Friday, October 21, 2011

De Kooning and the Figure/Ground Dilemma

By Charles Kessler

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)
It’s not that de Kooning never merged figure/ground early on -- his Excavation, 1950, began as an interior with figures but became so broken up that it's all one thing. But he never stayed with it in a consistent way like Pollock and Still who made it a characteristic of their art. (This can also be said of large scale.) 

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)
whereas Easter Monday, like an Analytic Cubist painting, is broken up so much that there is little or no figure/ground distinction.  (You can see some great examples of Analytic Cubism at the ever-so-swank Acquavella Gallery, 18 East 79th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. They have a major George Braque retrospective until November 30th.)

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)
De Kooning, in his late work, also figured a way around this dilemma by creating ambiguity. Follow a de Kooning line and it transforms into a ribbon then an outline of a shape or a contour of a volume that becomes a gaseous field of color all the while turning in and out of space.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled I, 1985, oil on canvas, 70 x 80 inches (Private collection, Germany).


ken garber said...

You've done a really nice analysis of these paintings, Charles. I always look forward to reading your blog.

Charles Kessler said...

Thanks, Ken. Your opinion has been important to me since our good old days at UCLA.