Artists Talk On Art (ATOA)
Critical Dialog in the Visual Arts


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ATOA Panel Transcript

October 7, 2005

Dialog between Mark Stevens and Donna Marxer on "deKooning"

This panel occurred the year Mark Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize
for the biography of Willem deKooning he wrote with Annalyn Swan.

(Excerpts follow. The entire transcript may be purchased as a PDF download.)

Mark Sevens:

He moved more than a dozen times before he was an adolescent. He came from an extremely poor family that was also a broken family. His mother beat him probably every day. He had no security in his life whatsoever.

He could make beautiful classical commercial design too. ..But then there was also this sexy undertow thing, and other ways of thinking about the world.

He liked to be called 'Bill,' you know. He didn't like the fancy stuff. He always maintained a real class consciousness about not really working class but artisan, and a worker at craft. So what happens but that his best friend Gorky gets taken up by the Surrealists and more or less drops him. And he begins to see that he is never going to succeed as a fine artist.

He stowed himself away for three years almost trying to paint this painting which you all know as "Woman I." And you can say that in this picture, I like to say that it is a work that keeps on offending. . . It is a painting which is maybe the most difficult in American art. It is still irritating and anxious-making.

At this point he was also developing many followers and he used to say about his followers, people were copying his style. He would say about them, I love this, he'd say, "They can't do the ones that don't work." That's like a Zen.

(There is) in Western culture a kind of painting tradition that is now all but abandoned. There's some people who still do it and there are probably some of those here right now but this kind of juicy painting occurred exactly when people were not supposed to paint like this and once again he just threw it, that pot of paint in the face of the public and he received very critical reviews for it.

He would like to look at the reflections in water and he would say, he would reflect while they were reflecting. And he has that sense of a variety of space existing at one and the same time and we say that this is the last blooming of the pastoral tradition in Western painting.

(About the Late Paintings) I like to say that people who criticize them have never been to the country where they were made. What I mean by that is that this is an old man's painting and it is telling the truth about old man-dom. . . I would argue that it's telling the truth about age. It's a way of emptying out. De Kooning was very aware as he got old as he began to succumb to Alzheimer's that he wanted to just let things go. He wanted to stop holding on, wanted to get rid of weight, wanted to stop criticizing himself as much so he wanted to just relax more and just wander with the brush.

He was obviously not easy on women but we couldn't find a single woman who regretted the time spent. They thought it was worth it. For whatever reason. I think I know what the reason was: He was very interesting. And funny. And he said things that were charming and he had a big heart, a big soul. And they knew that he was a troubled person. But they would rather hang out with him than with some more ordinary guys.

He said Mondrian was the only artist who left "nothing." So, there's nothing left after Mondrian. A Mondrian painting seems to have left nothing. No residue. And he's merciless.

Blanchette (Rockekeller) buys "Woman II" and she was the most polished, gentle, polite, elegant woman, and de Kooning is introduced to her and he is absolutely tongue-tied for a moment and he is afraid. He doesn't know how to speak. He doesn't know what to say and he finally blurts out, "You look like a million bucks!"

(On Elaine) her death is what made the book possible. I would say. She was a wonderful person but like many widows, she was a widow before she was a widow. I mean, very controlling. And she had it all set out, what really the story was going to be about de Kooning. And her death, which was very surprising to everyone, enabled us to try to write a book that really told it like it was.

He's one of those rare artists in American culture who has a kind of emblematic or symbolic importance. It's not necessarily the case that these artists are good or bad, but some of them have a particular importance to American culture that transcends just the art.

There were some funny ones (Alzheimer's stories). That he was with Elaine on a plane and one of the things that he and Elaine liked to do was to walk up to Times Square and watch movies when they were married. So late in life he's on a plane with Elaine and he's watching the movie and he says, "Elaine, I don't like this movie. Let's get out of here."

De Kooning and Pollock themselves were somewhat competitive the way brothers are but what's poignant about their relationship I think is that they each saw in the other an artist, a fellow artist and that was by far the most important thing to that generation.

He had a kind of scabrous, vulgar sense of humor sometimes. He liked that sort of dirty, stupid Flemish jokes, he liked that kind of thing. He also loved Reubens who is the high end of Flemish culture

Calvinist culture, Dutch Protestant culture was very anti-physical, full of death, full of moral--lot's of ifs. And in response to that, particularly working class and outsiders and artisanal culture would often assert, as a kind of truth, things that are broken, vulgar, trashy, physical and with a certainless of value, and de Kooning has many aspects but I believe that's one of them. An important one.

There are people who want to yield their lives to other lives for decades at a time but I don't think I'm like that. . . . I'm glad I did it once. But I don't think I would do this kind of book again. I'll do other books, but not, not, not one as long, as densely researched. It's imprisoning, I mean you are in prison. Both of us still liked him at the end, which was a blessing.

Some people commented, "What a sad, disturbing life! You know, I liked the book but what a sad disturbing life." And it's not really what I feel and other people would say, "What a thrilling life!" Painful in many ways but thrilling.

With age, such a person does not pretend to be what he is not, but instead accepts the natural waning of his energies, seeming to grow less and less heavy as he approaches death. He exchanges substance for light, he leaves the world almost as naked as he entered it. In his best work of the eighties, de Kooning's desire to shed the glorious baggage of his younger years has that sublimely generous quality of letting go. Some pictures were better than others. What did it matter? He was content to enjoy the morning light in the Springs.

Donna Marxer:

There was a theory prevalent at the time that you touched on in the book that these men, these artists, and they were practically all men, had been very poor, and they were very very dedicated artists, the modernists, as opposed to the post-modernists today who seem to have a completely different view of success. But they were programmed for failure and it was when they became successful that they. . . were not able to cope--that they were prepared for failure but not success. And you even say in the book that years of failure did not turn him (de K) into an alcoholic, success did.

And the thing about de Kooning is fascinating is that the work is always finished and it's never finished. He never somehow goes too far. You know, the most famous quote of his, what he called himself, and I think best describes, "I am most in my element when I am most out of this world; then I'm in the real world. I'm on the beam. Because when I'm falling, I'm doing all right. When I'm slipping, I say 'Hey,' this is interesting. It's when I'm standing upright that it bothers me, I'm not doing so good. I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping most of the time into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser."

He lived the American Dream and he stayed very very true to that dream all the way through. It inspired all the passionate love affairs, and the passionate friendships. He stuck with his work and, I love this quote from Graham Greene: "A sliver of ice lives in the heart of every important artist."

I loved your using the word "voluptuous" about these paintings. That's what it is, voluptuous. In a way, he was the last of the Romantics.

The complete transcript of this panel can be purchased as a PDF download for $5.
You will need Adobe Acrobat to read it.