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Art & artists

Making sense of Willem de Kooning's art

— November 2013

Article read level: Academic

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Cover illustration of Between Sense and de Kooning, by Richard Shiff

This ‘extraordinary and fresh text’ is a ‘triumphant success’, says Adrian Lewis

Between Sense and de Kooning by Richard Shiff

Between Sense and de Kooningis an extraordinary and fresh text on one of the giants of post-war art. The art of Willem De Kooning (1904–97) represents the extreme of painterly expression, and previous authors have found it difficult to make sense of his artistic achievement. Much of Richard Shiff’s previous work has focused on how Impressionism engendered audience confusion and resistance, and how it generated new sorts of meaning. He is the author of Monet and the Mark and Cézanne’s Physicality: The Politics of Touch, and his approach has always been closer to painting practice than the more imagery-based analyses of his peers. So, it is as if de Kooning’s art finally found its most appropriate and perceptive commentator.

Shiff believes that de Kooning’s art ‘remains in a critical limbo’ and that it disturbed the artworld machinery of criticism. He says De Kooning makes it ‘hard for art history to know what to do with him’, especially art history in its current ‘conceptual issues’ mode, because his work is ‘unattractive as a target of theory’. Shiff favours a method of trusting and following de Kooning, since otherwise ‘we would be rejecting the possibility that an artistic or sensory practice might actually reach areas of experience as yet uncodified rationally and ideologically’.

Hence Shiff gives close attention to artworks and processes of painting. We are introduced to the way that de Kooning drew dancing figures on the television, drew ‘blind’ with one finger identifying the centre of the sheet, and reoriented drawings through 90 degrees. We learn how he made ad hoc monoprints from the newspaper sheets used to keep his oils wet, and how these might be ‘completed’ with further painting. We see how he masked areas of his paintings in order to produce ‘jumps’ and a lack of aesthetic unity once the large paper masks were removed. We learn how he used tracings that he reversed and to which he sometimes even added paint, and how he scraped down oils at the end of each day, emphasizing the spontaneous performance of the painting, though traces of the previous sessions might be incorporated. We learn how he used standard oil paints together with safflower oil, water, gum turpentine, mineral spirits and possibly other liquids, chasing a dream of maximizing his medium’s fluidity.

The author tries to be led by the work itself (and by what de Kooning himself said) and is dismissive of art criticism’s preoccupation with its own various agendas and its failure to address what the work itself suggests. Since de Kooning is seen as working without a plan, Shiff structures the book as a series of mini-essays with one-word titles (such as ‘Movement’, ‘Splash’, ‘Twist’, ‘Spread’, ‘Glimpse’, ‘Slip’, or ‘Scrub’), each suggesting some feature of the artist’s practice. Using a fresh selection of illustrations, many of which have not been previously published, Shiff explores the strangeness of de Kooning’s work.

That strangeness involves, for example, the refusal to distinguish between figuration and abstraction, so that even his late abstractions seem to start from figure-based improvisations. For de Kooning, exploring sensory experience involved running together a fluid paintwork and what he saw and felt about bodies and nature. The idea of ‘abstraction’ was (as de Kooning said in 1951) a conceptual ‘nothing’ over and beyond that. The open-ended search for expressively multiple ‘sensory possibilities’ made concepts of aesthetic ‘wholeness’ and closure or ‘finish’ anathema to him, as well as any sense of building to a single masterpiece or major period. Shiff is excellent on de Kooning’s lack of belief in qualitative or meaningful development in his work. One can see how art historical commentaries structured around ‘style’, ‘internal development’, or grander narratives of individual ‘breakthrough’, cultural advance or theoretical issues would end up unable to deal well with such work, if not actually somewhat skewing it.

Shiff’s close attention to de Kooning’s art produces a rich, satisfying and convincing understanding of its core aesthetic qualities and first-order meanings. His book deserves to be read by all practitioners of modern art history as an experiment in ‘close’ art writing as a route to better interpretation. Which is not to say that there is no room for other approaches beyond explaining the artist’s own position. For example, in describing de Kooning as a typical, difficult modern artist, Shiff is clearly thinking of  some mid-late 19th-century artists, comparing him at one stage to Cézanne.

A fuller history would go back to Romanticism, its search for elusive experience, inability to finish, and discomfort with market and artworld influences, as well as taking in the more deeply recalcitrant and conflicted attitudes of early French moderns and later abstract expressionists. Yet, if Shiff can inspire us to set off once more reconsidering the practices and mentalities that this book uncovers, then his approach has justified itself with triumphant success.

Richard Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, is published by Reaktion Books, London, 2011. 312 pp, 96 col.illus, 11 mono illus, £35. ISBN 978-1-86189-853-1


Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

Background info

A printed interview with Robert Lindsey about the book can be found online in the 29 November 2012 issue of the electronic journal Abstract Critical. Shiff also discusses the book online in the Montreal Review, September 2011.

For a review of the 2011 exhibition of Willem de Kooning's work at MoMA, New York see ‘The revolutionary work of Willem de Kooning’ in Cassone, November 2011.

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