Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

De Kooning, ‘Excavation’ and… a strip of tape?

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As I was standing in front of Willem de Kooning‘s great Excavation (1950) at the Museum of Modern Art last week, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: de Kooning apparently removed a strip of masking tape from the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. You can sort-of see it in the detail from the painting I’ve posted above. You can see it quite clearly at MoMA, where “de Kooning: A Retrospective” is on view through Jan. 9, 2012. I’ll have a review and some other coverage of the show soon. (The revealed strip is also noticeable on the best, largest image of the painting I could find on the web: Click on Excavation at the Art Institute of Chicago’s website for an 800-pixel-wide JPEG.)

So, yeah: Willem de Kooning? Using masking tape? And in 1950, a few years after the great black-and-white paintings, in the midst of his greatest series of Woman paintings, and just before another remarkable series of wet, free-flowing, loose-and-brushy Woman paintings? Surprise! Why in the middle of this period, a period during which one suspects masking tape was typically as far from de Kooning’s toolbox as could be, did he tape off a little three-quarter inch strip of the bottom left of Excavation?

‘Tis a small detail, so it’s no surprise that two of the most recent sources of de Kooning scholarship — MoMA’s catalogue and the Mark Stevens-Annalyn Swan biography of the artist — don’t mention it. (The word “tape” isn’t even in Stevens and Swan’s book.) I did a search on JSTOR too, and didn’t come up with anything. (My access to JSTOR is pretty low-level, so I may have missed something. Readers?)

Still, given that it seems entirely out of practice for this period of de Kooning’s work, I wonder why he did it. Here’s my best guess: The removal of tape makes apparent a strip of what’s under the rest of Excavation, particularly some red, orange and pink that’s present elsewhere in the painting. Two photographs of the painting-in-progress taken by Max Margulis and published in MoMA’s catalogue clearly show that the lower-left of the painting featured substantial doses of those colors. It seems as if de Kooning thought that later he might want to provide a little window into the paintings origins. And as it turned out, he did.

In “de Kooning: An American Master,” Stevens and Swan provide an explanation that may suggest why the idea of revealing the painting’s history may have intrigued de Kooning:

[He] was also attracted during this period to the “excavating” going on around him at building sites. In the economic boom of the postwar years, construction workers were repairing and extending subways and digging foundations for new buildings. De Kooning, like many other pedestrians at loose ends, enjoyed looking through the holes cut in boards surrounding construction sites in order to get a glimpse of the excavation and the rising building.

Perhaps this little mystery might provide an answer for another mystery: Why the painting is titled Excavation, about which “there has been much speculation,” notes MoMA curatorial assistant Lauren Mahony in the exhibition catalogue. Maybe removing that strip of tape to reveal what was underneath, literally excavating a little section of the painting, was so important to de Kooning that it birthed the painting’s title.

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  1. Interesting. Could be he had a drawing or vellum taped over it at one point? Or at one point he taped off measurements for cropping and stretching?

  2. Tyler Green says:

    Yes, definitely possible! (Though to the last point it’s worth noting that the ‘excavation’ only extends 18 inches or so across the bottom of the canvas.)

  3. There is also the famous story of a curator at Moderna Museum in Stockholm, who made adjustments to paintings when he thought there were not “finished.”

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. I’m thrilled you picked up on this detail of Excavation, Tyler. I worked on the installation crew through portions of the exhibition install and really began looking at the edges of de Kooning’s paintings when the totally juicy Untitled VIII from 1977 (plate #176 in the exhibit catalog) was uncrated. I was struck by how the thick oozy body of paint ended delicately and uniformly about 1/16″ from the painting’s edge. It’s hard to tell whether this was scraped or taped, but it appears to me to have been done while the painting was stretched. I’ve been looking at the edges of his works in the show and how the presence of “margins” in some of the work work compositionally. That he “framed” many of his drawings and the earlier paintings with drawn perimeters feels to me like a vestige of his commercial art days as is, I assume, is the use of masking tape. Being able to visit the exhibit on a daily basis is a major perk. I’ve identified at least half a dozen paintings that appear to have taped edges. Excavation is unique in that the tape is well within the border of the paintings and both edges of the tape are visible. There is one drawing, Two Women’s Torsos (plate #90) in which tape was placed well inside the working perimeter on the left and toward the top. When removed, the tape abraded an inch wide strip on the paper surface and was subsequently was drawn over in places (this feature doesn’t show in the reproduction). A taped edge near the top of The Time of the Fire, 1956 (plate #103) is one instance where the taped edge at the top is far enough inside the composition to be a visible element of the composition. Like in Excavation, this line eventually disappears under other paint layers…

    I’ll stop there and spare you the rest of my geek-out on this subject.

  6. val says:

    Richard Shiff–in his new book on de Kooning (Between Sense and de Kooning)–talks quite a bit how de Kooning would mask various parts of his paintings throughout the painting process–sometimes with other pieces of paper/vellum/tape. He did not always “smooth out” these abrupt transitions.

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