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“Willem de Kooning From the Hirshhorn Museum Collection”

Abstract expressionism, for better or worse, has become part of the mythos of American independence. Like the Boston Tea Party, the emergence of the New York School is widely considered to mark a moment, perhaps the final one of its kind, at which we brash and exuberant upstarts threw off the shackles of old Europe—in this case, three centuries of artistic and cultural pre-eminence. For the first time, the center of the art world was not in Florence, Flanders, or Montmartre; art that was truly important was being done on our own shores. Barely a generation before, Stein, Hemingway, and lesser lights of the Lost Generation had mythologized themselves and their Paris, codifying the pilgrimage to the City of Light as the sine qua non of the young artist’s training. At least a year on the boulevards and in the cafes was a rite of passage for the serious aspirant; in Paris you drank absinthe and fornicated, lived by your wits and discovered untold beauty, breathed the heady fumes of the modern—and above all, learned how to see. Afterward would come the great novel or the breakthrough canvases.

The advent of abstract expressionism altered that progression forever; with its scuffy surfaces and noisy, chthonic rumblings, its impenetrable images and dense theoretical apparatus, abstract expressionism announced to the world that painting was now done in a place called New York City. Nearly half a century later some of the dust has settled, and as with most ventures overdependent on promotion and hyperbole, the house that Jack Pollock built seems ever so unsteady. Time is proving Rothko too precious, Kline too vapid, Newman too ostentatiously theoretical. Gorky now seems rarely, if ever, to have transcended the predecessors he so systematically mimed and mined. Willem de Kooning, now 89 and Alzheimer’s-addled, had a retrospective at the Whitney in 1983 that was received tepidly; the 50-piece show now at the Hirshhorn, culled from 1939 to 1985, does naught to avert the critical slide, the gathering momentum of negative reassessment. One almost wonders if the time isn’t near when these works are considered only a local curiosity, albeit one that came to pass at the epicenter of the new art in the new world.

What’s most remarkable is how these de Koonings in the main resist their audience. Masterpieces invite us into a contemplation of their development: Not only do they bear scrutiny, they reward it. Their experience is particular and vivid, their unity constituted by a judicious internal counterpoise which allows the viewer to coax the parts into yielding a whole. They engage us. But de Kooning’s canvases repel any such incursion of the mind, stonewalling the gaze at the surface level of paint and agitation, the drip, scrape, and slash functioning as shorthand for the painter’s interior processes. It’s a bit like trying to make someone’s acquaintance just by staring at their handwriting; you’ve got the evidence of a personality, but absolutely no means of getting through to it. Particularly when experienced seriatim, their chaotic mysteriousness disappears as an object of interest, and they become little more than peccadilloes writ large, psychotic glyphs distilled through the academic training of the painter’s hand.

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The successful works are the earliest ones, like his Seated Man (c. 1939), executed before de Kooning developed his famous style. A haunting image of color and tension, the man’s visage is taut and searching, his fingers arched in an expectant curl. A vase and window are abbreviated in faint charcoal outline, as if the man’s grim introspection doubts the existence of an exterior world. All is interior, and the halo of gold traditionally denoting the divine has descended to become a haze, seeming to block the man’s vision while at the same time glorifying the inner workings of his psyche.

Zurich (1947) combines letters and shapes in a composition that presages the graffiti of the ’80s, recapitulates the whimsical arrange ments of Klee and Miró, and at the same time underscores the primitive, ritualistic element of the painting process. The physical act of scrawling serves as metaphor for communicative need, the work’s apparent randomness a pure glimpse of the unconscious emerging into the light of the visible. The word “zot” appears at the bottom, a word in de Kooning’s native Dutch which the museum unfortunately renders as “foolish.” It just as readily means “crazy,” a distinction far more suited to the painting’s tenor. Though it would be foolish to believe one’s essence could be expressed in either word or paint, the crazy impulse is to create and try anyway; in the alphabet of the psyche, insanity is the terminal zot, just as Zurich is the alphabetical end of the geographic world. The internal and external cohabitate; neither is fully rendered nor repudiated, and it is the artist’s transforming power that permits us to see the pair in uneasy, unstable relation.

It is his later, quintessentially “abstract expressionist” works that disappoint. Woman (1948) here marks de Kooning’s arrival at his mature style; one of the standard subjects of Western painting undergoes a radical reformulation into the distorted, horrific, and primeval. As if painters before him could not fully see their women, de Kooning’s woman appears from the unconscious, gaping out of the canvas as if from some scarred interior. These worked-over surfaces have been called confessional poetry, and it is precisely this quality which renders them largely inaccessible to us. Art, which has previously aimed for an individual expression of universal feeling, became with these paintings a universal expression of individual feeling. The homogenizing force of American culture—so great a preoccupation to these American artists after World War II—manifested itself by turning all the painters of the movement inward.

Small wonder, then, that the next major movement in American art was the apotheosis of Andy Warhol and pop. By decreeing the Brillo box and Coke bottle to be identical to a work of art, the last remaining distinction between what was outside art’s boundary and what was not was erased: Artists no longer had to harrow their souls or expose their psychic processes in the painful quest for painterly achievement. Moreover, the notion that such dredged-up personal material was beautiful was supplanted by the more frightening beauty found in American culture’s mass replications—the Cokes, the Brillo boxes, the Marilyn Monroes. The changes in American society and the market forces which did so much to elevate artists like de Kooning from poverty eventually doomed them to seeming petty and ultimately small of vision. De Kooning’s hacked-up women, however genuinely felt, were inscrutable, but everybody could identify with Coca-Cola.

A drunken de Kooning, in a bit of now-legendary art gossip, encountered Warhol at a party and assailed him viciously: “You’re a killer of art,” de Kooning raved. “You’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work.” Not a few critics, most notably Arthur Danto, have come round to agreeing: Pop in many ways marked the end of art. But it’s impossible to fathom what sort of beauty de Kooning might have imagined Warhol was assigning to demise; his own canvases are ugly in a way that few others in the Western tradition are. De Kooning’s reformulations of the female nude into horrific distortions, while borrowing greatly from Picasso, are made doubly or trebly more horrible on the hacked-up surface. Under a sun scratched-out down to the fiberboard, the woman sits in phlegmatic color, grotesque deformation. Beautiful? Only to de Kooning and his circle, accustomed to seeing beauty in the alien rendering of psychic schema. Repellent? In every sense of the word.

Still, the abstract expressionists held the day for a while in the ’40s and ’50s, and their acceptance worldwide was finally what transferred the center of modern painting to New York, where it remains today. The movement succeeded in a willingness to turn its collective back on Paris, on received notions of beauty that had not yet been pared away even by Picasso at his most outré. In the indeterminate realm between abstraction and figuration, interior and exterior, de Kooning gave expression to the jostle of the modern, the brutal collisions of the highly refined soul with the impersonal monolith of America. Courageous for their day, to be sure, but this is ultimately the stuff of footnotes and art-historical genealogies. People turning to art in spiritual need—even if the need be only for beauty—will be rebuffed by the threnody of scrapes, scratches, and abrasions. And already bearing a sufficient allotment of their own nicks and bruises, they will move on.