Compressed abstract expressionism: Willem de Kooning’s painting


It is not new that much of what was characterized as the language of modern art consisted of a journey towards abstraction. If it is the impressionists who make the break with the linear perspective and the cubists the first to decompose the figure, for many, it followed with the abstract expressionists that the whole connection between the painted image and figures of the concrete world was separated. Evidently, this is a simplified way of looking at the construction of a modernist meta-narrative; after all, historical vanguards of the order of Dada and Surrealism are ignored. However, I assume that simplifications of this nature have not been engineered only in the sphere of modernism as a whole, but even when referring to certain artists who made up these avant-garde groups.


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) is a famous Dutch painter who had great worldwide success mainly due to his connection with the American abstract expressionists. It is resolute that the interests of this group of painters were fundamentally linked to the modernist narrative constructed by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who believed in a direction of modern art in questioning its own means of execution.

For Greenberg, the different forms of art (painting, sculpture, etc.) were always interconnected, so as not to develop autonomy between them. In this sense, the central objective of modern art would be to move towards complete autonomy for each art. If for Greenberg, painting had, until then, been indispensably founded on the primacy of the theme (characteristic of literature), modernism would move towards the redirection of painting in an orientation to the primacy of form and planarity. Based almost on easy essentialism, Greenberg fraternally guides a good part of the formal research of painters called “abstract expressionists”.

The great icon of the American group was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Hailed by Greenberg as “the best painter in America”, Pollock’s paintings would represent the heyday of Greenbergian modernism. Being able to compose an abstract painting that comes close to a gestural portrait, Greenberg will not be the only critic to see Pollock as a genius. The critic Harold Rosenberg will refuse the name “abstract expressionism” for this type of painting. Partly inspired by Pollock, Rosenberg gives the style the name of action painting (commonly translated as “gestural painting”, “gesturalism” or “action painting”). And there is no doubt that Pollock’s painting is genuinely capable of expressing the painter’s gesture on canvas. With his way of painting harshly, throwing paint over the canvases on the floor (painting technique that became known as drip painting), Pollock strictly follows Rosenberg’s premise regarding the transformation of the canvas into an “arena in which one acts”.

Anyway, it seems to me that it is in de Kooning that, for the first time, the canvas shows itself capable of being transformed into a gestural arena, although figurative, different from what Greenberg and Rosenberg thought. As Paulo Pasta once stated, an artist is not abstract when he paints looking at physical objects: and, although recognized as one of the main abstract expressionists, looking at objects when the painting was a recurring attitude of de Kooning when painting.

Woman Ochre

Woman Ochre

In his famous series of female portraits Woman (“Mulheres”), of the fifties, his synthetic, crude and violent line reveals the spontaneity and expressiveness of his artistic impulse. The great peculiarity definitely consists of, in spite of having the canvas transformed into an arena, de Kooning often has the composition of a figure as a motive. What seems abstract to a careless first look, in view of the artist’s ability to formulate a lyrical decomposition not far from the level generated by cubists at the beginning of his analytical period (I consider de Kooning’s women even more figurative in relation to cubists ), it does not take long to be perceived as a figure. If Picasso, in his “Girl with Mandolin” (1910), decomposes the figure in order to require a few seconds for the viewer to have all parts of the girl fully understood, de Kooning does the same in his “Woman-Ocher” (1955) ).

In fact, what is usually called abstract in de Kooning’s painting seems to be figurative. Otherwise, there is no reason to refuse that cubist painting from the analytical period could not also be hailed as abstract. That is, because of a material phenomenon, it is not possible to take the artist’s painting as abstract.

Finally, turning to the initial argument of the text, I clarify that, while recognizing the importance of certain simplifications, I am convinced that many of them were excessive. To call Kooning abstract seems to me unreasonable. Upon entering the artist’s studio, Pollock once questioned Kooning as to why the Dutchman was unable to deviate completely from the figurative. In other words, Pollock asked why de Kooning was unable to become completely abstract.

If the mistake does not lie in the theoretical simplification related to the foundation of these avant-garde movements, the mistake must be in the simplification of what was taken as figurative and abstract. If I am still lucid, the presence of a female (or at least human) figure in Woman I (1950-52) seems evident. Once again, I emphasize that, within their limits, simplifications are understandable and even important. However, if we took analytic cubism as an abstract movement, would it still be possible to attribute to Kandinsky a precursor character to abstraction? The consequences of certain carelessness seem to me to be tremendous. Compressing things to the point of oversimplifying will always be dangerous. Despite being considered a pioneer of abstract expressionism, I cannot see de Kooning as an abstract painter.

Source: Carta Campinas/ Gabriel San Martin

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