with Elaine Fried, de Kooning married her in 1943. Though they led separate lives, with separate lovers, they could never quite get divorced, and in de Kooning's 11th hour she returned to care for him until he died--though some claim she did so only to position herself well for the disposition of his estate. He was an alcoholic who spent the last decade of his life in a state of increasing dementia while opportunists went through his garbage looking for discarded drawings.
Stevens and Swan have taken full advantage of the richness of de Kooning's tale. Their enthusiastic, fastidious portrayal of the "American master" is unflinching yet sympathetic. Their language is clever and mellifluous: Franz Kline is described as possessing a "barfly affability"; de Kooning experimented with a "spun sugar palette" that was later keyed up "to the shrieking point"; the scenes created by the de Koonings' various infidelities are characterized as "door-pounding embarrassments." And, crucially, they succeed where many other biographers of artists have failed: their readings of de Kooning's work fit seamlessly into their chronicle, never overwrought or overreaching, intelligently speculative, and meticulously attentive to the paintings in question while simultaneously illuminating the analysis of contemporary critics such as Clement Greenberg.
Into all this erudition, however, comes the fuck it. Stevens and Swan's lack of vocabulary for that moment--or at least the lack of a more elegant one--is emblematic of the basic problem of writing the biography of a visual artist. Writers apparently love to write about writing; they produce volumes about the creative process in general and their practice in particular, and there are countless books devoted to the topic of writers on their craft. Virginia Woolf wrote so much in her journals about her writing that her husband, Leonard, eventually created A Writer's Diary out of them, allowing readers direct access to her inner life. Painters, however, rarely talk about their process.
After de Kooning finished the magnificent Excavation (now housed at the Art Institute), it took him three years to complete another painting. That's not so surprising--all artists fall fallow or need time, after a major creative outburst, to recharge. What is surprising about de Kooning's three-year disappearance is that he was working the whole time, with the same obsessive intensity as ever. And he was working, essentially, on one painting: Woman I, the first of the infamous "Woman" series.
For de Kooning, Woman I was an endless nightmare. He grew so angry with the work that, according to Stevens and Swan, at one point he "ripped [it] off the frame and left it in the hallway by his door, with a stack of old cardboard and odds and ends of wood." But while that might explain what happened to the physical object, bitterly rejected there at the end of the hall, we are no closer to understanding what would compel de Kooning to spend three years on one painting or why he would decide it was a hopeless failure. Stevens and Swan attribute his breakthrough with Woman I--which, when completed in 1952, marked a radical shift in his work back toward figurative painting--to an afternoon visit from the distinguished art historian Meyer Schapiro, but that revelation somehow makes the process even more mysterious. Meyer Schapiro saves Woman I! Three years of anguish end over a cup of coffee!
Stevens and Swan heroically attempt to describe the creation of Woman I, but those three years remain elusive, as do much of the inner workings of de Kooning's mind. All of the contextual detail, description, lyrical interpretations, lectures, articles, and chronicles of conversations marshaled by the authors--none of it quite gets to the core. The fortress of fact protects the empty throne. And how can it be otherwise, when de Kooning offered so little about what drove him? Privately, he was quite expansive about himself, but not his art. To his sister he wrote, "I think that a lot of creative people never grow up. I am certain that a real man wouldn't paint any pictures! Or wonder about the universe. Or believe in dreams. Or think that trees sometimes look at him."
In public, however, he was less forthcoming. Asked to speak at the Museum of Modern Art on the topic "What Abstract Art Means to Me," he offered, in part, that it was the "talking that has put 'Art' into painting. Nothing is positive about art except that it is a word." By this he meant, according to Stevens and Swan, that he "thought the word 'abstract' belonged to the people who conversed about art, those more interested in philosophy, politics, and art history rather than in painting." Distancing himself even further from painting steeped in "talk," he said, in the same lecture, that "I know there is a terrific idea there somewhere, but whenever I want to get into it, I get a feeling of apathy and want to lie down and go to sleep."
Well, fuck it.
The authors circle around de Kooning's madness and method, getting impressively close to an artist who wasn't much for explaining himself. But even though they tell us what he ate and drank on particular occasions, where he went and with whom, how he lived and what he wore, we still have to wonder what he thought as he sat in front of those easels for most of the days of his life.
De Kooning: An American Master is a marvelous achievement, but in the end it sustains and enhances the view that artists, particularly visual artists, walk among us but operate with an ultimately inaccessible interior. As de Kooning once described himself, "I'm in my element when I am a little bit out of this world: then I'm in the real world--I'm on the beam. Because when I'm falling, I'm doing all right; when I'm slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It's when I'm standing upright that bothers me: I'm not doing so good; I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser."