Archive for November 2011

On the Enthusiastic Embrace of Commercial Photography, or Oliviero Toscani

On the Enthusiastic Embrace of Commercial Photography, or Oliviero Toscani.

By Fernando Gomez Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com

I got to see Oliviero Toscani talking about his own photography at MIT in Cambridge between Charles, the river, and Charlie, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system card. I recommend you should try to catch him live next time he is around your corner of the world. He is a true maker of superb photography, and the generous feeling and keen intellect that goes often with it. Bearded, spectacled, neat and clean in the attire, European-looking, warm and affectionate, imagine a thinner, younger version of a Pavarotti with more hair on top, quick wit, engaging and alert, verbal and talkative in his limited, second-language English, prone to laughter, given to levity, which is different from superficiality, more Latin Venus than Anglo-Saxon Mars, more Fellini than Greenaway or Jarman, you will agree with American voters on this one and want to him for a drink or two and make him president for a good time. Good time he delivered at MIT without rehearsal. The session was delayed half a hour, “we will begin on Italian time,” to allow for time discrepancy. The ethos and aesthetics: that of a flexible bourgeois liberal? But this is unusual language, almost beyond the pale, “socialist” even, for your average American consumer of European goods (check out Beacon Hill on the other side of Charles river in the city of Boston for some of this American type of consumption of “Europe”). Toscani was, I found, easily likable in the pleasant night in the Fall in New England, appropriately clothed in light brown and orange, Fall-season colors. Never shy about seeking contact with the audience, he sought rapport and got a slippery question before the session properly started, “what kind of images for Amanda Knox (the recently released American student from murder charges in some sort of sordid affair on Italian soil)? He replied: “That’s a tricky one,” without elaboration. And hit the baseball back fast: “Why are you Americans so interested in this case in particular, because she is American?” You see. Right on. Smart man.

Toscani was genuinely open, as though he held no agendas, and consistently attentive to the responses of the audience, well before the question & answer period. His “self-fashioning “ –if you allow my piece of Greenblattiana here—appears to hide nothing shameful in the closet. And if he did, he would probably take out of it for a catwalk as his “anoxeria” photos make certain. But this is one controversial theme among many others. Our photographer is comfortable in his own skin, and his skin is comfortable with him. There is nothing of the twisted Almodoraviana of his latest good film which I could detect in him: relaxed, loose, joyful, there is joie de vivre here –feel free to nativize the foreign language as you deem appropriate– in this accented son of the catholic mother of civilizations, the Mediterranean, no doubt, thousands of miles away from Calvinist or Presbyterian-inspired fulminations of right and wrong in spoken language and visual imagery. Toscani would not be patient with the rules and regulations taped to the broomsticks and umbrellas attached to the spine of the self-appointed moralists sticking out from underneath the coat for extra verticality and rigidity. Toscani does not play stiff upper lip or hard, neither hard to get, or hard at being playful with some touches of theater. He is naturally smart, Italian in the good sense of the term, with so much Berlusconiana flying around, mocking and self-mocking, gently always, about the certainties, typologies and labels of identity that you may wish to throw at him: Italianness, Europe, Old World, fashion photographer… This guy can do high culture, if need be. But he is most natural at popular or commercial photography, and that is what he showed at MIT that night. He is the happy provider of glossy images of the commodity form. His “naturalized” professional circumstance: the inescapable world of consumerism. Fashion photography, escort service of the consumer society, whether you like it or not? And who does not? Toscani appears Falstaffian and Pantagruelesque in appetite, erotic and Casanova in the good Fellini sense of the term, with an eye for the possibilities of the silly or the grotesque (donkeys and pubic hair, for example).

 

He did not give me money to say that I liked the guy that Fall evening at MIT, and what is the nature of the association of this technology institute and our photographer who revealed photography of thirty years ago of some faculty almost posing as fashion models? I particularly like his superb fashion photography, despite my theoretical preference for the photo journalism of people such as Magnum. Be this as it may,  Toscani’s photography deliberately –even enthusiastically– brings with it the funny pair of commercialism and “social activism,” for lack of a better word, but you may probably stick to the first one, at least initially, and that is good enough, at least aesthetically. Toscani conveys good-European, sensible and “liberal” attitudes that will probablygo well with your easy conviviality around fine dine-and-drink habits. There is here a feeling of expansiveness, or exuberance. As mentioned, nothing twisted or “dark.” These are good things, aesthetically and non-aesthetically, even for broomsticking and sour, ugly lemon New Englanders proud of the New and the England. It was good to be exposed to this Mediterranean-sunshine aestheticism about which he cares primordially, may the politics of it all be what may. In a society of affluence, this is fine and dandy. In fact, it is plenty. In a society of diminished affluence, even post-affluence, would this also be the case, always? That’s a dark cloud that will keep us company in this winter.

 

 

You may have heard of Toscani in relation to the collaboration with the preppy clothes firm Benetton. I must say that I found my natives a bit dazed and confused about the provenance of the foreign photographer, no surprise there, and also not exactly skippy about the ethical and legal implications raised by the association between publicity and advertisement tied up around the medium of photography, “still photography” in this case and the quotation marks highlight the almost “archaic” conditioning of this craft in our era of digitality and virtuality. But our brave Italian will have none of it, as the latter comment will make clear. In this neighborhood, the charge of exploitation is perhaps too easy to make and it is this easiness that should make one pause immediately on the rollerblades of the minima moralia in matters of ethics and images. Peanut butter and jelly? Or pasta and jelly? Or jelly and marmite? Toscani would have no problems with whatever side of the controversial issues you might wish to put your smiling face around, whether you purchase an expensive piece of clothing or not: death penalty, for example, being one, and our photographer, good European that he is, is against, this type of principled opposition always a shock to mainstream Americans, and yet his Death Row series may well put you ill at ease, not to mention the years-long collaboration with the immensely visible Benetton brand highlighting messy topics such as racism and xenophobia, war and violence, sex and pleasure, beauty and fragility, desire and shame, emotion, birth and death, faith and profanity, you know, nothing but the big, inevitable themes also for you and me. And, how to be certain, much less dogmatic, about any of this in the regime of visuality? Isn’t it true that the image refuses to be pinned down to any stable singularity or oneness of meaning in our postmodern global market society? No monotheism then, no one single or univocal “thesis:” call it the theoretical multi-directional paganism of the virtual overflow of the world of images –more cunning than foxes, more slippery like eels. Will the self-appointed judges of propriety hold tight to their broomsticks and umbrellas and hit these images in the fast flow of virtualized digitality without apparent boundaries? I remember the one line about Ronald Reagan and how the Hollywood actor often managed to come out of car crashes alive and standing and in one piece: same sort of thing for our larger-than-life Toscani. There were no accusations in the evening. You get the feeling he would have shook them off easily riding the ride of visual joy. Would you wish to stop him?

