Museum of Modern Art, 504 pp., $75.00; $55.00 (paper)
At the Museum of Modern Art’s Willem de Kooning retrospective, the gift shop is selling a mug that has on it this quote from the artist: “In art one idea is as good as another.” The line is typical of the thoughts one finds in de Kooning’s published statements and recorded remarks in that it is at once funny, a little shocking, air-clearingly down to earth, and makes you see things a little differently. De Kooning’s point was that you could take an idea and suddenly see any number of heretofore unrelated artists being connected to it. But the words also suggest that it is not the artist’s theme that is the point but how it is brought off. Like many of de Kooning’s statements and sayings, the sentence delivers a human and artistic truth that tends to get lost when curators, critics, and even artists, in their public statements, talk about art.
In another light, though, de Kooning’s thought flattens differences, and the line came back to me as I tried to square the technical brilliance and almost grueling intensity of much of the work on view at the Modern with a sense of stasis and ungraspability it can leave you with. In a working lifetime that stretched from the late 1920s to almost the late 1980s, de Kooning (who died in 1997, at ninety-two) was almost programmatically elusive. He continually blurred the distinctions between abstraction and representation, and his individual pictures can be at cross-purposes as well. His best-known images, of seated women, from the early 1950s, are cauldrons of violent brushwork, but the overall tenor of the pictures is a lampoonish deflating of that brushwork. He held, as he noted in relation to Mondrian, that trying to attain a distinct style is a “horrible idea.” He wrote that when he read Kierkegaard’s line “To be purified is to will one thing,” the words “made me sick.” But then he was also a great admirer of Kierkegaard—and of Mondrian.
De Kooning’s refusal to take sides was held against him, especially in the 1950s, when abstract art was riding high in New York. Now, however, when the notion of a single vanguard style has become inconceivable to most artists in their fifties or younger, de Kooning’s relativism may make him seem more our contemporary than many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists—Barnett Newman, say—who adamantly willed “one thing.” And it may be the indeterminacy of his art that makes it, for this viewer, at least, more cerebral and psychological than emotional in its force. It presents something cool and colorless: the workings of a consciousness.
With his taste for contrary thinking, de Kooning might be tickled by this comment since color, taken literally, is, as …