Modernism and the Curse of Talent: The Case of de Kooning

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

106354685For a moment, the crowd that was constantly amassing around the painting singled out by the organizers of the MOMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective as the masterpiece of his early period—Excavation (1950)—had dispersed. So my husband and I positioned ourselves in front of it to take advantage of what we knew was a rare moment of unobstructed viewing. Excavation is strategically located to be the climactic experience in the room devoted to de Kooning’s “breakthrough” black-on-white enamel and oil paintings, which took letters from the alphabet as their starting point but through acts of concentrated painterly energy became something else—organic shapes, anthropomorphized figures, ambiguous forms, increasingly vibrant, rhythmical, and abstract, which I found thrilling to look at. Excavation, more pale yellowish-white than the black of the other paintings in the room, was de Kooning’s largest work yet—6’9” by 8’4”—and my husband pointed out that he no doubt felt compelled to work on this larger scale, given that it was the moment of the mural-scale paintings of Jackson Pollock et al. Nevertheless, it was still an “easel” painting—the distinction was Clement Greenberg’s—and if de Kooning was after the more experimental overall look and feel of a Pollock, my husband thought this painting fell short. He appreciated the psychic battle apparent in all the strenuous marks of doing and undoing that de Kooning was trying to orchestrate into a unity during the many months he worked on the painting, but the more time we spent looking, the more my husband questioned whether de Kooning’s “talent” was getting in his way: the tasteful dabs of bright color, no matter how many subversive techniques he invented in their application; his masterful line and contour, no matter how violently he worked to dislodge the figure from its own pictorial space; and most telling, his unconscious return to the center of the painting with an “x” to mark the spot, even as he tried to allow for more spontaneous composition. Such was de Kooning’s “talent” that no matter how radically he tried to break with line-bounding shapes, in Excavation, it feels like there is always a ghost of the figure about to reappear.

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