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.