Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan

“de Kooning: An American Master”
By Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan
Knopf, 2004
752 pages, $35

Rudy Burckhardt de Kooning New York City 1950
Rudy Burckhardt de Kooning New York City 1950

With typical existentialist panache, Francis Bacon coined the phrase “exhilarated despair,” an oxymoron that rings true for Willem de Kooning, whom Bacon admired. Not so much for his work, necessarily, which runs the gamut of emotions and sensations (although exhilarating is undoubtedly its hallmark) as for his life, which was marked by enormous hardship and misery and yet was lived in an exemplary spirit of freedom and style. The affirmative alliteration of Irving Stone’s popular biography of Van Gogh applied equally to this tempest tossed flying Dutchman: “Lust for Life.”

Husband and wife team Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, art critic and sometime music critic of, respectively, New York Magazine and Newsweek, labored for a decade to produce their monumental biography, “de Kooning: An American Master” (Knopf, $35) in time for the abstract expressionist’s centenary. Copiously researched and deftly crafted into a 600+ page turner, it is not only a powerful, convincing portrait of an extraordinary individual but an insightful analysis of the twentieth century American art world. The intelligently paced descriptions of art are lush and perceptive, and while focused on the life story are rarely egregious in their biographical determinism.

But to sophisticated writers like Mr. Stevens and Ms. Swan, anxious to avoid the clichés of the hungry and lonely artist bolted away in his garret, struggling to find his muse, drinking himself silly, and womanizing with reckless disregard, de Kooning presents a problem: this often was his life.

He was the personification of the romantic outsider. He endured a childhood of grinding poverty and parental neglect, forever haunted by his truly monstrous mother and his cold, absent father. In the quaint Dutch phrase, the boy was “introduced to the four corners of the room,” and even as a man in his fifties would have wild shouting matches with his mother on one of her rare visits to America. Class, language and temperament frequently reduced him to the margins of society, despite earnest strivings to succeed. And even in success alienation seemed his lot. It was success, rather than failure, that made him an alcoholic, for instance. But he was more than merely resilient through these tribulations, his biographers show, folding the deep ambivalences in his personality into an emotionally ambitious art that embraced ambiguity and irresolution as their high calling.

When de Kooning stowed away aboard the SS Shelley from his native Rotterdam in 1926 his ambitions were as a commercial, not a fine artist. He showed prodigious talent for drawing, and enrolled for several years at the academy that now bears his name, but his apprenticeship was to the firm responsible for many of the cities finest art nouveau decorations. He left in such a hurry that he couldn’t bring his portfolio, or say farewell to his beloved older sister.

In Hoboken he found well-paid work as a house painter, and then made his way as an advertising illustrator, although that proved an object lesson in social mobility new world style. Where he’d been earning $12 a day as a painter his new paycheck for two weeks was $25. The Depression hit a few years later, but still he was doing well as a window dresser, able to splash out on a $700 record player. But—as was also true in Rotterdam—he moved in intellectually ambitious circles. In the 1930s he was adopted by the “three muskateers:” Stuart Davis, John D. Graham and his particular mentor, Arshile Gorky. Of diminutive stature, de Kooning was seen as the sidekick of the towering Armenian. He signed on to the WPA, working under Fernand Léger on an ill-fated mural project, but eventually was compelled to give that up too, so determined was he to be a full-time artist, uncompromised by paid work and bureaucracy. Despite having little to show for it, de Kooning was revered in the Downtown coffeeshop scene for his perceived integrity and advanced ideas.

The Second World War brought the School of Paris to New York as glamorous exiles, but as his biographers demonstrate, this only served further to isolate the proletarian, bohemian de Kooning from success. Peggy Guggenheim, patron of the exiles, adopted his friend and rival Jackson Pollock as the cowboy genius when a homegrown modernist was required. De Kooning would frequently be a man caught between cultures, too attached to the conventions of easel painting and an ambition to extend the great figurative tradition of Rembrandt and Rubens to fit the mould of “American-type” painting as defined by his amenuensis Clement Greenberg. (De Kooning’s great champion was Greenberg’s rival Harold Rosenberg, along with Artnews editor Tom Hess, who was his hagiographer.) His gritty, urban, essentially body-bound art bucked the trend towards the mystical and the oceanic in such abstractionists as Pollock and Rothko.

And yet, much as his “cuties,” as his notoriously gutsy, violent, angst-filled portraits of women to which he reverted after his breakthrough black and white abstractions of the late 1940s were labelled, drew upon vernacular culture, he was old hat to the emerging, and oedipally displacing, pop artists. Robert Rauschenberg famously requested a de Kooning drawing from which to make his symbolic “Erased de Kooning”; equally famously, de Kooning consented, painstakingly picking out an inferior drawing that would take many weeks to rub out.

The biographers are compassionate but unrelenting in their analysis of de Kooning’s relations with women, and his descent into alcoholism. In both cases, ironically for so wilful an “action painter,” passivity was the norm. A friend recommended a drop of whisky to allieviate heart palpitations, and he found the same cure worked for lethargy in the mornings; for the Depression years, nickel cups of coffee and the occasional beer was all he drunk. As for women, he could never bring himself to divorce Elaine Fried, with whom he was only properly together for a few years (she would return to his life as caretaker during his dementia, although she predeceased him) even as the mother of his illegitimate daughter clung to the ideal of marriage and family stability. The tendency was for his great loves to overlap in painful, distended menages-à-trois.

Although there are occasional lapses in biographer taste—did we particularly need to know from a young black girlfriend that he was a noisy lover?—the kiss and tell aspect of this exhaustive study actually does tell us much about the man, as well as about changing patterns in the role of women in the art scene. Sometimes we learn as much about his state of mind from his housekeeping as from his love life. A pioneer of loft living, in the 1930s he would scrub the space down weekly, like a Dutch sailor; in the next decade, when he was famous and yet too poor to take the subway to the Museum of Modern Art, at the request of a curator, to show her photographs of his new work, he allowed his loft to descend into squalor.

Pervasively sad though this biography is from troubled beginnings to pathetic decline, the portrait that emerges is of a compelling, handsome, winning, tender, determined man: after 600 pages we like our hero. Never more than when he himself identifies value in chaos. When a drunk chases a rolling quarter someone has thrown him through the swerving traffic, the artist remarks to his friends: “That’s my kind of space.”

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 15, 2004