In the heroic days of New York art, his smeared brushstroke became the signature of a generation and his paintings led a revolution that stretched across the planet. For at least a decade, starting in the early 1950s, Willem de Kooning was the world's most influential painter, a source of ideas that were studied, copied, assimilated and reworked by artists from Milan to Tokyo to Toronto. He was a shaping force in the culture of this century, and his death on Wednesday at the age of 92 brought to a conclusion the astonishing story of the New York School.
The best of de Kooning's work was charged with an I-will-be-heard intensity that he shared with his New York colleagues. They were all roughly his age (he was born in 1904, in Rotterdam) but most of them died long ago--Jackson Pollock in 1956, Franz Kline in 1962, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman in 1970. To mention their names today is to evoke not only another era but another way of making and seeing art.
They were provincial artists in a provincial capital, living in the shadow of Europe, who woke up one day in the 1950s to discover that New York was the metropolis of art and they were the unlikely, paint-splattered princes of the city. Prosperity was exhilarating (they had been poor for decades), but in a few years they found their new status oppressive. "It is a certain burden, this American-ness," de Kooning remarked in the 1960s. He had arrived in 1926 as a stowaway and an illegal immigrant. Back in Amsterdam in the early 1920s, learning to draw at the Academy, he had felt that he alone, "not Holland," was doing the drawing. But the atmosphere of post-war America, intoxicated by artistic power, was different. It brought new anxieties. As he saw it, American painters had been recruited as "a team writing American history."
Certainly there was a self-conscious sense of history being made, and in a particularly grand way. Harold Rosenberg, the critic who coined the term "action painting" for de Kooning's art, described the making of a painting as a battle between will and fate, with the art object a record of the artist's anguished struggle. The fashionable word "existentialist" was sprinkled delicately over this sort of criticism, like an eye-dropper of vermouth in a martini.
But if the praise was overly dramatized, it was nevertheless true that de Kooning and his generation worked with a seriousness that later vanished from painting. They made their mark before irony became painting's dominant mode, and before art splintered into more pieces--Minimalist, Op, Conceptual, Pop, etc.--than anyone could count. The moment of de Kooning & Co. was the last time in this century when people assumed that art had both a centre and a logical history.
De Kooning was a child of Cubism, and for much of his career its overlapping shapes filled his canvases. His contours also distantly echoed Rubens, Michelangelo, and Ingres, among others. As he said, traces of these artists remained in his work "like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice; the smile left over when the cat is gone." Studying him was like studying art history, except that most of the lessons were carefully hidden.
He would paint over a work again and again, sometimes for years, and the final canvas would carry glimpses of earlier versions: painting on top of painting, a wonderfully rich palimpsest. Today some of his paintings feel like time capsules--his 1955 Gotham News (in the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo), with its bits of newsprint transferred onto the canvas, delivers an intense period feel, speaking eloquently of the time when abstract art fell in love with the intensity of urban life.
Artists everywhere copied de Kooning's thick, spontaneous-seeming brush strokes (many still do), but his colours defy imitation. As a colorist, he was both daring and careful. He could put together the most unlikely combinations ever seen in one picture--wild pinks, liver-like shades, an amazing variety of oranges, intense pastels borrowed from mass culture--and by a private alchemy make them work. The way he broke the rules was deliriously exciting at the time and still seems thrilling.
The New York School was sometimes called Abstract Expressionist, but that term applied to de Kooning only during the Woman series of paintings in the 1950s, when (having established himself as an abstract artist) he returned to the human face and began inserting in his work toothy women drawn from cigarette ads. They were half goddesses, half vampires, women one critic aptly called "Doris Day with shark teeth." Critics identified the subtext as sexual insecurity, but de Kooning said only that "I began with women, because it's like a tradition, like the Venus, like Manet made Olympia."
Forty years ago, while he was making the greatest paintings of his life, Willem de Kooning appeared to be the beginning of something, perhaps some new synthesis of art embodied by abstraction. Since then, history has instructed us otherwise. In truth, he was the end of something. He was the last great modernist.