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By Richard Shiff


The Montréal Review, September 2011


 "Between Sense and de Kooning" by Richard Shiff (Reaktion Books, 2011)


Even as he became a celebrity in the world of art, Willem de Kooning took pride in remaining an ordinary man, living (he liked to say) as he had when he was unknown and poor. He resisted the aesthetic and intellectual fashions of his era. He loathed being classified as either an abstractionist or a figure painter; he seemed to switch from one mode to the other repeatedly, always conceivably doing both. He claimed that artists lacked "bright ideas" and that a good painter was someone good at "painting things" -hardly a theory of art. To begin a painting, de Kooning's usual custom was to trace a form from an earlier work of his own: "You have to start somewhere," he remarked. How did he complete a work? "I just stop," he insisted.

Like de Kooning, I worry over classifying and conceptualizing. Words are generalities that lead far from the specificity of an artist's sensation. I grant de Kooning the benefit of his tendency to question and undermine elaborate formulations. I accept his "I just stop." The potentially irritating irony of this statement does not make it false. De Kooning could hardly be anything but ironical when speaking, yet entirely direct when painting. My study of his art is an attempt to preserve its sensory particularity and range, which might have been his own conscious aim, if he had allowed himself to have a "bright idea." I try to think as de Kooning thought, not with his mind but without a plan. The segments that constitute Between Sense and de Kooning have one-word designators but neither proper titles nor numbers; they are not chapters. Chapters would drive the thought into patterns of closure too orderly to suit de Kooning's art.

As I wrote Between Sense and de Kooning, I could not avoid feeling pressured by the critical indoctrination that has prevailed throughout the later decades of the twentieth century to the present time (at least within the academic subculture). We have become hypersensitive not to sensation but to mythologies of sensation; we all too readily expose the superficiality, the constructed spectacle, the mirage of sensation. We have learned to distrust our feelings more than to trust them. This intellectual environment leads me to be extraordinarily wary of many of the claims of the modern artists active during the decades preceding, which is the time of de Kooning. We demonize our immediate predecessors even as we idolize them. I now try to resist my own distrust.

My purpose in investigating de Kooning was to learn from his art through a combination of viewing it, considering its circumstances, considering its creator's circumstances, and writing an interpretation. I can learn from my acts of writing. Yet to attach words to this art is an uncertain exercise. It cannot be made more secure by exposing some presumed ideological error on de Kooning's part or a cultural failing reflected by his imagery (sexism or racism, for instance). De Kooning himself was as critically disposed as I am. To try to beat this culturally wary artist at his own critical game would become an indulgence in ego on my part, all too easy for the person who enters the hermeneutical loop at a later moment. De Kooning himself was a debunker by nature, not someone seeking cultural or historical glory. His interminable irony testifies to this. To the extent that I may seem to support his claims about himself and his art, to the extent that my writing may seem to take insufficient critical distance, a reader would have at least two choices. One: accept the possibility that direct sensation can be represented without undue reliance on cultural habit and convention, and that de Kooning performed this rather contradictory feat, for whatever it may be worth. Or, two: regard my account of de Kooning's actions as if this were no more than a historian's contextualization, the refiguring of past fantasies and intellectual constructs that we should now take pains to avoid rather than admire and emulate. The first alternative is to accept much of the account presented in Between Sense and de Kooning at face value. The second alternative is to view my interpretation at one remove from our present collective reality. Either way, it is the same account, with or without various degrees of ironic distance. I, too, am free to regard my presentation from a certain distance. The choice of interpretive direction reflects the reader's own cultural and ideological indoctrination, his or her intellectual and emotional habits. For each reader, there will be a point at which feeling departs from reason and reason from feeling, except for those who experience no divide at all. De Kooning was as close to a no-divider as it gets. This is one of the themes developed in my study.

I perceive sense, both reason and feeling, in de Kooning's practices and statements; but to articulate this sense requires interpretive effort. This would be so even for a situation far less problematic. Verbally, de Kooning often seems either contradictory or nonsensical. How willing are we to accept his abuse of reason for the sake of ineffable feeling? When he says "I just stop," the reasoning he offers to explain his practice is no reason at all. His painting is finished when it happens, he seems to say-not when complete or resolved, but when it happens, as it comes to pass that it stops. De Kooning stops; the painting stops. This is what ought to be called coincidence, asserting no causal relationship. Nevertheless, as I write a sentence of this kind-even when it lacks the implied conjunction and-the beginning or first segment appears to entail the end or second segment, one event following the other in the syntactical and spatial sequence of the words. The sentence makes sense. It has direction. The effect of entailment would be mitigated only by interrupting the syntactical order to introduce some ambivalent clausal byway, a subsidiary consideration. It might be that the painting ended at the instant it found its expression, the instant before de Kooning thought to stop. If every new painting is a disturbance within an established studio routine, then eventually each singular disturbance settles into this same routine. But the routine has changed. The painter stops, recognizing that conditions have just changed in some peculiar way-not that he has changed, but conditions have, though these conditions are changing him. If his stopping has a cause, the cause is his recognition that something has changed. Something has happened. This is not much of a cause, for things are always changing. Being conscious of change, sensing it, is a different matter. De Kooning was sensitive to such differences, but (like pieces of writing without a plan) they failed, at least for him, to sum up to progress. He associated difference with sameness, not with progression or advance.

