Vision and Revision
Looking at Willem de Kooning's paintings through the examination glass
1:14 PM, Oct 12, 2010 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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.
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.
detail from 'Woman, Sag Harbor'
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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