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.