As I was saying, I finally made it through de Kooning: An American Master. I’m not in the business of reviewing books, so the below is more in the line of a series of reactions. No doubt more will come forth over the next few days.
In any event, the length of time it took me to read the book shouldn’t be taken as a reflection on it – I’ve been busy (writing here, among other things) and distracted. The biography reads quite well, in fact – crisply written with a fresh take on a number of famous episodes. The story of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, for instance, has been told many times, but far too often bloodlessly, concerned only with the art theoretical maneuver. In Stevens’ and Swan’s telling – unfortunately too long to excerpt in full here – it becomes real drama. The younger artist visited de Kooning, then still only beginning to enjoy fame, to ask for a drawing to erase. The latter became grave and “told Rauschenberg: ‘I know what you’re doing.’” Later in the scene:
De Kooning brought over a portfolio of drawings and began leafing through them. At last, he seemed to settle on one. He looked at it. But then he slipped the drawing back into the portfolio. “No,” he said, “I want to give one that I’ll miss.”
De Kooning brought over a second portfolio. He leafed through it as slowly as he had the first, examining one drawing and then the next. “These I would miss,” he said. “I like them.” He seemed to settle on a particular image. “No,” he said at last, “I want it to be very hard to erase.”
De Kooning's pride, anxiety, and seriousness dictate the telling, raising the stakes for the reader as he did for Rauschenberg. There’s much more to the story, skillfully situated to cast a shadow over de Kooning’s rising career: the gap emerging between him and a new generation, his new role at the center of the New York School, and a final payoff that cuts to the heart of the character that the authors find in him.
What is that character? James Panero recently paid the book an ambiguous compliment by saying it knocked down one of “the big creeps of twentieth century art.” That’s impressive company, and I’m not sure de Kooning belongs in it. The authors don’t shy away from the less attractive side of the artist. His selfishness and emotional cruelty, neglectful parenting and womanizing, alcoholism – all are laid out for the reader without excuse. Still, they also show the many likable qualities de Kooning had. His humor and lack of pretension stand out, as does his loyalty to Arshile Gorky, who achieved success first and dropped his friend. De Kooning never lost his love for the Armenian painter and paid poignant tribute to him after his death. The Dutch-born artist is presented as a bohemian who still admired bourgeois values, a nonconformist with an immigrant’s fearful respect for authority. Above all, he is utterly devoted to his work; the practice of art began for de Kooning in childhood and only left him a few times in his life until illness utterly overcame his mind. However his appetites might rage, painting and drawing remained at the center of de Kooning’s world.
Stevens and Swan are consistent and subtle advocates for the paintings. They discuss the critical context in which de Kooning’s art has been often negatively judged (a context that to some degree has influenced the reception of the book as well.) Throughout the book particular paintings emblematic of de Kooning’s development are singled out for extended treatment at the end of chapters. These readings show the close attention to de Kooning’s art one would expect, and offer arguments in favor of it seemingly intended to disarm critics. One, first offered about Woman I, and recurring through the latter portion of the book, connects de Kooning to the art of his native land. He’s “the master of a Rabelaisian strain of grotequerie that was traditionally very important in the Low Countries and was found in those scene of drunkenness and debauchery that, whatever their over moralizing, served to counter an often oppressively smug Dutch Calvinism or august Catholicism.” Sounds very good, but it is hard to square the coarse laughter of this tradition in Netherlandish art with the painter who said (in another context) “'I don’t have a sense of humor about art.’” Which ironically makes the later figure paintings of the sixties, if not Woman I itself, a little hard to take seriously.
One criticism of the book, aired in this post at About Last Night, is that the biography fails to give an adequate account of the inside game underlying the development of de Kooning’s paintings. “All of the contextual detail, description, lyrical interpretations, lectures, articles, and chronicles of conversations marshaled by the authors—none of it quite gets to the core”, writes the reviewer quoted there. This point deserves more discussion than I’ll be giving it here, but for now let me say that while there’s some truth to the charge, in a sense it merely indicates a more general issue. Stevens and Swan wrote a biography, not an art historical monograph. While the book wouldn’t exist without the work, and one hopes it illuminates the latter, it doesn’t exist to give the sort of detailed play-by-play of a painting’s development that one might expect from a different kind of study. It may be impossible in some cases to determine why an artist abandoned a painting as a failure only to return to it, but there are ways of drawing inferences and constructing theories to do so. The photographs of the painting in progress would count as pieces of evidence, as would x-rays of it, for instance, giving a sense of how it progressed and when it was stopped and started Perhaps Stevens and Swan should have considered performing such examinations, but it's probably the case that the authors had a different end in mind.
Part of that goal was to trace, through de Kooning’s career, the rise of the modern American art world. We see the struggles of American modernists in the thirties, the growth of art institutions, museums and galleries, the increasing demands of fame and commerce, and the changing taste of the growing art audience. I mentioned before the differences - known to all, but still so profound that it bears repeating - betwee today's art world and that in which de Kooning first struggled to become an artist. The Rauschenberg incident is one thread among many in this narrative, heralding changes which an artist like de Kooning was ill-equipped to weather.
The final portion of the book sadly becomes dominated by de Kooning’s personal problems and illness. Stevens and Swan offer an assessment of when his late works become "de Kooning's with an asterisk", though I'm sure other opinions abound. While some might want more detailed discussion of the murky situation surrounding his final paintings, at a certain point there’s nothing for the authors to do but mercifully draw the curtain.
There’s a lot more to discuss and absorb, and I’m looking forward to reading more reviews and comments on the book, as well as contributing more thoughts of my own. It is, as others have said here before, a highly accomplished piece of research and writing. I hope to hear from others who have read it, whatever their reaction. And one piece of advice: I'd recommend keeping a catalog of de Kooning's work close at hand when reading. While there are color plates of the works discussed most closely, it's helpful to see a wider range of images in larger sizes when following his stylistic development.