Given the quality of his work and his great range and inventiveness, de Kooning may be the best American painter of the twentieth century, but he wasn’t the most radically original. That honor probably goes to Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still since they were the first to do away with figure/ground distinctions in their work -- the main innovation of American painting in the 1940's and 50's.
|Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950, oil and enamel on canvas, 81 x 100 inches (Art Institute of Chicago)|
This has NOTHING to do with quality. Merritt Parkway, 1959, is a great painting, but it still deals with figure/ground relationships like a traditional landscape,
|Willem de Kooning, Merritt Parkway, 1959, oil on canvas, 80 x 70 1/2 inches (The Detroit Institute of Arts)|
|Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1955-56, oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 96 x 74 inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
Without figure/ground distinctions, it's hard to create space in a painting; things get clogged up, they don’t breathe. It also usually means giving up shapes and forms, so as a result the expressive possibilities of the medium become limited. Is a field of color (Rothko, Newman) or layers of lines (Pollock) or a pile of shapes enough? Can you say much without forms in a space? And can you keep it up if you do? Picasso never went all the way, and Monet's water lilies kept the distinction, however subtle. Even Pollock backed off in his later work.
Clyfford Still managed to have it both ways by maintaining an ambiguity as to whether or not something is a fissure in a field of color revealing part of another field of color underneath, or a unique, self-contained irregular shape.
|Clyfford Still, 1948-C, 1948, oil on canvas, 81 x 69 inches (Hirshhorn Museum)|
|Willem de Kooning, Untitled I, 1985, oil on canvas, 70 x 80 inches (Private collection, Germany).|