Achieving Artistic Grace

Willem de Kooning’s statement that he returned to figurative painting because “It eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light – all this silly talk about line, colour and form. … I put it in the centre of the canvas because there was no reason to put it a bit on the side” rings so true to the ears of modern painters.

One has no trouble imagining that the committed abstract expressionist could easily be thrown into a vortex of quandaries over issues of proportion or composition and that the addition of an omnipresent figure in the center of the canvas would in many ways negate those concerns. But what kind of a figure could it be? Willem de Kooning’s 1953 painting titled, Woman with Bicycle is not a portrait painting; no ordinary person is represented on the canvas.

Woman with Bicycle is entirely of her own making: she is oil paint not flesh and as such she is not restricted by polite social morays, no shrinking violet or demure odalisque is she.

Historically, she comes from a long line of iconic painted women who chose to command the viewer’s gaze rather than be coyly caged inside a golden frame. Edouard Manet’s Olympia with her direct look and blatant nakedness come to mind, as does Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon with their cubist faces and full frontal immodesty. But Woman with Bicycle also takes her place along with ancient goddesses revered for their dual and conflicting powers balancing good with evil. It is easy to compare her, with her dual mouths, to the representations of Maat and Kali from the Hindu traditions and the Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin. All of them commonly depicted with many arms, heads or mouths. These are goddesses, who although known for their compassionate, life-giving attributes are also revered for their habitually violent and destructive nature.

Primarily, however, she is about paint and it seems somewhat irrelevant to talk about her figure, her many mouths, or lack of arms when we should be talking about just that: “the paint.” Woman with Bicycle creates her own geography, as the paint is layered on, scraped off and then built up again. Consider the sedimentary evolution of the painting’s progress and it is easy to get lost in what is revealed by the passages of paint.

One can spend hours gazing at her well turned-out ankles; the one area in the entire canvas that de Kooning did not repaint or seem to agonize over. It is simply, thinly and elegantly painted, emphasized by the thickly layered green and blue ‘grass’ she is standing on: negative space made positive. Or consider the ‘landscape,’ the green hillside in the upper left corner of the painting is the only area of the canvas that hints at pictorial space, this luscious, undulating countryside rolls across the upper portion of the painting indeed it cuts right across the top of her head, embracing her in its terrain. I imagine de Kooning daydreaming about the landscape of Mona Lisa’s world when he painted this passage.

I wonder about the almost geometric green and grey forms at the bottom right corner of the canvas; they stand out in stark contrast to the quickly painted, smothering and violent brushstrokes of the rest of the painting. I don’t know why they are there but they seem to anchor the painting to the architecture of the space, perhaps they are stairs that allow the viewer to enter into the world of this ‘woman.’

If Willem de Kooning’s Woman with Bicycle advocates an earthy, sensual geography then Jackson Pollock’s 1947 painting, titled Galaxy takes us into a realm of an atmospheric morphology. Like de Kooning’s Woman with Bicycle, Pollock’s Galaxy also speaks to the viewer about time; each drip, each splatter of flung paint is unique to itself and exists solely in its own time in space, covering each past era of previous splatter. It does not provide the viewer with pictorial or illusionistic space but rather hints at another type of space; a more literal space formed through the passage of time and layers of paint. However, the space in Galaxy remains impervious to the viewer, like the night skies the painting is named for it floats away, into its self and does not allow the viewer to enter.

While both Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock have labored under many of the same labels throughout their lives: abstract expressionism, action painting, and gestural abstraction, their approach to painting is actually quite different. De Kooning struggles with the paint in an external clash, he literally fights with it, building it up, scraping it off, always hacking away at it. While Pollock wrestles with a more internalized crusade; he flings and dribbles the paint daring fate and chance to congeal into a working aesthetic but he doesn’t alter what destiny provides for him.

Between the two is the age-old dialog on achieving grace; the argument of whether grace can only be attained through the hand of god or whether personal toil is also needed is the duel fought by these two significant painters of the 20th Century.

Personally, I lean towards de Kooning’s toil, as both gods and fate seem too fickle to deserve one’s faith. However there is no denying that when Pollock succeeds, as he does with Galaxy, I can concede to the value of his quest as well.