Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

How action painter Willem de Kooning fooled us

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Last week I reviewed Susan F. Lake’s Getty Conservation Institute-published thriller Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials.” The book reveals the oft-startling results of Lake’s technical examination of over a dozen de Koonings in the Hirshhorn’s collection (along with a less-intense examination of some two dozen other de Koonings).

One of the most surprising passages in Lake’s book exposes de Kooning as a faux-action painter who mined his knowledge of how paints and solvents react to create dramatic illusions. Lake’s revelation of some of de Kooning’s tricks reveal the painter as something like an overachieving high-school student who hides how hard he studies so as to look nonchalantly cool around the other boys.

I want to quote Lake’s key passage on Zurich (1947, above, and substantially whiter/more pale than the actual painting, which is warmer, even yellower) because it sets up a post later in the week about Zurich and Woman (1948) and because it exposes de Kooning’s Zurich, one of the artist’s black-and-white paintings, as (mostly) a painterly magic trick:

The appearance of gestural immediacy and unpremeditated spontaneity in Zurich is, to some degree, an illusion. Despite the presence of a true wet-into-wet technique, evident in some of the upper paint layers, paint cross-sections show that the initial black and subsequent white topcoat were built up as distinct layers; the black layer was undoubtedly dry before the upper white paint was applied. The impression of a wet-into-wet painting method actually derives from the artist’s use of paints that could be readily redissolved. When de Kooning applied the white paint to the surface of the lower black enamel, the solvents used to dilute the white partially solubilized the lower black. And, as the artist applied the paint, the mechanical action of his brush worked the lower black up into the upper layer, which shows as dark streaks in the white. The two paints at first slightly repelled one another, but then they dried with a lava-like or marbleized effect, creating the deceptive impression – an impression the artist obviously appreciated – that the white and black paints were intermixed wet-into-wet on the painting support before either had set.

Lake’s revelations about Zurich leads to numerous questions, many of which we may never know the answers to. I’ve been thinking about is how Zurich was likely an important painting for Richard Diebenkorn, who apparently mined it for his 1953 Albuquerque No. 3. (As I detailed here, in Albuquerque No. 3 Diebenkorn mixes elements from de Kooning’s Zurich with an abstraction of Matisse and Picasso compositions of a bust, a bowl and a palette.) I wonder if Diebenkorn saw through de Kooning’s action-illusion, or if he believed the painterly story he was being told…

Later this week: Lake’s research highlights the relationship between Zurich and the first major figure painting de Kooning made after – or during? – his black-and-white phase, and suggests a new way of reading at least one of de Kooning’s black-and-white abstractions.

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  1. todd says:

    I think painters who have spent real time with de Kooning’s paintings already knew they were very considered and not totally spontaneous. We – I – didn’t know how though. Really looking forward to reading this book!

  2. DalaLuz says:

    Well-thought-out action is still action right? I can find no fooling. But thank you for the article, I did find it insightful!

  3. Susan Kaprov says:

    In fact, all art is a ‘magic trick’. The invention of perspective is perhaps one of the greatest. Rembrandt’s underpainting and glazing is another. Countless others exist.

    Some magicians (artists) just have a better handle on their magic than others. The simple fact is de Kooning was a master. “Secrets” as such are incidental curiosities only.

  4. Laura Battle says:

    When I was a grad student at Yale in the early ’80’s, Irving Sandler told a story about a film that was made on de Kooning. He described the film makers complex set-up, a beautiful painting partly done, and that when filming started, de Kooning worked furiously on the painting but ultimately ruined it. When filming was over, the filmmaker asked him, “what happened?”, to which he replied “I usually paint a stroke, then sit and stare at it for a few hours, but didn’t think that would make a good film.”

  5. Erwin says:

    A coincidence, surely, but the letters in the bottom right corner spell “ZOT”. It’s Dutch and it means “fool” or “crazy”. It used to be a kid’s favourite graffiti before they were known as tags. Something to poke fun at the unknown reader.

  6. Don Gray says:

    So the implication here is that because de Kooning didn’t paint wet-in-wet with the black and white, he is somehow being fake, or deliberately fooling the viewer? Please!! It doesn’t matter if it took him ten minutes with a housepainter’s brush or ten years with paint on the end of a toothpick, the end result is what counts.

    I don’t think de Kooning was ever hiding anything about his technique. I watched a film of him painting and was astonished at how methodical and relatively slow his movements were, while the strokes he left looked rapid and full of energy. We take the term “action painting” far too literally.

  7. David Frankel says:

    There’s a film clip, findable on the web, in which de kooning and a bunch of other guys, one of them harold rosenberg (coiner of the term “action painting”), are sitting around a table talking, and de kooning turns to rosenberg and says–so harold: am i an action painter? he seems to find the whole idea hilarious.

  8. tb says:

    An old post, but what the hell, I’m reading it now. This exposes nothing except the author’s ignorance of De Kooning. It’s well known that in working he was was reflective in the extreme, and that he had to tinker with his media to prevent his paintings from drying faster than he could finish them. And the whole “action painting” concept was made-up critic’s jive to begin with.

  9. Tyler Green says:

    The art historical record indicates otherwise.

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