Art: When body, mind and paint dissolve

As a major Willem de Kooning exhibition opens at the Tate, David Sylvester celebrates an artist whose generous sensuality bears comparison with Titian, Monet and Matisse
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The Dutch masters of the 17th century worked at home, the Dutch masters of modern times worked abroad. Van Gogh first left Holland when he was 20 and was elsewhere for all but five of his remaining 17 years; Mondrian first left at 40, was elsewhere for all but five of his remaining 32 years; De Kooning first left at 20, has been elsewhere for all but one of 70 years.

There is nothing remarkable about their emigration. Artists have always emigrated, because artists, for economic and for psychological reasons, are impelled to congregate. What is significant is that the artists of the first great age of Dutch painting congregated at home. The cream of their Flemish and French contemporaries worked abroad, the Dutch mainly stayed where they were and stayed isolated from foreign painters, other than immigrants from Flanders. None came from farther abroad: painters were poorly paid, especially the best painters. So this small country had a dozen great native painters working there in the course of half a century, whereas each of that trio of great painters born there in the half-century between 1853 and 1904 left, and left for good, each to become one of the two or three most influential painters of his time. Being abroad did nothing for them financially, until De Kooning started making money in his mid-Fifties, but it did enrich their work with an exceptionally fruitful interplay between their background and their foreground.

Thus the evolution of Mondrian's distinctive style between 1910 and 1921, an evolution the mere thought of which suffices to give aesthetic pleasure, was utterly bound up with his spending two years in Paris at the time he did and five in Holland at the time he did before returning to Paris. And when in his old age he took that style with him to New York, a style in which Holland's endless uninterrupted horizon can be apprehended in infinitely extendible straight lines, he broke up those lines into short staccato units in response to that city's hectic pace and current possession by a musical idiom that insisted relentlessly on its eight beats to a bar. In total contrast, the achievement De Kooning took with him to America in 1926 was no more than his training, which he remained very conscious of and talked about for as long as he talked about art, his daughter Lisa has told me. "When I went to the Academy..." was a frequent opening to a sentence, as when he said in 1960:

"It's not so much that I'm an American: I'm a New Yorker. I think we have gone back to the cities and I feel much more in common with artists in London or Paris. It is a certain burden, this American-ness. If you come from a small nation, you don't have that. When I went to the Academy and I was drawing from the nude, I was making the drawing, not Holland. I feel sometimes an American artist must feel like a baseball player or something - a member of a team writing American history."

Three years later, De Kooning left the city and moved to Springs, Long Island, painting there for a quarter of a century till he stopped working four or five years ago. Now, it is true that this is an area where a lot of artists have lived, but few with such immersion in the place. And the place is remarkably akin, in its light and the lie of its land and water, to Holland. Visiting Louse Point, one of the spots there that was most crucial for De Kooning's painting, I had the feeling that I'd been projected into a landscape by Van Goyen and realised the emigrant was still at home.

"You are with a group or movement," he said in 1949, "because you cannot help it." The group or movement he was with was one of those that have in common a certain stance, not a certain style. It was not a movement like impressionism or fauvism or cubism or futurism where a work by one of its leading members can easily be thought to be by another. Abstract expressionism was a movement in the same sense as Der Blaue Reiter or dada or surrealism. Even the artistic personality of Pollock, De Kooning's nearest neighbour stylistically among the founding members, is as different from De Kooning's as, say, basketball, with its continuous movement flowing all over the court, is from gridiron football, with its convulsive, interrupted action. Or we might say that one is like pasta, the other like pizza. A Pollock presents an intricate entanglement of long strands in the interstices of which we can discern a sauce and various fragments of flora and fauna. A De Kooning presents a melted mix in which some of the contrasting ingredients remain distinguishable while others have been smeared out of recognition. And it has a sort of outline usually - nothing so clear as a disc or a slice but still a shape containing the composition as against the indeterminate edges of a Pollock composition.

Whatever the energising effect of De Kooning's whiplash line, his primary ingredient is the paint. "I get the paint right on the surface," he'd say to his friend Emilie Kilgore. "Nobody else can do that." The paint occupies that surface like a living and life-generating and decomposing substance within which there abound forms some of which are recognisable, most are ambiguous and some are unidentifiable.

