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MoMA

A WAY OF SEEING

A Way of Seeing

Willem de Kooning in his studio. Photo © 2012 Tom Ferrara. Artwork © 2012 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

After meeting Bill de Kooning, one thing that first became apparent was that he had amazing skills of observation. Not only was he more visually active than everyone else but he also appeared to enjoy the act of seeing more than anyone. It seemed like he noticed everything and was able to find something extraordinary in the most ordinary of places.

Ordinary was a word he used often and always in a positive way. For him it did not mean “common-place” so much as it seemed to represent a quality that could be described as natural or without pretense. So if he said about a person “he seemed so ordinary,” it was actually meant as a compliment and he would say it with great admiration.

Willem de Kooning at the studio of Bruce Hoheb. New York City, January 1982. Photo © 2012 Tom Ferrara

Change was another word he used often. He said, “you have to change to stay the same” and it was the way he described the challenge of keeping the life in his art. But change requires work and a lot of risk-taking. To do it continually through a whole long career and at such a late age reflects a tremendous level of energy and endurance.

Willem de Kooning in his studio. November 1981. Photo © 2012 Tom Ferrara

Free association was a big part of what his art was about. He wanted an image that was evocative but not definitive and with the possibility for multiple interpretations. For him, the fun of painting had a lot to do with the anticipation of what might show up. More than anything he wanted to be surprised.

Willem de Kooning working. 1982. Photo © 2012 Tom Ferrara. Artwork © 2012 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Many times the first thing he would say about the painting he was working on was, “It reminds me of…” and it could be anything, such as a bedroom with an unmade bed, or a bathroom with a tub and sink, or maybe a couch. Or it could be a beach scene with the surf, sand, atmosphere and sky, and some figures laying around… all suggested by a few simple lines. All he needed was the suggestion of form and his imagination would take off. Another person might see something completely different or nothing at all and that was ok. But the free associations were very important to him, the surprising scenes of ordinary life.

de Kooning: A Retrospective is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through January 9, 2012.

Tom Ferrara is an artist who exhibits regularly in New York City. He was an assistant to Willem de Kooning from 1979-1987 in East Hampton.

Comments

Para una bella personita que quiere saber por donde mirar el arte…

I digested these very specific comments of de Kooning. I saw the exhibition in October.

Extraordinary! Fascinating to read impressions of a man who actually worked so close to this most exceptional of artists, my lifelong mentor as a painter and continual source of vitality and energy-giving inspiration.
Thankyou Mr. Ferrara!

It amazes me the image of abstract art that draws inspiration from the world of sensual collection.Willem de Kooning achieved autonomy of great art, but perhaps above all, expresses the joy of experiencing the world through painting.

We experienced deKooning’s exhibit at MoMA in September. Just amazing! So inspiring, as I am an abstract collagist, and his colors are outstanding.

Thank you for such a wonderful remembrance. His way of seeing, truly seeing, separates a good painter from a great one.

It became calm and quiet, when I see D Koonings art, rather than younger art works of him.

Yes, he was finding but he hasn’t found. He understood that a discovery of new form or new image is the major in art. He did not create a new image, as Picasso, Braque, Warhol, Baselitz. Also, he did not create a new form, as Pollock, Lichtenstein, Fontana and Agam. What is the greatest discovery in art at all times? It is THE DRAWN COLOR by a line. See: theak.narod.ru Thanks!

amazing n inspiring…grrrrrr8 artist

Tom Ferrara describes very well how this great master of painting could do more than just paint paintings. With this insight into deKooning’s life & art, I believe Ferrara extracts the core of the artistic process, which is insight. How does an artist see (filter) the world around us – what is seen, or not seen. Perhaps it is seeing like a child, to see everything at once ordinary, and beautiful and exceptional…

In these times of pursuing all that glitters and is gold, it’s refreshing to know that deKooning valued the ordinary. Thank you, Tom Ferrara, for sharing his wonderful awareness with the rest of us.

Saw it. Didn’t get it. I am more and more convinced that non-figurative art is either meaningless or, to be more generous, entirely for “insiders” (artists and those with MFA’s) such that the rest of us are really meant to be kept out.

Skill: We see early figurative work by De Kooning. Plainly he was a skilled painter. In later purely non-figurative work, I see no way to judge the degree of skill possessed.

Narrative: The non-figurative works tell no story and are, apparently, not meant to. A title like “Abstract #2” doesn’t help.

