Sometimes a magic trick is ruined when a spoilsport shows us how the illusionist did it. Sometimes, as in Susan F. Lake’s exciting new book, “Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials,” the revealing of how the trick was done enhances our appreciation of both the artist who pulled it off and the work he made. Only the book’s drier-than-pigment title dulls the excitement of Lake’s findings. It should have been called, “Willem de Kooning: His Painterly Magic Tricks Revealed,” or “Willem de Kooning: Action Painter in Slow Motion.”
No matter: “The Artist’s Materials” could be the smartest and most engaging book published about art this year, a special accomplishment given Lake’s intensely technical approach to the artist’s work. “de Kooning,” which was published by Getty Conservation Institute, is an example of the kind of scholarship that museum curators and conservators should aspire to produce.
Lake is the head of collection management and chief conservator at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which has arguably the world’s best collection of de Koonings. “The Artist’s Materials” turns upside-down much of what we thought we knew about de Kooning, often poking holes in the work of pioneering examiner Thomas Hess. Lake proves that de Kooning wasn’t exactly an “action painter,” to use Harold Rosenberg’s famous phrase. Instead, many of the elements in de Kooning paintings that look like they were painted fast and spontaneously were in fact painted laboriously and were the product of a sophisticated understanding of how disparate paints would interact. [More on this on MAN next week, when I will look at de Kooning’s Zurich (1947) and Woman (1948) in the context of Lake’s findings.]
Lake begins her study by positing that artists make stylistic changes in their work when they make “deliberate changes in their artistic procedures,” and offers de Kooning as a case in point. Then she analyzes 34 de Kooning paintings and works on paper but focuses her technical examination on 14 key paintings in the Hirshhorn collection. Lake’s goal is to understand how de Kooning made them and to use that new information to give us a fuller understanding of the artist’s process and ultimately his work-product. Lake’s findings are so convincing that when she closes her final narrative chapter by suggesting that the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline be similarly analyzed, I all but shouted, “Get started already!” (Instead, Lake is at work on an examination of Clyfford Still’s paintings.)
Lake reminds us that reading a painter’s biography into his work can be a mistake: She persuasively argues that de Kooning didn’t use inexpensive commercial paints only because they were all he could afford but because they helped him create the illusion of frenzied action-painting. (The paintings Lake analyzed showed no trace of mayonnaise either. Numerous art historians, most recently David Anfam, have written that de Kooning included the stuff in his paintings.) In a related story, Lake uses technical analysis to reveal how thoroughly de Kooning mined his Old Master heroes for tips about how to use layers of paint and specific kinds of paints to achieve those effects. Lake doesn’t tie her subject to specific art-historical family trees, but her explanation of how de Kooning created his illusions reminds me of Frans Hals and how many of his finest portraits look fast-sketched. (The recent Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan biography of de Kooning doesn’t mention de Kooning as having any particular interest in Hals’ work, but after reading Lake I have to believe de Kooning was intensely interested in his countryman’s work.)
One of Lake’s most fascinating discoveries comes in a footnote: Through an analysis of paint samples, she discovers how de Kooning made many paintings by blotting still-wet canvases with paper, and using that paper as the basis for a kind of artist-instigated binary fission. (Lake reveals that this technique was born from de Kooning’s practice of covering his paintings with paper or cloth in an effort to keep them wet.) Lake reveals that de Kooning likely performed this kind of mitosis on one of the Hirshhorn’s own paintings, Woman, Sag Harbor (1964, above right), in order to gave birth to Sphinx (1964), which is also in the Hirshhorn’s collection.
While nearly all of Lake’s observations and conclusions are made through the use of sophisticated technical equipment, the passages that explain that work to fellow professionals in hyper-detail never interfere with the accessibility of her narrative. Each of the book’s chapters takes on sets of de Kooning paintings and includes complicated scientific analysis, but Lake wisely leaves the most intense explanations of her process for a final chapter and appendices, which are co-written with Getty Conservation Institute researcher Michael Schilling.
Unfortunately, only about half of the works the Lake examines are on view at the Hirshhorn now, as the book is released. On a recent Saturday I visited the museum, Lake’s book in hand, to read it ‘with’ the paintings Lake examined. (The Hirshhorn almost always has a de Kooning gallery on view as part of its third-floor collection installation.) Many of the Hirshhorn’s de Koonings are behind thick, reflective glass which makes some of the details about which Lake writes hard to see. Still, Lake’s book helped me see and understand details of the paintings I’d missed.
Alas: The museum has apparently missed a special opportunity to present a major de Kooning hang, perhaps along with some of Lake’s findings. (Lake’s work is not particularly wall-text-able, but the museum could drop benches into its galleries and then make Lake’s book available to visitors.) Lake will lecture at the museum on November 16, but it’s disappointing that the museum missed such an obvious opportunity to spotlight both a strength of its collection and the important work of one of its scholars.
Next week on MAN: More on “de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials” and Zurich, Woman.