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Vision and Revision

Looking at Willem de Kooning's paintings through the examination glass

1:14 PM, Oct 12, 2010 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Twentieth and twentyfirst-century art do not always age well. Consider this Oldenberg. Or this Rauschenberg. Or, horrible visu, this shark suspended in formaldehyde. It rotted not even 15 years after it was tossed into its vitrine coffin-tank, and had to be entirely refashioned.

Vision and Revision

detail from 'Woman, Sag Harbor'

Compared with these extreme examples, paintings by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Jacob Lawrence seem like they need little special conservation. And there's truth to that. Paint is more lasting than, say, vinyl; nonetheless, modern paints are complex creatures--and have been mixed and applied in unorthodox ways. To preserve these works correctly it's necessary to study their paints and how the they were used. At the Getty, the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative is concerning itself, in part, with the study of modern paints, and as part of their program, it has  started publishing a series of lush books about the use of new art materials. Book one examines--with appendices, cross-sections of paint layers, chromatograms, and photos to delight any art nerd-- the materials and methods of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). His paintings from the '60s and '70s are already proving problematic, with surfaces that are sticky or soft.


I was excited to have this book in my  hands--but then was soon worried that I'd feel as if I were reading word-by-word disections of great poetry. The author Susan Lake, however, chief conservator at the Hirschhorn, is smart to keep her study from descending into "readings" of paintings that try to pin down the mystery of art. She keeps her comments to the scientific, for the book is pitched to an audience of conservators, scholars, and painters who want to know, in minute detail, about de Kooning's materials. (One appendix lists the paintings under consideration in the book, names all the colors in each painting, and then notes which pigments make up the samples from those colors and which binding medium keeps them together, such as linseed oil or, one of his favorites, safflower oil, which would bring the whipped paint to a light froth and leave behind a rough comet of tiny popped bubbles.)

Lake's meticulously researched book opens with a biographical sketch of de Kooning and traces the development of his style. Each chapter studies a few paintings precisely, in depth, and in clear prose. We learn that before the 1940s, when he'd finish with a layer in impasto as in Special Delivery, de Kooning liked to keep his surfaces very glossy, like those of Ingres, whom he greatly esteemed--and would even take a razor to the surface to pare it down to a smooth finish. But before getting to the final surface, he would handle the paint roughly, scraping, building back, gouging a further film of wet paint, and so on, layer after layer after layer. This book is a wealth of such details. We learn how he used house paints and house paint brushes, which he'd boil till they were rubbery and could hold a greater load of paint. How he primed his surfaces, often working to make them very smooth so he'd have more freedom of movement when painting. How he tried to retard in various ways the drying time of his whipped, fluffy oils--he ended up prefering to add to his Bellini tube paints safflower oil from the grocery store called "Saff-o-Life," water, and a solvent like kerosense.

One of de Kooning's most interesting techniques involved the natural antipathy of oil and water. Having added some water to his paint, he would press newspaper or vellum against a painting in progress to see what image it would take--where the water would hold, where the oil would hold, as in Sphinx—too see what would be a void, what would carry an image. And as Lake surmises, this technique might have also sparked his interest in lithography.

At the 1950 retrospective at MoMA for Chaim Soutine, De Kooning said of his fellow artist's work, “Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There's a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work." Something similar could be said of de Kooning's work. He understood that paint was not just a means for making pictures but a “material” itself, a “substance.” (He also said, famously, that "flesh was the reason painting was invented.") In the same year as that retrospective, De Kooning painted Excavation, a masterpiece not analyzed in this book. Excavation looks like a heap of figural planes half-buried in a barren, cream-colored earth. Every time I see it I wish to uncover those bits of forms, which could be legs or doors or ledges, and take them out of the ground to examine them more closely. But the painting is, as the very physicality of his paint proves, a thick layer. Painting, as de Kooning said, is like digging--except the earth in which you are digging keeps closing up because it keeps drying. Excavation reads as a painting about painting, and it is fitting that the Getty would launch its series about modern paints and techniques with an artist as passionate about paint itself. And while it is good for conservators to better know how to preventatively care for his paintings, I'm not looking forward to viewing Excavation and others under thick layers of glass.

Willem de Kooning: The Artists Materials by Susan F. Lake, Getty Conservation Institute, 112pp., $40

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