 

 

Some inspiration may have come from his father. Toscani junior mentioned Toscani senior being behind the famous images of Mussolini assassinated and left out there to the morbid scrutiny of the public eye, ours included. There are moments when images of the dead matter more than you would care to think about, particularly in moments of ugly politics and violence (you must have seen Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, imagine for a split second the explosive potential of high-ranking politicians in your own society so exposed, etc.). It is never easy to cut good, healthy demarcation lines among silly gore, gratuitous, excessive violence, increasingly graphic and “adult content” entertainment (where would you put Pasolini’s Saló for example?), and newsworthy rendition of collectivities going viciously at each other (ETA terrorism, Mexican Narco criminality, post 9/11, etc.). But this puts us on the side of photo-journalism that is not the main domain of our photographer, more creature of studio than street walker. There is “study” here more than spontaneity and split-second capture of the surprise. Toscani referred to the insecurity as a potential moment for great creativity. One can go all the way to “uncertainty” as fundamental condition of life in the Ortega y Gasset type of philosophical existentialism, the entire semantic field of the precarious and the doubtful, and consequently forcefully repudiate the emphasis on “safety” and “security,” typically recycled from Hobbes and hastily, unthinkingly pre-packaged into spheres of intellectuality and aestheticism, not to mention politics. Toscani invites you to walk this walk, visually, which may put you ill at ease. His mind shift was fast to the work done for Vogue, gorgeous to look at, obviously, and in the same breath line to the parallel “Communist Vogue” –the Russian version of the same magazine. Formidable images: no doubt about that. He makes you look, and want to look more, and the want and the look linger in the seductive images. Toscani does fashion seduction well, and there is a desirability in the association that surely makes some to want to buy and buy more with the kind of lusciousness and easiness that one may still want to call Mediterranean for lack of a better word. Toscani was laughing at his own joke of the Communist Vogue,  and you held your comrades in check and it was enjoyable to witness his delight in visual transgression of our theoretical post-ideological universe. In a generous evening of more than two hours, he gave us a fast-pace survey of his own photography. How many pictures: say, 20 per minute in about 120 minutes? 2,400 images? The session left you hungry. You wanted more. That’s a clear sign of genuine creativity: it goes beyond assigned limits of time and place. Toscani gets my respect, even when and if the quick verbal enunciation does not justice to the ravishing, distressing beauty of his own images inextricably tied up tight and around messy issues that will not leave us alone.

“Reality does not shock us anymore, photographs do.” It sounds Braudillardian enough and quintessentially Virilian and this is the world Toscani was fundamentally peddling around the marketplace of visual ideas –call it conspiracy theory of Franch-Italian origin if you wish. It is the paradoxical combination of great looks and unlookable displeasure, and you still may want to take a peek. Toscani wants to be placed in this copulative, this “and.” Toscani is both and “and.” His photography is maximalist, more “more is more” than early modernist “less is more.” You judge for yourself in relation to the theme of anoxeria and the osteoporosis photos against the aforementioned contrast with Vogue, for instance. Care for the “baroque” contrast? I got from him the sense of a healthy, mature “European” moral sensibility, never reluctant to make a buck, and a quick buck at that, yet not necessarily in an anti-artistic, anti-photographic manner. What others do with these images, it is up to them, up to a point, I suppose. I got the feeling that I would side with him in relation to most “ethical” issues, the anti-death penalty stance, the sensibility towards AIDS patients, the denunciation of the fashion excesses, of the historical and social violence, the anti-racist egalitarianism, etc., wouldn’t you?, but there is no guarantee that this “nice” ethics-and- “fetching” image correspondence will always hold true. And why should it in relation to what kind of phantasmatic, trans-cultural rule of proper morals and congruent visuality? The sneaky suspicion is that the image may function a-moralistically, thank you very much, yes, incongruously, in various degrees of occasional fixity of meaning with the appropriate language and the occasional referentiality, or “ad hoc” contextuality, but that it may just as easily “take off freely” and swirl around “messing around” context(-free) and (de-)referentiality. What prevents the centrality of the image to go many different moral and immoral ways? The use, the function, the content, the commodity anchor? Does the language “anchor” the image? If I say this image over here is a “pipe,” then it is ontologically such thing, and my language is always already my house of being inside which I am caged? I will not be the only one who has the feeling that a certain kitchiness and campiness have pervaded the entire field of vision of the world, certainly the commercial world, and with it a certain lightness of being, which you may deplore or not. Think of juxtapositions such as Jesus Christ superstar, Jesus Jeans, the Rocky Horror Picture Show of your Halloween holidays, the brand called “Philosophy,” Banana Republic, the cheap beer Screaming Bitch, but also the brand names of houses of university education and vehicles and gadgets, and what is not around you that is not bought and sold. Any perambulation in your favorite city will leave behind the “seriousness” of the common activity of shopping around. It is clear that we are less “serious” now. Are “we” any more “tolerant” and more welcoming of meaningful differences, any less repressive? I find Toscani’s photography to go splendidly well with the moderately critical renderings of the French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toscani talks and willingly walks a thin red line: the production of disturbing and catching images, often beautiful, of controversial subject matter in the advertising vicinity of the commodity form. He invites the provocation of controversy and perhaps the charge of manipulation in the irresolution of the controversial subject matter. Who out there and in the name of what would like to impersonate the role of judge passing aesthetic criteria of severe punishment? One early example, Susan Sontag in relation to Leni Riefenstahl in the collection of essays titled Under the Sign of Saturn discussed in a previous culture bite, but the context of defeat of Nazi Germany makes it a bit too easy (http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=676). There are myriad examples of image control: the bad publicity of this or that brand name and the mechanisms of clean-up (the cereal brand and the world-class swimmer who was caught smoking marihuana, the silenced suicide of the foreign language instructor in the Ivy League institution, etc.). So, some control obviously happens whether we are conscious of it or not is another matter. Our dilemma is: how to pin the charge of manipulation or profiteering on the lapel of the photographer who does not hide that his authorial intention is part and parcel of the entire operation, yes, but a precious little one of individual self the larger, post-individualistic world picture of capitalistic image saturation in a world wide web going in many directions… How could you be make a living as a photographer and a fashion photographer at that and not participate in this game? What does “game the system” mean in this context of image signification and saturation? Take the previous topic of disease (aids or osteoporosis): Are his images enunciation, denunciation, manipulation, profiteering, a bit of each, a combination of each, none of the above? Pick your favorite subject matter: there will likely be a picture by Toscani: same situation? Toscani spoke of the collaboration with the phenomenal Greek director Costa Gavras in the film Amen, which I will have seen by your next blink of the eye. He also spoke of the “Children Remember” project, in which old Italians deal with their childhood memories in a concentration camp. It has a Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah feel and this is my feeling of our photographer, that no matter how “messy” the topic, he is willing to take a plunge, whether satisfactorily or not, that is another matter. I commend him for bravery. I wish academia had half the strength in the finger to shoot away and then publicize some of its findings. Art for sale? Hasn’t art always already been close to power? Think of the Sistine Chapel! Who ever said that beauty has to be easy or comforting? One dramatic example mentioned by him: what’s beautiful about a mother holding in her lap her dead son? (allusion to Michelangelo’s Pieta!). How else to look at his pubic-hair photography, or the “silly” collection of rural Portuguese with their donkeys? But it is not obscene, much less pornographic, and I don’t feel the same way I did with Koons and Cicciolina’s “Made in Heaven” included in a previous culture bite (http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=68). Splitting hairs of (im-) morality? Who wants to go puritanical “don’t do it” and “keep your distance from it” in a culture of apparent free-for-all and anything goes? Should one put the “moral” in some box and hide it in the closet somewhere? Toscani defends that he photographs “the beauty of the imperfection in humanity.” His defense may have you convinced, or not. He called himself a photographer, without adjectival markers (fashion, landscape, etc.). He put himself on the testimonial and documentarian side of social and creative things, but is this entirely the case? He confesses to liking changing the subject matter, and you get the sense that the pleasure lies in the variation game. Keep the image superficial or read in it as much as you want. Up to you.

Take “cacas” and “burros.” Would you disqualify ipso facto ab initio, which is double Latin for immediately from the beginning, such type of photography for the in-your-face “silliness” of the content? Or, would you instead be leaning towards an all-inclusive impulse, even a redemptive one, that welcomes anything any time, at least visually? Would you to try to “philosophize” about scatology, and the anthropological meaning of “dirt”? Would you hasten to make connection with other artists, the Honduran-Afro-Cuban Nuyorican Andres Serrano, for example, or the Majorcan Miquel Barceló, to cite but two famous examples? Make connections with the “excessive” visuality of film makers such as Greenaway and Jarman, previously mentioned? Or, would you prefer to join political forces with your petty-bourgeois relatives in the provinces and the likes of former New York city major Rudolph William Louis “Rudy” Giuliani and cut the public funding of such exhibits? Remember the pictures of assassinated politicians in the old country by the Mediterranean waters? What about the gore of cheap magazines in countries such as Mexico for example in which scantily clad female bodies trying suggestive poses share the page with the mutilated victims of Narco violence? No limits to visuality then? Is it fair to say that Toscani’s popular visual culture does not go down to such gutter levels, that he can claim versatility?

Does the self-mocking “save” him? Toscani did not hesitate to mock Europe, “the old continent.” He recalled the commission to capture the idea of the European union. He produced a line of good-looking, diverse toddlers in the buff, and they liked the idea, but “could you put them in diapers?” The unequivocal judgment of our artist about the official decision: “Mediocre, crazy, sick.” There is obviously fresh air here. The famous –or notorious, depending on your aesthetic compass—collaboration with Benetton, 18 years’ relationship, is less easily cut and paste for your mental comfort, and mine. My bet: he would be the first one to defenestrate comfort and timorousness is out of the question. The juxtaposition of shocking image and the brand name –typically with no other language—works in its blatant incongruity. What does the brand name have to do with an image of violence with no editorial framing? Is your response willing to grant suspension of disbelief in relation to what exactly? In any case, your individual decision does not appear to matter very much, not even if you are not a faithful customer of the said brand. The power of the images somehow remains in you, however. They remain in me with no perceptible sense of violent stimulation, sexual or bloody gore titillation. There is opportunity for expressive creativity afforded by commercial venues, at least in high places and among those brands solid enough, that “should” make you and me pause for a fleeting second. But “should”? I find the ethicality of the issues thinning out towards some vanishing point, particularly in relation to the photographic production of images. Genre differentiation gets me in the hot water (would videos and film be any different?). Toscani: “Listen carefully and do the opposite of what marketing people say.” Shock the signification code up to a point? Our artist did not hesitate to highlight  a certain normality of art and creativity in the proximity of power with its seductions and corruptions to be sure: “no war, no power, no Sistine Chapel,” as he put it.

Toscani “plays” with the cognitive dissonance of image and text, even if the latter is the name of the brand being promoted. And this is “serious play,” with or without the consistent levity, which is far from being lightweight silliness and much less mindlessness. Toscani conveys the opposite: warmth and care in the production of phenomenally seductive images that often welcome synonymic permutations inside the semantic field of “beautiful.” Call it disharmony, or better “provocative” juxtaposition, working in more ways than one: multi- or poly-referentiality. Consult your Foucault’s post-modernist, Magritte-inspired “pipe” reflections! The increasing sophistication of the consumer culture makes the brand name (coca cola, apple, etc.) function visually by themselves following a logic that does not feel the need to work its way through argumentatively coherent or intellectually persuasive narrativity, much less dignified by literary quality. Visuality will take you in the direction of the commercial literate, simply watch the American natives orient themselves in “Rudy” Giuliani metropolis by the signs of brands, stores, etc., and not by its historical monuments or ethnic continuities or religious sites, etc. And what remains in place in this site of eminent impermanence? What if the undeniable Italianness of our photographer must be adjusted to the overflow of the visual world consumption of the commodity form with little sentimental attachment to this or that locality? You will have to go back to Deleuze’s Cinema books. Toscani spoke of the power of images such as the (Christian) cross, the swastika, the Coca Cola bottle…

Again, “incongruous” Europe: Toscani mentioned the accusation that his images produced violence, in relation to the handcuffed black-and-white Benetton ad, and how he had to attend court in Thatcher’s Britain, while in the same day, or was it for theatrical effect?, he crossed the English channel to Amsterdam to receive the award for best picture of the year (the same picture of the handcuffed black-and-white Benetton ad!). His laughter was contagious as if the joke was on somebody else not at MIT, as if we were in the joke with him against the background of European incongruity, but the issues are obviously not small and cross the Atlantic waters. “Stupid: people who see beauty only in beautiful things. There is beauty in tragedy: What is beautiful about a woman with her son killed in her hands?” Who can disagree with this general assertion? He wanted to keep commercialism, which appears to banalize everything under its thousand artificial suns, at some distance, and maybe he has managed to have done so, already with the name that he has made for himself. Toscani held nothing back: “Commercial is important. Mozart, the most commercial. I got nothing against the market.” The transition was, for him, not problematic. He wants “to show the human condition: You cannot photograph something that does not exist.” Commercial art and the human condition go well together, at least for him, for the most part. I do not doubt his sincerity of skippy piece of Lipovetskiana for our postmodern, post-narrative condition. I have some doubts about the “humanistic” assertion handling two dissimilar dimensions.

When I asked him what to make of the medium of still photography losing ground to the acceleration of motion pictures, to virtuality and digitality, he refused nostalgias. “For me, photography is history.” He defended the potential, transformative impact of “one” image. He said he did not care about the technical virtuosity of the image-making process. I wish I could believe him on this one, and I think I can see the impulse behind the catchiness of the simple sentence wanting to climb up to the ontology of being. My disbelief does not matter: his photography is still glorious. His provocation is moderate at best, I find, compared to other visual things that are out there.

I got out of the session as though I had been in a good pub with a good friend having a nice couple of drinks and exchanging perceptive appreciations about the role of photography in the eminent domain of an international society of customers and consumers. My mind was spinning in the direction of Baudrillardian de-/semanticization and how signification processes, particularly in environments of consumerism, may allow some “crazy play” with referentiality and intelligibility. And yet I felt as some of the images pushed the thinking from the balcony to allow for the possibility of their enjoyment. It appears true the language of the commodity form may be quite playful and incongruous. The image may well function, thank you very much, without the textual anchor, or the editorializing clarification. In fact, “text rich” is always already too rich, and who has time for other than “texting” into a world wide web flow of images running around faster and faster claiming attention to themselves, asking for their (fetishistic) consumption in their own right and “real-thing” status. So, I say “apple” and you think first and foremost of the famous “computer” brand and the recently deceased “Steve Jobs” and less so of the delight in my eyes looking at you and the green, tart pieces of fruit that your mother used to bake you in the middle of the cold New England winter. And she says “avatar” and you visualize, typically, not the Hindu deity, but snippets of James Cameron’s mediocre film. Isn’t this the stereotype of the American English idiom always already thoroughly colonized by postmodernist late capitalism in the line of the great American (post-)Marxist intellectual with a soft spot for utopianism? But the sign “Marx” conjures something foreign and distant, not even the “Marx Brothers” as the recent educational experience in the small liberal arts college corroborated (http://www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?m=201104).

 

Something has already happened in your immediate bureaucratic-institutional setting around the post-literacy corner, never mind “literature,” around signs such as apples and avatars, and accelerations of images, some of them glorious, such as the ones produced by our Italian photographer in question. I repressed the anti-humanities denunciations. I did not want to go there. I have no problems embracing the commercial photography of Toscani. He does not claim clairvoyant powers. His luscious photographs raise more than one point even for the monotheists and while I am sure that not everything must be fun around ethical twists and legal turns of visuality, photography included, I do intend to keep his warm laughter in the meantime in the back of my memory in the most likely cold New England winter to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any comments? Get in touch, fgh2173@gmail.com.

On Willem de Kooning.

On Willem de Kooning.

The intertwined themes of expatriation and Americanness wrapped around aestheticism and muted politics linger with me in the end within the immediate frame of the (post-)Cold War apropos the grand Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exhibit of almost two hundred works simply titled “de Kooning: a Retrospective.” The escort service of more muscular language would have been very welcome to what is still an impressive show worth your while. The praise at the impressive deed was not stingy or slow (“Unfurling a Life of Creative Exuberance” by Holland Cotter, New York Times, Sept. 16, 2011). The salvo is warranted. It is up to the critics to cut convincing pieces of mind and thought to that unfurling in the decades to come. You have to see it, even if the hailed representative of the abstract expressionism of the so-called New York school does not hold high the candle burning bright on both ends of politics and aesthetics, as I still feel. Critical attention does not have to reach the exceptional moments exclusively. Isn’t this a type of bland foreignness, eminently amenable to commercial handling in the home of the brave seeking once upon a time a good alternative to the legacies of European modernism and Soviet avant-gardism? Am I totally unfair?   How to separate the “creative exuberance” from the institutional packaging? We will have to think harder about historicizing Conceptualism: “the single most influential art movement of the last third of the 20th century” according to Cotter. In the meantime, there is something very moving about the haphazard life of the 22-year-old Dutch kid stowing away on a frighter and arriving in New York city in 1926. How is that for adventure? How not love it? There is omnivorous hunger, prolific production and non-doctrinaire generosity on this artist as Cotter correctly highlights and your agreement will, I am sure, gladly arrive fast half-way through the exhibit. Yet the dilemma: how to go about a sustained artistic adventure in the “new world” of the business culture and the dumping ground of all other cultures of the world? So it is a bit silly to expect big and neat theories of artistic knowledge production from the semi-native artist or even from the museum advertising and the publicity literature, or even from the immediate critics of the same historical moment who will have to be taken with one Cold grain of War salt. It is up to us now, more than 100 years after de Kooning’s birth, and 63 years after 1948, one valid token date among others perhaps as we will see soon. Still, tell beautiful Georgina to take you to the exhibit early on a Sunday without too many people around and go ready with a mind uncluttered by art-history assumptions and counter-assumptions. Artistically speaking, you will be on your own and this is not necessarily always a bad place to be.

Unsatisfactorily, the show avoids the subtle seductions of historicism and goes piano amid the loud noises of politics in the (post-)Col-War era. There is no attempt –big or small– to engage with artistic debates and burning issues of the old day. There is instead something of a contrived formalism in the panoramic presentation of the individuality of the artist that does not make De Kooning grander against the repressed collective collage of his time on both sides of the Atlantic (think Walter Lippman’s Atlantic community and put this aesthetic modernity near). Here, De Kooning here becomes a “canonical” free-floating signifier, painter of Dutch origin, all soft butter geopolitically, good-looking white kid, made “native” and “ours,” with no perceptible complaints otherwise in the immediate vicinity of the proud metropolis of the American world in the middle of the century. Inspiration comes from everywhere and nowhere: non-judgmental and nice-nice–too-nice, promiscuous, vague, a bit too much?, of imprecise limits, of undefined limitations, he wants to have the cake of figuration and eat “abstraction,” expressively also. Smart kid. The exhibit offers some non-illuminating quotes from the painter, surprisingly devoid of shock value, that to me at least blur the historical horizon, make it blander and softer, than deeper cuts in the demarcation lines of any (im-)possible boundaries. I insist that there is no –at least in the monumental exhibit– contextual mention of mixture, mutual inspiration, prickly controversies, no moorings in relation to modernism / postmodernism, no single war and love declarations about capitalism or socialism, or the art market for that matter. One has to pay attention to the construction of this silence, also in the context of “women” around our Dutch expatriate artist of admittedly tumultuous life.

