Friday, January 24, 2014

De Kooning's Paradoxical Process

De Kooning, like Gorky, lacks a final incisiveness of composition, which may in his case, too, be the paradoxical result of the very plenitude of his draftsman’s gift. Emotion that demands singular, original expression tends to be censored out by a really great facility, for facility has a stubbornness of its own and is loath to abandon easy satisfactions. The indeterminateness or ambiguity that characterizes some of de Kooning’s pictures is caused, I believe, by his effort to suppress his facility. There is a deliberate renunciation of will in so far as it makes itself felt as skill, and there is also a refusal to work with ideas that are too clear. But at the same time this demands a considerable exertion of the will in a different context and a heightening of consciousness so that the artist will know when he is being truly spontaneous and when he is working only mechanically. Of course, the same problem comes up for every painter, but I have never seen it exposed as clearly as in de Kooning’s case. - Clement Greenberg

Yet does not Greenberg say that facility, the product of learned skills, leads to easy satisfactions gained by working mechanically, that is to say, repetitively? And that emotion, in contrast, demands singular, original expression, found only in being truly spontaneous? These general assertions, albeit said to de Kooning’s advantage, are not supportable; it takes only a moment to think of the many historical exceptions, and only a careful look at “Painting” to see that the artist did not renounce “will . . . felt as skill,” but that he summoned the will to produce a skill that was unconventional but no less the product of great facility than one more conventional . . . de Kooning painted by repetitively redoing the same strokes, waiting for the self-consciousness of the performance to collapse in the arduousness of its rehearsals, and for the epiphany to come . . . the spontaneous mark itself could begin with and then surrender will, even as it was being made.

Will is exercised, then it is willfully surrendered. And then this process of exercise and surrender of will becomes a habitual part of painting. The surrender is not, however, the passive submission to chance of, say, Marcel Duchamp dropping a straight horizontal thread that twists as it pleases to fall on a horizontal plane. It is the decisive impulse of a sudden, last-second release from a strictly learned and structured system into the instinctual unknown; but not a release from human agency itself. De Kooning’s ability to perform quick gearshifts between the rational and the transrational should not be confused with what has been called “de-skilling.” When moving into a state of negative capability, he did not surrender skill along with will, but relied on it in order to trust what could be gained by being in uncertainty - and the ability to shift gears required its own kind of skill, which de Kooning made into a habit. - John Elderfield

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