ARTS : EXHIBITIONS : A splendid and crazy ambition

Willem de Kooning is one of the century's major painters. But his influence has not been as great as is often claimed

THE TATE'S Willem de Kooning retrospective will enlighten and disturb all those who care about the art of painting. It's not a particularly didactic show, though inevitably it tells us a lot about Abstract Expressionism and American art in general. The main impression is personal. One keeps trying to get a grip on de Kooning's character, and he eludes such a grip. Here's a tribute to a troubled man, an artist who flung himself into pigment until paint had nothing more to say.

And so the show is touching, sumptuous and barren, in that chronological order. Once he had got over his awkward formative period de Kooning achieved genuine majesty on numerous occasions; but his later work is monotonous and then tragically empty. The last room of the Tate's account of his career is a sad sight, and we know things to have become even worse. Among all the publicity for the exhibition is the claim that de Kooning has been an exceptionally influential artist. I don't understand this argument. It's true that he was much imitated by lesser artists in the Fifties, when his standing in the art world was very high. But of true and long-lasting influence - the sort that inspires artists of succeeding generations - there is none. We are looking at someone who was an exceptionally lonely figure, whatever his fame.

The loneliness began very early, after he got to America from his native Rotterdam in the late Twenties. Then he painted in spare moments or when the fancy took him. His main occupation was as a decorator. We know of works from those early American years through photographs. They are not in the present show, though there was a selection in the last de Kooning retrospective (a more thorough exhibition than the present one) organised by the Whitney Museum 10 years ago.

Anyway, those early works suggest that in a half-hearted way de Kooning was trying his hand at current American abstract art. The photos don't look very good. Such paintings must have shown de Kooning that there was no point in imitation. He turned down the opportunity to become a member of the American Abstract Artists, the dominant avant-garde group, realising I suppose that he was not to be an abstract painter. And, as things turned out, he joined Arshile Gorky, another immigrant and also a late developer in artistic terms. Their relationship lies behind the plangent figurative paintings in the first room of the exhibition.

They have a sympathy with Gorky's contemporary work, but there's also a strong sense of self-portraiture in these paintings, and a hermaphroditic note. This leads one to think there might be an element of self-portraiture in the later "Woman" series. Obviously there is self-revelation in the paintings of women, for de Kooning's technique is so frank about his failures, re- starts and worries; and this is why they feel so personal. Is de Kooning himself their real subject?

The various sets of "Woman" paintings are de Kooning's most famous works and have attracted comment of all sorts, most recently from psychobiographers and feminists. A usual criticism is that they are violent. I don't find them so. The "Woman" canvases often have a caressing quality. On occasion, I suspect, their manner was adopted from contemporary painting by de Kooning's wife Elaine. The most beautiful of them, a tiny 1949 painting on cardboard, feels like Picasso's tender pictures of his mistress painted 10 years earlier. There are other influences. But mainly the "Woman" pictures are introspective.

In these canvases de Kooning arrived at his unorthodox mastery via obsessive concentration on his technical deficiencies. The early figure paintings are moving partly because they are so helpless. De Kooning simply could not manage hands, feet, facial features, all the nuts and bolts of figural art. His claim that he had received intense training in such matters at the Rotter-dam Academy is unbelievable. And so he scrabbled and bashed away at things that would never come right and - as a lovely and unexpected gift from art to one of its devotees - he became the more expressive when his brush, his scraping and his collaging had least to do with rightness.

For a time de Kooning was a master of self-taught gaucheness. He became a major painter at the end of the Forties because there was no one to teach him and no one to restrain him. At just this period Francis Bacon in England and Jean Dubuffet in France, both self-taught, made comparable leaps into alarming modern painting. De Koon-ing's uncertainties and experiments are more interesting than theirs. He couldn't tell when a picture was finished. We know he felt anguish about adding to his pictures or leaving them in a state where some parts were obviously raw. Where was the peak of the creative process? This remains a crucial question, and I'm not sure that the Tate exhibition answers it.

The selection rather avoids unfinished or unfinishable canvases. They are absent even though they can possess an authenticity lacking in weightier paintings. At the Tate we find the more elaborate and official canvases, plastered and reworked from edge to edge. No doubt this reflects the taste of the rich collectors and museums whose purchases in the Fifties made de Kooning the most respectable of Abstract Expressionist artists. We could have been given a riskier de Kooning, especially if the exhibition had included his drawings and sculpture.

The most troubled and experimental period was from 1946 to 1953, and de Kooning's most exciting paintings remain the black-and-white abstractions begun around 1946 and shown in 1948 in his first one-man exhibition. They are also his most original works. Of course they have precedents and furthermore they relate to contemporary black-and-white paintings by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. None the less they seem to have come from nowhere and to have no relation to anything accepted as art. Technically, they are a mixture of oil and enamel on hardboard. There's poverty and hardness in them: beyond that, a wonderment that the world could be so cruel.

Soon after, de Kooning became celebrated. His reputation was made by Excavation of 1950, the year he represented America at the Venice Biennale. This picture hasn't come to London but is satisfactorily replaced by Attic, of 1949, and Painting, probably of 1950. Dry, fragmented and complex, such paintings prove that he was moving fast towards an inventive post- Cubist abstraction. But already the "Woman" series had begun, and with it the hankering to be an old master, or at least to have the look of classic art. The first of the big "Woman" paintings, begun in 1950 and finished two years later, is the best of them. One could fault its contradictions and untidiness - but criticisms are minor compared with the splendid and crazy nature of its ambition.

Craziness left de Kooning's art with the arrival of worldly success. Perhaps surprisingly, he found that he had a talent for majesty. Landscape- like abstractions such as Ruth's Zowie, Suburb in Havana and September Morn, all from the late Fifties, have a dignified bravura. However, one senses too much ease and repetition settling in. During the Seventies de Kooning developed a wriggling and colouristic brushwork that combines flower painting with a feeling for marine landscape. Untitled I (1977, pictured above) is a good example. One imagines such paintings done in contented solitude on Long Island. Not long afterwards, though, Alzheimer's descended, all the paintings weakened and then solitude became an awful emptiness of the mind.

! Tate Gallery, SW1 (071-887 8000), to 7 May.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future