Yes, even if you –lovely postmodernist you of Foucaultian inclination perhaps holding what may be taken to be a pipe in between the fingers– are willing to suspend the unequivocal correspondence between denotational language finding the titles of the paintings about the lines and strokes and splashes of color playing with abstraction and figurations, there are “women” around de Kooning, and “monstrous” (de-)formations, and the adjective is meant to be non-ironic flattery. The booklet Willem de Kooning (2011) by Carolyn Lanchner should put us on guard about the assignation of titles to the works, sometimes by committee consensus arrived at the night before the show! (p. 7). This clinging to figuration of sorts is probably the most lingering dimension of the work, at least for me and beautiful Georgina (fictional name, to be sure) would probably agree. Yet, in the context of an exhibit unwilling to make revaluations and with no explicit recontextualizations, the “monstrosities,” I felt, were somehow domesticated, flattened out, normalized so to speak, made native and American, our own, in contrast, for example, to other “monstrosities” in the recent exhibit of classicism and fascism at the Guggenheim Museum, written about in a previous culture bite. The less need for context, the more familiar, the less forceful the bite, of the artistic work?: general rule? Where is the shock and awe in “winning the Cold War,” as the clichéd formula has it, accordingly, side by side those figural deformations when booklets speak of “ever-hospitable” and “flexible” interpretations? Isn’t this the right and proper, all-peanut-and-butter, red-blood-American “liberal” mindset that abhors fixities of substantive meaning? Could this possibly be the unconvincing conclusion of a still impressive exhibit worth your while? But museum pedagogy has to be done that “flexible” way, it seems, at least for children. Yet do the grown-ups have to suffer, accordingly? So, there is a bit of a safe feeling in this return to De Kooning in a family-friendly exhibit that will not scare off the post-Cold-War children and their dutiful parents. There was a nice moment when a conscientious mother asked her young ones, “give me an adjective for the show!?” And the answer came, sure enough, automatic to the (tele-)prompter: “Abstract!” “Well done!,” the dutiful mom smiled but did not require follow-up and elaboration –no literary exegesis either– and the ease of it all fell fast in the conventional lap of what else? but the conventional American use of the term (the other, typically less satisfactory, of the “concrete,” or the “situated,” of imprecise and vague boundaries, what I cannot yet see and understand, etc.). There is something of a “quicksilver experience of slippage” and “etheriality” –Lanchner dixit in relation to the post-1960s paintings. This is also, I find, a painting of congestion, density and crowdedness, of “clutter,” horror vacui... But does thinking keep up? Where is the fundamental provocation for us today, or even the great threat that amount to the momentous challenge to figuration –or anything else for that matter–  that may have apparently been with (Western) art history since the beginning of times. I feel De Kooning’s modernism played with the shreds and smithereens of “classical” art but did not and perhaps could not let it go completely. I see him mostly as eclectic aggregation rather than drastic elimination, and perhaps I am wrong. I am glad he kept figuration alive. His play with it makes him a greater “American” painter as is the case of the most forceful “women” paintings.

In the absence of an explicit narrative structure that may help support the two hundred works around other than the individual name of the author in question –is this a Lyotardian postmodernist stance of the exhibit hence?, why the pedagogic retreat, the institutional coyness?, will the thick catalogue provide satisfaction?, would I rather spend this money doing fun things with Georgina?– let us  go here to salient works in some detail. I will follow a somewhat formalistic path which I find unsatisfactory, however . Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) enjoyed a long life in painting with some sculptural forays also included in the exhibit. Alzheimer slowed him down in the mid-1980s and the last 7 years were without painting at all, which makes the sparse strokes in the handful of paintings in the final room for a very moving end of the exhibit. The exhibit makes the year 1948 crucial for an artist of adventurous beginnings and already in the middle of his life. Put a decade before and after and you will have perhaps the most meaningful portion. But the show refuses to make pronouncements about highs and lows.

 

Early influences come from a rich variety of modernist and experimental sources following the dominant Western-bound movement alongside historic migration patterns, decentering “nomos of the earth” away from once dominant Europe and the new installation of the superpower status in the U.S. The early works display, to me at least, an attenuated, if not tame variety of inspired cubism of biomorphic shapes. The paintings  “Seated figures (classic male),” and  “woman sitting” (1941-3, 1943-44), not exactly spring chicken of youthful creativity at the age of 37-38 years old, have what I would like to call gentle Miroesque features. Kindness in drawing, composition and use of color, De Kooning is having “a dialogue” with the tradition of portraiture (and the commonplace euphemism in quotation marks used in conventional academia is fitting here). For all the “strangeness,” this is no shouting match. There is no slash and burn, no cutting, etc. A containment of sorts that does not want to go –like those crazy Europeans left behind– all the way… These paintings feel mid-way in between volume and flatness, leaner painting rather than “painterly” thickbrushness,  round body shapes –for example in the inviting sensuality of the female figure, attenuation of angularities, clinging to facial expressivity, some deformation… I find undeniable mitigation of the aggressivity of modern aestheticism, perhaps war will make you more assertive and determined pictorially whether you like it or not, and you will learn to load and roll the dice seeking whatever? De Kooning’s declarations have nothing of the bite of the early Miro, to name but one, who did not hesitate to declare in his early surrealist period that he wanted to “assassinate painting” (later Miroana is in industrial quantities all over the place in lobbies of banks, big corporations and expensive galleries, but that is another story).      I don’t find assassinations in De Kooning. Instead: “Art should not have to be [in] a certain way.” How is that for “abstract” –and read euphemism in the abused term in quotation marks. The language in the exhibit could have had a lot more bite. Nice “liberal” plurality of open forms with no explicit repudiation of anything in particular. And this is the “bad” American meaning of both adjectives in quotation marks: the art can be anything you want it to be, no one will hold you accountable in the supremely subjective and solipsistic game of signification that proclaims that the customer is always right and no one appears to care. This is how museum pedagogy is conventionally dished out for children and dutiful parents and some of this type of  “consensus” is finding its sure way into humanities classroom always already in the institutional corner. There is accordingly more accommodation than break and rupture, more negotiation than end of negotiations in the reception of De Kooning more than one hundred after his birth in the Netherlands. His dialogue with commercialism is mentioned in the exhibit and it is perhaps maintained throughout. But isn’t uncompromising intolerance a tremendously exciting aesthetic gesture, eminently difficult to follow through?

