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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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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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