de Kooning’s Imagery of Vacancy: Plumbing the Depths of the Void

We might look at Abstract Expressionism, Modern Jazz, and Free Verse not only as indigenously American cultural phenomena but also as different stylistic branches on the same creative tree. Certainly, the heyday of these contemporaneous movements (from about the late 40s to the mid-60s) shows us a common element or spirit of expansion, of spontaneity, of some form of ambitious personal expression. In the works from these movements, it is frequently the personal and the idiosyncratic choices of the artist which make their mark more than any other criteria.

In the music of composers/musicians like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, etc., we see the boundaries of the traditional arrangement being stretched farther and farther by the eccentricities, the flash, the inner logic of improvisation. Turning to the poetry of W. C. Williams, Charles Olsen, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso etc., we discover a new poetic voice unencumbered by rigid meter and re-enlivened by the vernacular, the colloquial, and an unabashed willingness to describe subject matter previously considered socially inappropriate or distasteful, in much the same way the Ash Can School introduced tenement dwelling and behaviour, violating the sacred plane of the “idealized” image. When we examine the chief proponents of Abstract Expressionism, namely the work of de Kooning, Kandinsky, Kline, Gorky, and Pollock, we again encounter a preoccupation with abstract form, new ways of defining the biomorphic, the geometric, the cohesion of colour and shape, the role of pattern, of design and harmony.

Yet de Kooning’s brand of Abstract Expressionism is more like a gorgeously built windmill spinning without any practical function: the beauty of elaborate energy but without the usefulness of that energy; or like a piece of Charles Ives music, where a kind of intelligent noise appears to “accidentally” become articulate and expressive. Still more like a puzzle box, the work of this forerunner of Abstract Expressionism is often an exquisitely wrought expression of emptiness, of contradictoriness, of a kind of void.

In contrast to Kandinsky’s intricate articulation (in both theory and practice) of the spiritual purpose of form, de Kooning’s work is an interesting anomaly. It is curious that de Kooning, in this period of artistic uninhibitedness, is regarded by more than one critic as evoking a sort of vacancy in his work, a deliberate descent into visual paradox, an emptiness and a void. Dore Ashton says that de Kooning “describes an abstraction: vacancy,” and Thomas Hess maintains that the paintings are based on “contradictoriness kept contradictory.”

In Woman I (1952), there is his typically strident stroking style, creating angles from and evidence of the brush, and image appears to be a by-product of the accidents or happenings of paint. Very little happens in this “portrait” to bring the viewer into a specific world. We’re pulled and jerked by the luscious wash of colour, where primary tones play dramatically against shades and hues; the role of paint as an ultra-expressive conduit of free-flowing thought (the whole raison d’être of Abstract Expressionism) is here, but the painting seems to use this technique as a way of transporting us nowhere fast. The tension in this painting isn’t like the carefully orchestrated contrast of a Kandinsky, there is no delight in the opposition of forces here; rather, there is a strange disquiet, an “almost” quality that is neither essentially figurative or abstract, premeditated or aleatory, formal or picturesque.

De Kooning worked these motifs and methods throughout his formative and mature periods, returning again and again to this “woman” portrait series with intensifications and variations of his signature style. Here we find de Kooning at his best, producing in these portraits (as well as early attempts at total abstraction in smaller canvasses like Valentine, 1947 and Painting, 1948) a kind of “chunky” effect or stylized clutter, where no or very little negative space is allowed into the canvas, where a mass of tension and conflict seems to throw the reality of the image into limbo, where solid colour and washes of colour interact unexpectedly, and where (like Pollock) the totality of the canvas is the most important effect. But rather than the ebullient personal statement we associate with the music and poetry at this time, de Kooning’s canvasses create an image of not being an image, all the more so in the Woman series but generally reflected through all his work. There is a stubborn hollowness produced by his insistence on making the canvas a kind of stratagem for orderly chaos, a hollowness not bereft of beauty and intensity but certainly forlorn, ghostly, and ambiguous in its refusal to let the “logic” of image-making take over. Even Pollock’s work reveals a formulaic side once the viewer learns what the canvas demands of his or her eye. Like the philosophy of much Japanese painting in which “emptiness” is an aesthetic goal, de Kooning has bypassed the formal by hitting upon a kind of cram-it-all-in-anything-goes-Funhouse-irrational style. In a dialogue with Georges Duthuit about the Dutch painter Bram Van Velde, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett (known primarily in this country for his existential comedy Waiting for Godot) referred to Van Velde as an example of this kind of emptiness or void, saying that the painter’s work was “the expression that there is nothing to express.” Perhaps this too is part of de Kooning’s charm, and perhaps he has used the mantle of Abstract Expressionism for its baroque qualities only to express form and feeling on a much more subdued, ethereal level.

While some interesting canvasses shine through, there is a huge gap between the previous styles and these pictures, not so much in terms of an enlargement or sophistication of his methods, but a marked dilution or dissipation of effect. We find de Kooning apparently searching for a redefinition of his style by creating an amalgam of what has passed through the visual vocabulary of the past fifty years. From the Fauvist vibrancy of Untitled VI 1981 to the Matissean swoop of form in Untitled III 1981 and Untitled XII 1985 to the tubular form of Leger with a touch of Kirchner’s colour drama from Untitled XV 1982 and Untitled VII 1986 to the “spermatozoa” motifs of Miro in No Title 1984, de Kooning is obviously re-evaluating his imaginative powers. The result is largely dissatisfying. A great deal of negative space is employed in these paintings, and without the density of his prior canvasses, burdened to a great extent by these numerous pictorial “quotations” from other painters and styles, these works unfortunately dwell too long on the decision-making process: they don’t have the conviction or the effect of a consolidated effort.

De Kooning once said, “…if you take the attitude that it is not possible to do something, you have to prove it by doing it.” Certainly, an aspect of abstract painting in general, and Abstract Expressionism in particular, is the strain of the impossible measured against the assimilation of time and popular culture. What was considered revolutionary and outrageous in 1945 or 1955 in painting is now part of the graphics paintbox systems of digital home publishing software. Perhaps there is a latent decadence inherent in the attempt to harness and express the abstract through paint. Art history and the imagination of artists always run a relay race with one another. What is fascinating about de Kooning is his grasp of “impossible” ways of seeing; his exquisite, ironic combination of thick images producing vacant results; and his acquisition of part of the void of the mind through a style filled with mischief, clatter, contradiction, and revolt.

Peter J. Dellolio Born 1956 New York City; NYU 1978: BA Cinema Studies; BFA Film Production; poetry collections “A Box of Crazy Toys” 2018 Xenos Books; “Bloodstream is an Illusion of Rubies Counting Fireplaces” 2023 Cyberwit/Rochak Publishing.

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