 

Abstract expressionism marks the distance with representational figuration but does not quite go wholeheartedly or drastically to “abstraction.” Another declaration: “I never was interested in how to make a good painting… but to see how far one could go.” Politely: o.k. And what makes good good, and how far is far in relation to what point of departure and destination and all sorts of funny little middle points in between? The exhibit fails to give us structure to formal experimentalism. This is a pity. And the occasional chitchat with other visitors did not produce illuminations. What were the reasons specific to De Kooning? Why this form and not that one? Why that one over there at this moment and not this one over here before or after? Is this kind of reasoned intentionality too much to ask of an important artist put out there on the pedestal to represent firstness in original artistic creativity in moments of American leadership in the world? Should we “blame” the critics who pushed the artist to such representational role?

In “Still Life” (1929) and “Untitled (the Cow jumps over the Moon” (1937-8) there is attractive youthfulness of creation in the predilection for volumes of no discernible recognizable shape. There is grace and levity and shapeliness here. There’s got to be some surrealist play with referentiality and more fun with the assigned titles, which is not clarified in the exhibit, and probably sustained in later production. Cow? Moon? The artist pulling a “your mama…” to the art world? In a way, painting calls attention to itself without “deviations” to predictabilities apropos “realistic” infatuations with mirror-of-nature lifelikeness already in the 1920s and 1930s. It is not difficult to see how a certain conceptualism needed a certain cosmopolitanism in the early decades of the 20th century and a later Americanization by the 1950s. Some of this anti-localist or anti-regionalist impulse must have felt a liberation for our 25 and 33 years old painter, particularly in the context of New York city, his city and yours too, why not?, after a few years and you better like it that way. In these early paintings, I find myself lingering in the color interplay, which is not stridency,  and not necessarily wanting the forms to coalesce around recognizable “natural” patterns of human or objects. There is an endearing, “quiet” collage quality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exhibit mentions the “de-lettering” organization into “organic or biomorphic” shapes and the connection is made with the employment experience in the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to revive the economy. The Wave (1942-4) and Summer couch (1943), for example, give you the feeling of inflation and suspension of round shapes and forms with no clear order in foreground and background (I remembered Chagall. And perhaps de Kooning is closer to him than to Kandisnky?). The spectator has the sensation of things floating that obviously has to do with the deliberate avoidance of unequivocal referentiality. Lanchner registers the advocacy of “polyreferentiality” by the artist –a cunning gesture to be sure– who must have read popular magazines such as Life about what was the strange thing going on artistically at that mid-century that needed clarification (p. 9). Yet, does this type of painting go all the way to strangeness and alienation or more in the direction of Chagallesque charm? I vote for the latter and I wished it was for the former. Still, the intellectual joy lies in the figuring out the resistance of these “figures” to  a “final solution.” And this funny guy over here in the shape of an X turns out to be a Y? Not quite. Maintaining this balance must not have been an easy artistic process when mechanisms of likelikeness were increasingly the purview and purchase of other media such as film and photography. De Kooning was accused of riding two horses, figuration and abstraction, and why only two? Perhaps most interestingly, he must have been aware of the abstract expressionism of a potent figure such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). How close was this to him? Is there evidence of theoretical reflection on the abstract expressionist Western side of the equation, particularly since the canonization of Kandinsky by New York institutions? Would it help to think of the differential West / East (political) divide to say that the Kandisky line is more angular, “spiritual,” cutting, drastic, decisive, “masculine”? But he came over to this side of the political divide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exhibit makes the point of coexistence of plural forms in De Kooning’s production. Such biomorphic forms coexist with the personalized “dialogue” with the tradition of portraiture that appears to begin realistic enough. There is self-portrait (1938-40) and the series of paintings of men… But this will hold less his attention.

There is a wonderful “portrait of Elaine” (1940-1), most delicate and elaborate in the facial expression of alertness and concentration, in marked contrast with the fierce women to come.

“Queen of Hearts” (1943-6) appears some sort of culmination of these “dialogues” with the conventional tradition of portraiture being unhinged from realistic moorings. There is a de-individualization and de-personalization at work here that perhaps some would find horrific. The distinctive singularity of the sitter is “defigured.” The background is kept indistinct, but functional, “alive,” if stripped to a bare minimum with no clear “bridges” to the isolated figure. Is she sitting? Where? Does it matter? Yet, the perspective is “damaged,” and the proportionality is “abused” towards a predilection for flatness among bodies of mostly simple and unmixed bodies of color. I refuse to see color clash of artistic civilizations, though. What is this schematism aiming for then once the likelikeness is progressively leaving the centrality of the main artistic question? What holds the expressivity of this “abstraction” that mirrors the “early modern” experimentalism of cubism? De Kooning pushes the brakes. His forms and shapes are less tubular and less cubic than his Cubist predecessors, too close for comfort? Still, there is an unnamed, non-individual, almost cartoonish impulse to figuration, not quite harsh, punkish or ferocious, yet.

And you can see the dialogue with the delicacy and tenderness employed in relation to the girlfriend Elaine Fried in the previous portrait, the blurred face, the folded arms, the demure gesture, the sensuality in the painting of the breasts changing to more “monstrous” dimensions. So we have here, in a sense, one possible line of investigation: the play with the form of “woman” –the “Other” of our male painter, would one way to put it– towards increasing levels of experimentation, but without reaching for a decisive and aggressive alienation of the participation of the spectator. It must have been different in the 1950s at least in popular magazines, but this horizon is far from us in our era of graphic digitality. The “male” line of exploration dies out.

