On Monday I posted about a peculiar little feature I noticed in the lower left-hand corner of Willem de Kooning‘s magnificent Excavation (1950), on view now in the Museum of Modern Art’s de Kooning retrospective: I wrote that de Kooning seems to have literally excavated the painting with a strip of masking tape.
Readers contributed a number of possible answers. One of the most interesting was from reader and painter Gordon Fraser who pointed to this detail posted from Jim Coddington’s conservation study of Woman II (1952), which is both published in the exhibition’s catalogue and excerpted on MoMA’s exhibition website (click through to the third image on MoMA’s site, the image is also at right below):
Because [de Kooning] painted on an unstretched canvas, the sight size of the painting was, of course, never fixed. So there’s evidence that he changed the actual stretched size — the sight size, as we call it — of the painting several times. Along the bottom left edge, about an inch and a half or two inches from the current edge of the painting, one can see a series of staple holes, which indicate that it was at that point, about two inches up, the painting was stretched, perhaps just temporarily, to test a slightly smaller composition for this painting. Similarly, there is a drawn charcoal line about half an inch above the bottom left edge — another indication that he was perhaps testing that as the bottom edge of the canvas at some point.
Could be, though perhaps that seems an odd place to tape a drawing. (Also, de Kooning often just stuck drawings onto wet paint.)
In response to my speculation that the way de Kooning excavated the painting by perhaps or apparently removing a piece of masking tape, art historian David Anfam suggested I consider the title for Excavation within the context of the titles that preceded it. From Anfam’s 2003 article on de Kooning in The Burlington Magazine:
[I]t is the whole tenor of Bosch’s, and sometimes Bruegel’s, realms that accords with de Kooning’s own in the second half of the 1940s and early 1950s. They share teh sentiment of humanity as threatened and absurd: de Kooning famously emphasised fear, trembling and torment in his talks and textas at the time, such as ‘A Desperate View’ (1949) and ‘The Renaissance and Order’ (1950, which opens its rumination on that earlier age with people ‘being hung or crucified.’ Apocalyptic destruction and eschatological overtones are also corollaries of this mutual perspective: obviously in Bosch’s ‘Last Things’ and ‘divine judgments’ and Bruegel’s concern with worldly horrors; more peripherally in de Kooning’s titles such as Black Friday (1948) and Noon (1947), respectively the day and the hour of the Crucifixion. Even the titles of Light in August (1946), Orestes and Gansevoort Street may reinforce this palimpsest of meaning.