De Kooning regarded logical entailment of any sort as bondage: "Order, to me, is to be ordered about." He had an odd way of talking, as if he were dodging the control of his own order of syntax. An interview conducted in 1971 by his friend, critic Harold Rosenberg, begins with the somewhat redundant statement, "I am an eclectic painter by chance." The elaboration immediately following this opening indicates that de Kooning practices his eclecticism in an unsystematic fashion. He is not making a point of using eclecticism as a theory or method-he is not a member of the Eclectic School-nor is he claiming that he became eclectic because of a fateful event beyond his control. No, he seems to be eclectic by default. He simply accepts what chance puts before him, and the results are mixed. His sentence, even though explained by the discursive context, lingers in the mind as somehow improper. As a painter, he did not want to be the servant of his own method or style, just as a writer might balk at being held to the customary rules of a genre or even a well-formed sentence.

De Kooning preferred to doubt rules and reasons and to accept feelings. He would be reluctant to admit that he might set about to do something and that when he had done it, it would truly be done. How would he know? A moment later he might decide the matter otherwise. "I never was interested how to make a good painting," he told critic David Sylvester in 1960: "I was interested in that before but I found out it was not my nature." The slight contradiction here ("never," and yet "before") probably marks a distinction between de Kooning's years of artistic maturity and a period of youthful desire that preceded, when he aspired to master reliable standards. "Good painting" is standard, orderly. But the only order toward completion that the mature de Koonnig knew was, "I just stop." To think as de Kooning did, we should not ask why.

Hardly a religious man, de Kooning sometimes invoked God as a way of defining his own human condition. He used to say, "Only God doesn't have to believe in himself." Such a statement has no secure meaning; I can only guess at its intention. Any interpretation, of course, hinges on the experience of the interpreter. For me, de Kooning's remark recalls Heinrich von Kleist's comment ("On the Puppet Theatre," 1810) concerning the production of aesthetic beauty and grace: "Only a god, on this field of contest, could prove a match for matter." Matter, the forces and stuff of nature, has its way of finding its condition of beauty. To tinker with matter and be certain of the outcome, one had better be a god. The combination of man and matter, the action of an artist who shapes materials, produces a more problematic situation than matter left to its own devices or matter left to a god, or to the gods, or to God.

De Kooning had to "believe in himself" because he was not God. He needed belief to compensate for the strength of his doubt: he could never know which of his creative actions might lead to a desirable result. Not a desired result but a desirable one, because he had no end in view-success was to be pleased with the point he had reached, after he reached it. De Kooning was skilled at his methods; but they, in turn, were inherently uncertain. To be certain, he would have needed to rely on proven habits of procedure. But had his procedure been entirely predictable, he would have lost his element of spontaneity and with it the grace of his art, a kind of divine chance. Given the circumstances de Kooning acknowledged, because his art had no cause-no justification either in the past or in the future-he was left to believe in himself. He was the cause of himself. "Artists themselves have no past. They just get older." This was his comment in 1982, his seventy-eighth year. With nothing determining him and nothing to live up to, no goal to meet, de Kooning was free to let his art happen, come what may. When he was dissatisfied with his results, the situation was not a deterrent but that much more of a stimulus to continue. Between Sense and de Kooning traces a long series of remarkable works of art that have no sense, no direction, yet constitute a single sense, a feeling.


Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at The University of Texas at Austin. His other books include Cézanne and the End of Impressionism, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, and, most recently, Doubt in the series Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts.



SEPTEMBER 18, 2011 - JANUARY 9, 2012

Willem de Kooning. Pink Angels. c. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 x 40" (132.1 x 101.6 cm). Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This is the first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning. The exhibition, which will only be seen at MoMA, presents an unparalleled opportunity to study the artist's development over nearly seven decades, beginning with his early academic works, made in Holland before he moved to the United States in 1926, and concluding with his final, sparely abstract paintings of the late 1980s. Bringing together nearly 200 works from public and private collections, the exhibition will occupy the Museum's entire sixth-floor gallery space, totaling approximately 17,000 square feet... | more |


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