Seated Woman (1943) conveys to me a kind of controlled or more sober type of cubism. The figures are typically isolated. The landscape does not clarify anything for us. There are various degrees of aggressive distortion, for example in the oil and charcoal of “Pink Angels” (1945), and “Pink Lady” (1944). The chronological coexistence appears important in resisting the imposition of an unmistakable linearity or teleology to the unleashing of this creative energy. Perhaps De Kooning’s eclecticism was a happy one and his sensibility needed no timely strategic definitions, perhaps this is something he could afford more than us. The expressive force of the form appears to go for the interplay (angels becoming lady becoming still life and the other way round).    I don’t find the need to go for the “celebration of orgiastic sexuality” that some have found even in the black and white paintings. Isn’t this in a way betraying your profession of faith by means of anthropomorphizing the abstraction impulse? At any rate, “content” thins out or remains “private.” What we get is the “publicity” of intertwined, crowded, piled-up abstraction abhorring voids. There is no counter-form to speak of so to speak. The use of color remains limited-range, restrictive, self-contained yet warm, “feminine” (pinks and oranges). There is no stridency: no “clashes of civilizations,” say. Gestural painting will come later.


 

 

 

 

 

The breakthrough years are round the corner: the first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in April 1948, and paintings such as “Dark Pond” (1948) and “Painting” (1948). The contrast with these previous ones cannot be more marked: black and white abstractions, oil and charcoal, “ugly,” if you will:

 

 

 

This must have been a minimalist gesture of deliberate simplification, like going to the back to black-and-white television set after being exposed to techno-color. How do painters handle color options? That is something interesting to think about. You go for more or less? And the logic? Another assertion: “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness.” Yet it is difficult to see likeness here in the black-and-white “inverted dialogue” among these paintings.  What is going on here? How to put fore and background? Where to focus? Do we wish to follow Greenberg’s anxiety and foreboding, Hass’s covert primal orgy in the recurring M, W, and J signs for buttocks, breasts and genitals? (Lanchner, p. 11). Couldn’t the paintings rotate clockwise or counter-clock-wise one time or more and still speak to us? I find these black paintings quite inhospitable, without rhyme or reason to the blackness. How to put the selection in some kind of series? Night (1948) and Black Friday (1948):

De Kooning is brutally isolated as an artist in “de Kooning: a Retrospective.” No one surrounds him on the American side of artistic things and we only witness some occasional reference to distant murmurs reach him from cosmopolitan Europe. So there is no foreground and background for our individual artist. The exhibit speaks instead of the use of tracing methods, the transfer of an image from one composition to another, a technique employed in both figurative and abstract works, that appears to work through repetition, insistence if not compulsion. There is horror vacui here. There is giving clutter to the spectator and no clues to which s/he could hold on to, to try to put the thoughts in the head around paintings with occasional ad hoc titles and refusing clear-cut labels. Welcome to the kingdom of mash-up! We are told that De Kooning was never particularly concerned with distinctions: “after a while all kinds of painting becomes just painting for you, abstract and otherwise.” He may have gotten away with it. We have no such luck. The intellectual dissatisfaction with this lack of definitional precision keeps us company however for the rest of the exhibit that effectively monumentalizes an individual about whom institutions such as MOMA did not quite know what to do, until now, at least according to Cotter’s aforementioned New York Times article. But for how long the relative limbo of this abstract expressionism in the history of Western art in the second half of the twentieth century? His predilections and repudiations cannot be ours. It is a pity “de Kooning: a Retrospective” does not deal with these.

It felt good to leave the black-and-white paintings behind and to return to more color combinations. “Asherville” (1948), painted in the summer of 1948 in Black Mountain College near Asheville, NC, and “Gansevoort Street” (1949) probably connected to the street of the same name in the big city provided some relief, accent on the some. I will have to be color the provider of such relief in paintings that are far from harmonious. There is an insistence in certain letter-inspired shapes. The togetherness is what is not forthcoming. Can this center hold? Is a center needed? Is holding needed? Will the metaphysician dip his metaphysical pinkie in these mid-century artistic waters? As before, would turning the paintings (counter-)clock wise do something meaningful to the viewing experience? Would “anything” go?

 

Black and white, red and the “return” to mostly white with black margins or borders. You can see the insistent transfer of images made to culminate in the exhibit in “Excavation” (1950), before and after in the consolidation of the reputation of our 44-year-old De Kooning.

It grabbed less, I must say. I find myself as before asking how, why, what on earth, yet somehow relieved from the “blackness.” It was a bit like having to dance with an ugly woman who is prettier mostly by comparison with those out there over her shoulder. There are no hot spots in the painting, no seeming center and periphery. Some insinuation of figuration (clenched teeth, hairy noses, eyebrows, fish, dancing arrangements?). It is not easy for the eye to linger in any one particular area. But what areas are out there? What portions or parts? What is going one here? De Kooning’s pronouncements are not helpful: “I am not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in, draw anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space” (1951). I get the Borgesian play with seriality. No radical modernist Loosian “less is more” accordingly here, but the opposite: more and more, yet more of what? And yet the sensory system accuses the impact of saturation and disorientation. I fail to find satisfactory answers for myself and perhaps the literature of previous generations did provide some answers worth rescuing. In relation to “Attic” (1949), we learn of the “act-painting” which combined oil, enamel and newspaper transfer on canvas. Some of that is at work here too. So, there is an emphasis on process rather than the final product. There is the relative eclectic collaging of elements together and pinning them down to a paper support. Yet these elements challenge concrete classification, hence “abstract,” or are we willing to talk instead about higher levels of reflexivity that are never included in “de Kooning: a Retrospective”? Again, such collage carry-over from his commercial-design background is, I find, more “modest” and “proper” and painterly, more self-contained than the acrobatics of Robert Rauschensberg, often winning and humorous. There is no humor in De Kooning, when I come to think of it, except perhaps at the end of his life. But does it win you over? The exploration of the mode of the artistic creation does not automatically lend itself to convincing attribution of mood, the “women” paintings included.

 

What remains with me at the end of the day, when push comes to shove the formalisms back and forth, and I know Georgina is tacitly with me, is the “women” paintings made in the late 1940s and 1950s. Borrowing from here and there, “de Kooning: a Retrospective,” delivers quite a phenomenal list: 1) Woman (1949-50), oil on canvas, Weatherspoon Art Gallery, U of NC, Greensboro;     2) Woman II (1952) –MOMA; 3) Woman III (1952-3), Private Collection;  4) Woman V (1952-3), Australia, Canberra; 5)  Woman with Bicycle (1952-3), Whitney; 6) Woman VI (Carnegie, Pitt); 7) Two Women Series 1952-4…

