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A Sense of Place: Reading Willem de Kooning's GOTHAM NEWS

The exhaustive Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art boasts nearly two hundred works by the influential postwar artist, so to select only one work out of so many potentially worthy candidates seems somewhat perverse. Yet, an in-depth look at a particularly hectic mixed media canvas, Gotham News, a work dating from 1955, can begin a stimulating inquiry into multiple facets of the artist's life as well as the social context of making art in New York City in the mid-1950s. Mining the painting for meaning and context becomes something like an archaeological dig, beginning quite literally on the surface of things.

Good for MoMA that Gotham News is best viewed in person, because reproductions cannot convey the textual richness of de Kooning's large and thick brushstrokes. Measuring 69 x 79 inches, the painting presents a busy traffic jam of complementary colors, near accidents between red and green, blue and orange, or black and white. If it could talk, the work would yell. The mottled pink passage near the bottom left suggests the presence of mortal flesh in a world of zigzags and sharp corners.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997). Gotham News. 1955. Oil, enamel, charcoal, and newspaper transfer on canvas. 69 x 79” (175.3 x 200.7 cm) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As a metaphor, and clued by the work's title, Gotham News expresses the busy energy of New Yorkers in their city. But wait! We can read actual text in this painting, courtesy of the bits of newspaper transfers de Kooning applied to wet paint. Begin by directing your attention to the top middle, and look for the upside down and reversed newspaper ad. That's a movie theater notice for Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 movie To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Read on. It’s like opening an old box in the attic where the fascination comes not with retrieving what’s stored in the box but with the crumpled old newspapers used for packaging.

In addition to the reds, whites, blues, and greens of the thickly layered brushstrokes, the newspaper transfers depict scraps of advertisements for diamond wedding rings, clearance sales, a cartoon woman, and something about television. The vigorous painting whips up a controlled chaos, the many voices of the imagined mythic Gotham all at once engaged in the persuasive practices of journalists and ad men.

Several titles of paintings that precede Gotham News reference life in post-war New York - Fire Island (1946), Secretary (1948), Night (1948), Black Friday (1948), and Night Square (1948). Gansevoort Street (circa 1949) is a swirling study in blood red, appropriate for the meatpacking district. Curator and arts editor Katherine Kuh said she gave Gotham News its name. As an organizer of the American section for the 1956 Venice Biennale, Kuh said she wanted to include works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and de Kooning, but the biennial theme of "American Artists Paint the City" made it tough for abstractions.

As recounted by Avis Berman in ‪My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator, Kuh explained, "At that time I was inclined to believe that all three of them were at least partially indebted to New York." Visiting Kline's Third Avenue studio, she picked out a couple of paintings, naming one of them "New York." Kline called the other one "Third Avenue." De Kooning's studio was nearby, and so the two walked over by way of the rooftops. Kline told her that one of the de Kooning’s paintings in progress was a knockout.

According to Kuh,
"After a sociable drink or two, I noticed the occasional and nearly invisible traces of newsprint pressed into the pigment. According to de Kooning, this technique gave texture to the painting and at the same time amused him, so the picture was promptly baptized Gotham News. Whereas de Kooning was easygoing about my arbitrary naming, Jackson Pollock vehemently disapproved of any theme. 'Goddam it,' he said, 'what a silly idea.'" (Kuh, Berman, p. 233)

MoMA situates Gotham News within de Kooning's Woman to Landscape period, 1950-1956, as the painting follows shortly after his notorious third Woman series. Tough, grotesque, and aggressive, these three-quarter portraits of female figures are characterized by their big breasts and huge teeth, wild eyes and a general carnal knowledge. Aside from their garish irritation, the works indeed bothered the artist as much as they upset his critics.

In an interview conducted by David Sylvester for the BBC in 1962, de Kooning explained,

"The ‘Women’ had to do with the female painted through all ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn’t go on. It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light – all this silly talk about line, color and form – because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of."

As the exhibition at MoMA notes, De Kooning's subsequent urban landscapes should be considered in relationship to his depictions of the female figure. The artist said during this time, "The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes." Later works conflate details of the female figure with the urban landscape, merging foreground and background. In their 2004 biography, De Kooning: An American Master, writers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan assert a connection between the making of Gotham News and other urban landscapes of this period with a visit by the artist’s Dutch mother, Cornelia. The mother-son exchanges instigated a heightened emotional cacophony:

“What could be more grotesquely lurid than this relationship between an old woman and her son, who screamed at each other, hurled things at each other, declared that they loved each other?” (Stevens and Swan, p. 379) 

De Kooning just turned fifty.

At the time of his mother’s visit, de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, had established some distance from one another. Elaine lived on East 28th Street, while de Kooning stayed at his studio at 88 East 10th Street. To complicate matters, his affair with Joan Ward, an art student living in the building, resulted in a pregnancy. Joan would give birth to Johanna Lisbeth de Kooning in January of 1956. But de Kooning’s affairs were many, and they were often complicated. Chaotic may be a better word.

In the poetic de Kooning chapter of his book American Masters: The Voice and the Myth in Modern Art (1973) and one that concentrates on Gotham News, artist and critic Brian O’Doherty observed that de Kooning worked tirelessly to both assert chaos in his pictorial space and to cancel it out. In projecting chaos, de Kooning reversed traditional Renaissance perspective by placing the artist at the vanishing point. When he approached his ideals, he looked for a way to undo them. In this way, he fulfilled a kind of romantic notion of an artist. According to O'Doherty, Gotham News and other works of the period such as Police Gazette, Saturday Night, and Interchange are "wonderful messes." Gotham News, in particular, with its jumble of unreconciled disconnected parts, reads "like a map of some oddly coincidental geologies." The multimedia aspects, in addition to influencing Robert Rauschenberg - think of substituting the newspapers with photo transfers - invite the viewer to share the dreamscape. O'Doherty even sees in the details of the painting the way to Warhol. (O'Doherty, Dutton edition, 1982, pps. 163-167)

If O'Doherty sees Gotham News as an apex in De Kooning's career, he is not alone. Many critics perceived a decline in the artist's later years. Yet, one of the virtues of the MoMA retrospective, largely through the sheer presentation of so many works, is the possibility to perceive patterns and meanings throughout the artist’s life, but especially in his final decades. In space and time, these increasingly sparse works allow breathing room, more air. By the early 1960s, the artist sought a break from New York, a city that he mixed with copious amounts of alcohol. A frequent visitor to Long Island, he settled into a new artistic life in the scrubby hamlet of Springs in East Hampton. Issues with alcohol and women never abated, and dementia would eventually come, but in the pictorial landscape of the canvas, de Kooning increasingly often found more seaside colors and personal space.

For something so abstract, Gotham News makes a good historical picture of New York in the 1950s. Even knowing nothing of the personal circumstances of the artist's later years, just looking at his works in the decades after Gotham News conveys the sense that de Kooning often found success in putting his crazy wonderful adopted city in the rear view mirror:

“The pictures (I have) done since the 'Women', they’re emotions, most of them. Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city – with the feeling of going to the city or coming from it. I am not a pastoral character. I’m not a – how do you say that? – ‘country dumpling’. I am here and I like New York City. But I love to go out in a car.. ..I’m just crazy about going over the roads and highways.” (interview conducted by David Sylvester for the BBC, 1962; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 48)

At the end, de Kooning may have found his vanishing point.

______________

Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

Exhibition: de Kooning: A Retrospective, was organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The exhibition continues through January 9, 2012. See the museum's special exhibition website.
The permanent home of Gotham News is the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York.





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