Representation: Most (not all) of the paintings appear to be non-representational — that is to say, they do not represent anything I can relate to in my world. The painting called “Merritt Parkway” – would I (or anyone) know that this was a painting of the Merritt Parkway if the sign next to the painting didn’t say so?

Emotion: Other than the partially figurative works (The Women), there are no characters to imagine or engage with. I have no sense of any emotional nuance of the paintings’ characters’ emotional lives, or of the maker’s emotional life.

“It’s about the paint itself”: I’ve heard people say that. To my mind, that’s like saying “a poem is about the ink”. A painting about paint is of little interest to anyone except a specialized insider. A painter, or a paint manufacturer. It means nothing to me (and really, why should it?).

“You need to understand the language”: I’ve heard that, too. I do not understand Chinese. If I were given a Chinese book, I’d have no way of evaluating it good or bad. I could, however, obtain a translation and have some approximation of the experience of reading the book in Chinese. I could get a Chinese-English dictionary or even learn the Chinese language. What translation, translator, or dictionary can I use to “understand the language” of a non-figurative abstract painting that I don’t get.

No negative reviews: I don’t think I have ever seen a negative review of any show of abstract art. If this art is at all serious, one would expect there to be contrasting opinions on it. There are certainly conflicting opinions on the “dead White men” whose paintings from centuries ago cover non-modern museum walls. I have seen bad reviews of books, movies and even of figurative art, but not of abstract art. This, to me, suggests that this art really means nothing. If it’s all of equal merit, then what merit does any of it have?

Can someone out there help me out?

I got excited by De Kooning asking his questions right out onto the canvas, rather than perfuntorily stating resolve. He always knew about the space between things as being as important about the things themselves. To me, that is what he explored most of all. He really was a cubist after all. The completely abstract paintings were the paintings of most courage. The black and white paintings shined. But when I came to this one little painting of two women, called ‘clam diggers,’ those paintings done of women after the abstract paintings, there was no line drawing, only light falling on their two bodies, that was the most beautiful painting in the show for me. But I also loved one of the paintings done in Montaulk which had so many flesh tones in it; the painting captured the light falling on the ocean from the sky, with so many lush warms and cools in the whites. It had a very specific summer heat in the painting unlike the consistent stringent thalos w/alizarin reds that did not know how to make colors sing instead of shout at each other. The sun bore down in that ocean painting. The whites looked like flesh; the skin changed color at every moment; there was no such thing as a generic flesh tone. I love DeKoonings love of lush thick and thin paint. He said that paint was invented to paint skin. He allowed himself not to edit, which I did not like, (I who believe that what is superfluous is redundant, as in ‘freedom for the sake of being free’ without any decision making affirming the concept).

re: “Yes, he was finding but he hasn’t found. He understood that a discovery of new form or new image is the major in art. He did not create a new image, as Picasso, Braque, Warhol, Baselitz. Also, he did not create a new form, as Pollock, Lichtenstein, Fontana and Agam.”
I like deKooning’s work better than all those artists put together, and some of those artists I like quite a lot. Sigh…

to SB –
It’s fine if you do not like, or “get,” whatever art you look at. But “abstract experiences” are all around you regardless. The pattern on a butterfly’s wings are beautiful – they do not have to look like anything else but be what they are. So much of seeing is a matter of relaxing, feeling, imagination, being in a mood. Pollock’s “abstractions” do not look so abstract when you think of the universe. I can look at an “abstract” line and giggle. I don’t have an M.F.A. and actually abhor the academic world. You can’t teach art, but you can learn it (I think Motherwell said that). (The painter) Al Held said that deKooning gave us language we could write sentences with. to Lorna Ritz, deKoonng obviously looked at cubism (as he looked at everything), but he was not cubist. He didn’t limit himself to anything, any style. That’s what is so exciting about him. Art is about freedom – and deKooning ran with that farther than anyone.

I saw the comment of Lorna Ritz to the effect that “I got excited by De Kooning asking his questions right out onto the canvas, rather than perfuntorily stating resolve.”

I am genuinely perplexed by this. I am wondering whether Lorna Ritz (or anyone else here) can explain what it means to “ask a question right out onto the canvas.” More particularly, can Ms. Ritz explain what question is being posed and what (if any) answer(s) were learned.

I genuinely don’t understand what this means.

I am also curious what it means to say “The completely abstract paintings were the paintings of most courage.”

Why do you say that? What is more courageous about making that type of painting as compared to any other? What risks did De Kooning take, or what tribulations did he endure in making this type of painting rather than another?