For me this was it. I enjoyed the tension between the figure and for lack of a better word the landscape. I don’t feel I need, in the middle of the twentieth century on the American side of the Atlantic, the borrowed props of a big tradition of historical mythology, or some type of Freudian-attuned psychologizing “solutions” of the tormented mind and body, many drinks and (un-)happy copulations of the good-looking artist typically “resolved” biographically. I confess to being much more attracted to the “painterly bravura” about the “bedeveling urge to paint the figure” of the “Other,” perhaps thus with quotation marks and capital lettering?, and some containment exercise –hello, Mr. George Kennan!– of such urge, or perhaps better, some combinatory play with it without too much “excess.” Carolyn Lanchner adds the adjective “joyful” to “painterliness.” I buy it.       I sought complicit intercourse with beautiful Georgina. She kept her distance. You are on your own here with these magnificent paintings “messing around” foreground and background conventions of (de-)individualized portraiture of generic fears and desires, perhaps. I go for the thick brushtroke. I like the “violence” of it all. The thicker, the messier the brush, the better. I take in the bigger-than-life size. Lanchner includes of the process of paint and repaint –50 times!– in relation to Woman, I and how the “venerable” art historian Meyer Schapiro’s urging “resurrected” the arduous process that will be in front of us now. There is strife and struggle here: good. Who looks at whom? How do you size up to these figures? Hold your Freud. And admire such paintings. De Kooning is making expressive claims around the impact of Picasso “the guy to beat.” This is not a bad act at all.

I like the ferocious intensity, which I still find moderate in relation to other artists: the Spaniard Antonio Saura and the English Francis Bacon. I am a sucker for the iconoclasm of the former. I witnessed the canonization of the latter in the Metropolitan Museum a couple of years ago with mixed feelings… De Kooning: “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented.” What to enjoy here? What not to enjoy? The interplay between human and animal features, the face and the hoof-like legs? The grin and the bosom? The frontality of the face incongruously attached to the violent torsion of the rest of the body? The gestural, theatrical application of thick paint on the canvas and come what may? Isn’t morality the “forbidden fruit” here not to welcome? I feel fine not having to resolve the tension of these “women” paintings. I want to linger in the effort to holds on to craftsmanship losing ground to the onslaught of the visual image in the age of mechanical reproduction going virtual, digital. I look at the absence of bridges to the Other… I need no coherence or sequence to take me to other “women.” Woman III (1952-3), Private Collection:

Woman IV (1953):

 

Woman V (1952-3), Australia, Canberra:

Woman with Bicycle (1952-3), Whitney:

Woman VI, Carnegie, Pittsburgh:

 

I enjoy the grotesque deformation of the human form in some general, universalizing?, plateau of indefinition. I don’t feel I need individualizing particularities: this is an impulse to tear the human form apart without quite leaving it behind. You may go to Fellini’s Casanova if you wish. Or to Marco Ferreri’s Future is Woman, for some inspiration. You can see the impulse to deformation and caricature and two lines from the artist remain with me. As Lanchner notes, he remarked that he often found himself “wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.” Apropos grandiose myths and what have you, the perhaps affected and offhand cool remark of the new American artist living in the metropolis of the world responded when asked for clarifications:    “I think it had to do with the ideal of the idol, the oracle, and above all the hilariousness of it.” Which is another way of saying, clarifications are not my department, thank you very much. So in a sense we can see a painting effort engaging vulgarity and its own hilarity at the operation. De Kooning somehow entering Jean Dubuffet’s territory then? Be as it may, this is a pictorial effort at a gathering of sorts of the jumble of limbs of the human form interpenetrated by an aggressive context of nothing in particular. Allegorically, can the aesthetics of America clinging to this new American in the messy metropolis in the moment of global confrontation go any other way in relation to the artistic history of the world? Going along with Holland Cutter’s article, this is to me the exuberant portion of the exhibit.

I lost interest in the later production. It felt like relaxation and distention. I still can see the compressed torso, the spread legs in “The visit” (1966-7), the very wet brush applied to the canvas and the heavy painterliness, for example in “Montauk I” (1969), set aside in 1981:

 

Forceful, theatrical thick brushstroke versus bland, soft and dripping?: the sexual analogy is too easy. Dismiss. But I cannot help the feeling that moving in 1960 to the East End of Long Island, where he sets permanent residence in 1963 must have been something of a retirement. These paintings feel easy and more fluid and sticky, wet and dripping these figures continue mixing up with a non-descript landscape of extremely oily surfaces. It is as though the paintings had been left the night out in the cold bucket for lines to drip, drip… Expressivity going humorously limp? Perhaps it was a happier time biographically. I care about that up to a point. The results appear to me less happy pictorially. You can see some of this also in “La Guardia in a Paper Hat” (1972). There is cartoon buffoonery in this dripping wet, thick paint. I fall for the temptation of the pantomime of painting at the end of the burning candle in the middle of the Cold-War night: levity in the life journey that requires not in the least the escort service of pictorial substance of meaning? Did De Kooning think he needed some of this? Do we? Dissipation: a blessing? Whither the previous aggressivity? Has it withered? Should we play “Sense of Doubt” by David Bowie in the great album Heroes in the background of these final paintings? Or do we go “classic”? But how on earth to do this congruently in relation to the all-American context of the MOMA exhibit  titled “de Kooning: a Retrospective”?

Apparently, the expressive strokes gradually went away due to the dreadful, permanent visitation of Alzheimer disease in the 1970s. How is that for horror? De Kooning undergoes a simplification of practices in 1981-87 due to declining health and the painting comes to a halt in 1990. He will die 7 years later. One final, unsatisfactory quote: “One thing nice abut space is that it keeps on going” (1959). Invocation of space? Do we take De Kooning in the incongruous direction of the Beckettian failure that cannot stop from failing? I feel I want to keep my dissatisfaction alive in relation to this artist of undeniable importance, probably not a number one, it does not matter, and probably not “the most important of the middle of the twentieth century” when you look at him from an observation platform bigger than Walter Lippman’s Atlantic community of friendly nations. Had he remained in the Netherlands, he would probably had been less important, but he came to the land of the free in moments of global impact… Was he lucky or what? I put De Kooning inside the abstract expressionism movement in the general political frame of the great book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (2000) by Frances Stonor Saunders. The critical apparatus put him there. Will he linger? For another time and place, the pursuit of the reconstruction of the manufacture of the “first” American (read: US) movement to (try to) challenge the hegemony of European art in the vicinity of magazines like Life and Time and the interpretive impetus of critics like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro among others who tried to clarify “the strange art of today.” And the early date is, for us, also the “old” date of Fall 1948 in the vicinity of  MOMA. How “modern” is this “early” and “old” modern? How “post-“? Where were we and what were we thinking at that time? The conversation continues with caviar and vodka tasting at Petrossian with the always beautiful Georgina. Thank you, babe, for the art.

Any suggestions, comments? Get in touch, fgh2173@gmail.com.