I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ten Favorites: De Kooning, Excavation, 1950


As Tyler Green is currently doing on Modern Art Notes, I think it is a great idea to name one’s ten favorite paintings if not for any other reason than to force oneself to write and post. Naming ten favorites is no easy task. In fact, the task cuts to quick about your history viewing art, who you are and what you value, why certain things affect you more than others, how art comes into even the most unlikely of lives and finds a place there. To name your ten favorite paintings is to tell stories, rhapsodise a little, shoot off the cuff, get a bit unruly, take sides, and most of all to love past cynicism, past doubt, even past belief. To name your ten is a shifting practice and rightly so, the numbers change, some paintings get bumped out, some get bumped in. The changing self, some things fixed, some things evolving. Here I go. They will total ten and will use Tyler's rule of being made after 1880 but they will not be in any particular order.

Willem De Kooning: Excavation

This painting throws elbows. In its long term home at the Art Institute of Chicago, it rests amongst in a gallery featuring many great works including Pollock’s The Key, 1946, a great Matta, and a Smith Totem piece. The De Kooning dominates, takes over the room with its prudential frenzy, its tight lipped angst, and its heaving knobs and bones dancing a controlled boogie. These joints are what Clement Greenberg called “Homeless Representation,” bits of the human figure standing between you and the purity of abstraction. With the De Kooning, the bits are legs and arms and mouths. They bite. It wouldn’t be for another decade that Jasper Johns bite back.

As with all of the paintings on my list, this one has a story. During an ad hoc tour for some friends of mine about 5 years ago, I again declared the De Kooning the finest of all paintings. I was getting expressive. I was describing the scene in 1950 -- Pollock on the verge of his Life magazine article and not yet back on the bottle, the others Ab Exers still drinking and fighting at the Cedar Tavern, Gorky already dead for two years. World War II had been over for three years, and the drama in these painters lives came only from themselves. I told my friends how De Kooning was different from his contemporaries, more restrained, classically trained. I described the lines in Excavation, how they carve into the canvas like blades into a wood block. At that moment, a familiar voice, my Thesis Advisor David Raskin, said from behind me, “And why don’t you describe this painting for my class, what is the basic premise of the piece?”

Raskin’s entire graduate class stood behind me and apparently had been listening to my rapture. My friends exited into the next room, and I stood clumsily avoiding speaking clearly about the piece. What Raskin wanted me to say, and what I knew and couldn’t say was the word “Cubism.” And with that word and what it means, the structure of Excavation falls into place, it made sense, it becomes even more restrained, more classical, more controlled. Anytime I think about De Kooning’s career, how his dementia eventually caught up to him, and his, in the words of Roberta Smith, long slow goodbye to cubist structure, Excavation becomes a vibrant elegic monument.