Willem de KooningNo painting style has ever been the butt of more jokes than Abstract Expressionism. One might liken it to the Rodney Dangerfield of art history. It don't get no respect. Ageing Abstract Expressionists of the time might today adjust Dangerfield's opening line, "I'm all right now but fifty years ago, man, I was in baaadd shape." While artists like Pollock, Kline, Hoffman, Baziotes, Gorky, Rothko, Tomlin, Motherwell, Reinhardt, and de Kooning struggled mightily to give birth to a form of painting that was distinctly American as opposed to the derivative styles that had been imported from Europe for over two hundred years, the rest of the country laughed at their work. Cartoons appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look deriding it. The conservative Readers' Digest continued to use figurative art on its cover, and to this day has never embraced Abstraction.
But Abstraction Expressionism had a legitimate birth. It grew out of the Surrealist work of Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, and others in the 1930s and came into full bloom after the Second World War as Gorky, de Kooning, Rothko and other European painters who had fled Europe before the war, decided to remain in this country and push the boundaries of Surrealism to new limits. In so doing, their work became far more gestural than anything ever seen before on either side of the Atlantic did. And somewhat to their surprise, this effort came to be labelled by critics as something altogether new--Abstract Expressionism. More than any other, the work of Willem de Kooning probably epitomises how this movement came to be visualised by most Americans. His 1950-52 Woman, 1, with its garish, horrifying face and massive breasts was just barely figurative enough for the public to grasp and yet ugly enough for them to hate.
De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1904. It was there he attended crafts school and then a traditional art academy. He was influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theodore van Doesburg, as well as Picasso's Cubism. Woman, 1 looks like it was painted one night in a wild, drunken frenzy by a woman-hating, crazed madman. No doubt many, like myself, in seeing it for the first time, visualise just such a scenario. In fact, it was anything but spontaneous. Though he didn't work on it daily, it took two full years to complete, going through constant, one might say almost endless, revisions. Near the end, de Kooning even went so far as to discard it. Then, weeks later, he rescued it from the trash, reworked it some more, and sent it off to be exhibited. Giving birth, especially to a new way of seeing and creating art, is never an easy process. And for those who have been through it, Rodney Dangerfield aside, it's no laughing matter.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 July 1998