Confronted with a work in the surrealist tradition that is full of ambiguous references - and this, of course, can mean a work by Gorky, De Kooning's mentor, as well as by Mir or Masson - the spectator separates and savours the elements in the metamorphic image one by one. But the impact of a De Kooning lies in a more direct and physical response to the paint itself, so that the sense of external reality this conveys say, of the immediate, enveloping, presence of pink flesh ("Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented") or the insidious ubiquity of mouths with menacing teeth (human female smiles, sharks' mouths, vaginae dentatae) - is not so much a consecutive recognition of the elements in the flotsam and jetsam of perceptions as a general awareness of reality as an all-absorbing Heraclitean flux.

What typically happens is something like what Braque describes as happening in paintings of his own. Given how deeply De Kooning's art is rooted in cubism, it was not by chance that the speaker was one of the founders of cubism; nor was it by chance that Braque was talking primarily about his current work in the 1950s, not far from the time of De Kooning's black and white paintings.

"No object can be tied down to any one sort of reality; a stone may be part of a wall, a piece of sculpture, a lethal weapon... or anything else you like. Just as this file in my hand can be metamorphosed into a shoe- horn or a spoon, according to the way in which I use it... So when you ask me whether a particular form in one of my paintings depicts a woman's head, a fish, a vase, a bird or all four at once, I can't give you a categorical answer, for this "metamorphic" confusion is fundamental to what I am out to express... And then I occasionally introduce forms which have no literal meaning whatsoever. Sometimes there are accidents."

One Sunday in 1977, I had a day with De Kooning at Springs, after not seeing him for some years, and found him in marvellous form. He asked me to come again the following Sunday but a mutual friend called to put me off.

There was no need for him to say why. De Kooning had been drinking, maybe was violent, was certainly unapproachable. This happened often during that year, a year that was possibly, no less than 1948, say, the annus mirabilis of De Kooning's career.

It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies, as the climax of a period in which the paintings - most of them landscapes of the body, some purely macrocosmic landscapes - with their massively congested, deeply luminous colour, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy. They belong with the paintings made at the same age by artists such as Monet and Renoir and Bonnard and, of course, Titian. The paint is freely, loosely, messily handled, sometimes with fingers rather than a brush or knife. Blurred forms loom up, often in extreme close-up, simultaneously adumbrated and dissolved by the paint. In terms of technique, there's a reversion to infantile habits of smearing muck. In terms of attitude, there's an infantile easy certainty that others have seen the world as they have.

The incandescence in these products of ripe wisdom and second childhood, of this marvellous marriage of experience and innocence, is not only an incandescence of matter but often of erotic feeling. It is no secret that throughout this decade De Kooning was involved in a love affair that brought him great happiness. The paintings of this time that have to do with the figure - I mean, with flesh, with skin and membrane of paler and darker shades of pink - blaze with desire and fulfilment. Comparison with Picasso's greatest expressions of erotic rapture - images of Marie-Therese Walter - is irresistible. And rather irrelevant. Because Picasso is an observer of rapture. He is a voyeur even of scenes of coupling in which he is a participant. Even in works with those wonderful equivalents for how a face looks from as near as it is when making love, Picasso always puts a psychological distance between himself and his loved object. De Kooning's paintings of the Seventies are an annihilation of distance. The close- ups are about closeness, a consuming closeness. These paintings are crystallisations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into an other who is all delight.

They are the sort of transcendental paintings that might fittingly have concluded one of the most glorious and sustained careers in 20th-century art. But De Kooning, with his extraordinary capacity for self-renewal, still had something to give: flowing compositions that could be described as coloured and large-scale equivalents of his black-and-white linear quasi-automatic ink drawings, with forms that tend to echo those of the later Forties and early Fifties. These works have been called classic examples of "late style", but it seems to me that, whereas this can justly be said of the paintings of the Seventies, the only late style to which those of the Eighties are really comparable is the highly specialised style of Matisse's papiers colles.

Airy, feathery, rhythmical, the best of the paintings from 1981 to 1984 induce an elation like that of dancing a Viennese waltz when one has not yet had too much champagne. Those made in 1985 are less vibrant, are the lull before a change that happens in those of 1986 and 1987. Here the tempo slows, often becomes eerily halting. Among these last works are strange and poignant traces of searchings within a mind that is now isolated, paintings which have the poetry of utterances from a far distance.

n This is an edited extract from `Willem de Kooning Paintings', essays by David Sylvester, Marla Prather and Richard Shiff (Yale University Press, £40). The De Kooning show is at the Tate, London, to 7 May. David Sylvester will talk on De Kooning's `Woman I' on 17 February at 6.30pm at the Tate (admission £5)

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