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Why de Kooning Matters

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M.S.: In the seventies, he painted ­pictures entirely out of place in an intellectual and minimalist era—­gorgeous, juicy things that seem to squirrel inside physical sensation. Robert Rauschenberg, by the way, never stopped admiring de Kooning. Same for Jasper Johns.

J.S.: Neither would exist as an artist without him. Of course, probably no twentieth-century American artist is as responsible for more terrible imitations. His work gave permission, but it’s this black hole that still gobbles up artists.

M.S.: There are exceptions, such as Joan Mitchell. But yes, that personal, romantic brushstroke seemed to encourage all kinds of narcissistic bombast from artists too eager to express themselves.

J.S.: As for the eighties, de Kooning may have been suffering from dementia, but I’d claim the very last thing to go in him is what was deepest: his incomparable sense of structure, composition, space, and surface. You coined the term “de Koonings with an asterisk” for these last works. What do you mean?

M.S.: Is a person with dementia still himself? What does it mean if an assistant lays out paints and leads him to the easel?

J.S.: Well, if you have an extra wrinkle in your brain, like de Kooning probably did, you may still be your painter-self.

M.S.: I think this issue is overblown. Until 1985, anyway, he was still pretty much in command. He wasn’t suffering from late-stage dementia. There’s something very moving about the way in the early eighties he begins to pare down, to shed the weight of all the other art he’s seen and made, like an enlightened old man giving away his possessions.

J.S.: I hope the survey shows how radical and challenging he is; how he never stopped pushing himself; how hard he fought his own demons to get to where he got; how willing he was to go back to hell to strike out in other directions. This show can tell us that while painting might not be in the center of our cultural discussion, it (or anything else) can only be pronounced “dead” when all the things it was invented to answer have been answered.

M.S.: De Kooning said flesh was the reason oil paint was invented—and who thinks we’ve answered all the questions of the flesh? Besides, he didn’t want painting to answer anything once and for all. That would amount to a death in the family. You had to keep moving. Be a slipping glimpser.

De Kooning: A Retrospective
Museum of Modern Art.
Sept. 18–Jan. 9.


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