- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

There can hardly be a more treacherous subject for a biographer than the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. At the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 92 he had, at least in America, almost come to equal Picasso in the popular imagination as a kind of art god, a figure of transcendent, history-changing accomplishment. The immediate task facing any biographer, then, would be to cut through the myth without seeming to diminish him in stature.

At the same time, there is no more likely target of “pathography,” Joyce Carol Oates’s famous tag for biographies that focus exclusively on the seamy, sensational aspects of their subjects. For, while de Kooning may have been a major artist, his private life was a sordid wreck. How to keep it from obscuring his artistic accomplishments?

Finally, there is the tragedy of de Kooning’s late years. Beginning around the mid-1980s, de Kooning began exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. Still, he kept painting. What is one to make of these works? Are they heroic strivings in the face of diminishing capacity, a great last flowering like the cutouts of Henri Matisse? Or are they little more than a child’s scrawls put down by a man groping his way through a gathering mental twilight?

Into this forbidding terrain have stepped Mark Stevens and his wife Annalyn Swan to give us “De Kooning: An American Master.” Mr. Stevens is the art critic of New York Magazine, Ms. Swan a music critic and former arts editor at Newsweek. They have emerged from it not just unscathed but having established themselves, on their first outing, as exemplary practitioners of the biographer’s craft. “De Kooning” is the very model of what an artist’s “life” should be. It is also one of the most depressing books you will ever read.

De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1904 into a family that could charitably be called dysfunctional. In 1926 he stowed away on a ship heading to America. He eventually made his way to Manhattan, where he continued a career begun in Holland of commercial artist. But he wanted to be a fine artist and, thanks to a friendship formed with Arshile Gorky in the late 1920s, gradually became part of the bohemian, downtown milieu of avant-garde artists who, in the 1930s and after, were struggling to rework the artistic legacies of Picasso, Matisse, and the Surrealists into something of their own.

From the start de Kooning, who had had some formal art training but possessed little first-hand knowledge of art, displayed a trademark tendency to go his own way. Much as he eagerly wished to be a “modern” artist, he was also a deeply traditional one: He drew incessantly; gave the human figure a central role in his art; and looked to the European Old Master tradition as something to be equaled and emulated rather than a burden to be shucked off.

After a lengthy period of searching for his own artistic voice (which nonetheless yielded a handful of significant pictures) de Kooning produced two breakthrough paintings in rapid succession. The first was “Excavation” (1950), an abstract work that synthesized Cubist planar structure and Surrealist biomorphism into a tense, allover field that heaves and strains as digesting something. The second was “Woman I” (1952) a work that has since become one of the canonical images of post-war American art.

She is Rubens updated — with a vengeance. A full-on frontal nude with eyes blazing and teeth bared, “Woman I” is an expressionist harpy, a creature whose unfettered psycho-sexual confrontation with the viewer makes the put-up-or-shut-up brothel mavens in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” look demure by comparison. It was, too, another example of de Kooning’s ability to go his own way: an openly figurative work by a leading avant garde artist painted only a few years after Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings had, according to the critical consensus of the day, established abstraction as the only proper language of advanced art in America.

In 1963, responding to an increasing interest in landscape, and with Pop Art having largely marginalized him as the leading artist of his time, de Kooning moved out of Manhattan to the eastern end of Long Island where he embarked on a series of abstract land/seascapes that were to preoccupy him until his death. In their book, the authors seamlessly interweave the chronicle of de Kooning’s life with a description of his artistic evolution. They even capture something quite subtle: what it is to become an artist.

I don’t mean the litany of specific works of art that shaped a style but something deeper and more elusive: the formation of a person’s artistic culture, temperament and outlook. In this regard, the account of the friendship between de Kooning and Gorky and of Gorky’s impact on the green Dutchman, to take but one example, is fascinating and deeply moving. Mr. Stevens’ career as an art critic has obviously been an indisputable advantage in coming to grips with his subject, and it is to his and his wife’s credit that they bring level heads to their discussion of de Kooning the artist.

My own view is that de Kooning peaked with “Woman 1,” that much of what followed was a wan coda, and that the paintings made while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s are indefensible as art. One would hardly expect his biographers to share such a view and they don’t. On the other hand, they steer clear of the kind of garrulous hyperbole that was so often written about de Kooning in his day, some of which they quote to hilarious effect.

One doesn’t have to agree with all their aesthetic judgments to recognize that, in addition to its merits as a “life,” theirs is one of the best books on de Kooning’s art that’s ever been written. The authors have brought equally level heads to their discussions of the seamier side of de Kooning’s life — perhaps too level. For the fact is that as de Kooning’s career advanced his interior collapse accelerated.

The artist increasingly floated on a sea of alcohol. He went on long, incapacitating drinking bouts, sometimes becoming so intoxicated that he spent the night passed out in the gutter. I didn’t do an exact count, but I’ll bet that if the reader had a nickel for every time the word “binge” appeared here, they would be able to buy an extra copy of the book.

Then there were the women. At one point in the 1970s Elaine de Kooning, whom he wed in 1943 only to separate from a few years later (although she remained part of his life until her death in 1989) referred to “the three Mrs. de Koonings” — a wry allusion to the constellation of wives, mistresses, girlfriends, and one-night stands who constantly surrounded the artist.

It all makes for a pretty harrowing tale, and while the authors avoid sensationalizing it, as one ploughs through yet another account of some protracted bender or seedy domestic drama, one longs for at least some authorial rebuke, some acknowledgement of the toll this selfish and anti-social behavior exacted, not just on de Kooning, but on those around him.

A number of de Kooning’s fellow Abstract Expressionists died young, mostly from drink or related ailments (although one was a suicide), and more or less in the prime of their artistic lives. Thus they were spared the possibility of protracted artistic and/or personal declines. Instead, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline and David Smith went out to a chorus of what-might-have-beens. Reading this book, the thought is inescapable: They were the lucky ones.

Eric Gibson is the Leisure & Arts Features Editor of The Wall Street Journal.

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