I frequently find the writing that surrounds art to be extraordinarily and uniquely obscure (sometimes so much so as to seem (to my mind) to be entirely without meaning).

I am assuming that Ms. Ritz is not writing things that have no meaning. I am crediting her with writing something that has a meaning that I cannot glean. I am wondering whether she, or anyone else here can help make her meaning more clear.

I frequently find the writing that surrounds art to be extraordinarily and uniquely obscure (sometimes so much so as to seem (to my mind) to be entirely without meaning).” Amen. SB I agree wholeheartedly with you.

re: Ms. Ritz’s comments – I did not think that the abstract paintings were any braver than the non-abstract ones. I did not see or read into any of the paintings questions deKooning was asking. (presumptuous of Ms Ritz, I think) My take on Ms. Ritz is that her writing, perhaps her viewing, is forced. It is certainly not sensuous. And art appreciation is first and foremost, sensuous!

I saw the show 7 times. Saw different things each time. Was awestruck. Loved it. Miss it. All great painting/art is courageous – no matter what “style.”

SB – relax. deK said “Content is a glimpse.” Like what you like. Find your own way, your own tastes. Get your glimpses where you can. Trust your own tastes. The more generous you are, the more you trust, the more pleasure you’ll have and doors will open.

When I buy art books – it is for the good reproductions, not for the writing. But I often do take great pleasure in reading artists’ own words. deKooning’s writings are a pleasure. It’s all about the quality and honestly of the mind, heart, spirit. And a sense of humor goes a long way, too!

The scientific perceptions -vs- the abstract expressions of TIME, SPACE, & MATTER will continue to move Modern Art forward. As science labels their conclusions – the abstract defines the illusions and a (new) is formed. Andreola

Me encanta. Me dice mucho el color y la composicion.
Un gran maestro para todos nosotros.

Andreola: The scientific perceptions -vs- the abstract expressions of TIME, SPACE, & MATTER will continue to move Modern Art forward. As science labels their conclusions – the abstract defines the illusions and a (new) is formed.

Scott: With all due respect, I sincerely believe that this statement by Andreola is without meaning, and thus is a statement which, although seemingly pithy, cannot be discussed, debated, refuted or proved.

If this statement means something, can someone here please let me know what it is.

(As one example, let me point to the ostentatious use of the parenthetic. What is the difference between

“…and a (new) is formed.”
and
“…and a new is formed.”

Presumably the parentheses mean something — but what?

Earlier in this thread, I suggested that much writing about art is literally devoid of meaning.

I submit that this is a case of the meaningless.

Again, if it means something that I do not understand, then please explain.

Well, what I think has been made clear here is this. Those who write about art in meaningless epigrams of faux profundity simply do not want to engage in conversation. They wish, instead, it would seem, to spout blather, be nodded at knowingly, and move on. Anyone who asks “whaaaat?” can be damned.

Dismissing something as without meaning does not confirm something has no meaning. I understood what the young woman meant by brave. It takes a kind of courage to put down paint with the only certainty of it’s being the right paint is your own opinion, that there is no “real life” armature to hang it on. Going one’s own way is challenging.

As for the comment about Lorna Ritz: “I got excited by De Kooning asking his questions right out onto the canvas, rather than perfuntorily (sic) stating resolve” I thought this was self evident, but an explanation was asked for. Rather than putting Ms Ritz to the task of finding a different way to state what I believe she said well, let me, an artist and painter, try. If I were to stand before you and have something to bring out into the open, I have two vrbal choices. I can say perfunctorily a statement, such as “The space between objects is as observable, and therefore capable of extracted meaning, as are the objects that form the border to that space.” Or I could pose a question. “What do you think about the space between apples?” DeKooning prefers to “put the question” on the canvas rather than supply a statement, which was what realism attempted to do. It becomes then a question of value: which do you prefer, the song of the mockingbird, or the silence thereafter?

I have spent years attempting to bring students across the threshold of abstract art, and it is not easy. Few make it, some jump willingly. The only one’s who do make it successfully are those who recognize that the tools used to evaluate representational art have no effectiveness in abstract. It becomes a bit like judging the flavor of an orange by what aromas an apple produces. You can use the same olfactory sense, or visual equipment, but you can’t apply the expectations of one where there’s an absence in the other.

Be careful applying meaninglessness to something you do not yet understand. It is dismissive, and frankly the art will stand without you. The only thing you dismiss is your opportunity to grow. There is a there there, and perhaps too many critical writers are simply guilty of bad writing. That doesn’t make the criticized art equally, or subsequently bad. Good luck.

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