Today is Willem de Kooning’s birthday. The old man would be 103 today.
The above image is from Pace Gallery's Instagram account today. The best part of birthdays is Instagram.
I wonder if they will make me take it down.
No artist has been more influential to my work than De Kooning. I recently had one of the directors at Lucky Street Gallery in Key West say my art was like Lichtenstein on acid.
Not bad. But Lichtenstein and De Kooning fighting over a tab of acid might be more appropriate. WdK shows up in my art and my poems.
He’s a reference point on my compass.
De Kooning = The King
There are some books that framed my ideas about Willem de Kooning. De Kooning: An American Master is maybe tied for first in my mind as one of the best artist bios I have ever read. His relationship to his studio, to other painters, and to art at-large is an inspiration to me.
When I clean my studio I think of Willem de Kooning cleaning his studio like the mate on a ship.
Also, the Arshile Gorky biography From a High Place shed some valuable insight into WdK. De Kooning’s relationship to Gorky, Kline, Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Pollock is the stuff poems and artworks are made of.
The De Kooning Retrospective at The Whitney was incredibly special to me. I cannot think of fire and The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda without thinking of the painting Asheville.
Also, seeing a painting that Jasper Johns owns front and center at the exhibition was a thrill.
After reading “An American Master” I started saying “dynamite” in an imitation of the foreign born master catching American idioms. I found I couldn’t stop.
Just as I couldn’t stop imitating De Kooning no matter how hard I tried.
While studying Post-War American Art with Paul Hayes Tucker at UMASS/Boston a tiny image in the textbook Art Since 1940 by Jonathan Fineberg was impossible to shake.
I planned my first solo cross-country trip around stopping at The Art Institute of Chicago to see the picture in real life. The painting was “Excavation” by Willem de Kooning and it didn’t disappoint.
The poem of mine “Chicago” that was originally published in The South Boston Literary Gazette in 2004 references the drive, the Fineberg book, the picture, and De Kooning.
To this day, “Excavation” in one of my all-time favorite paintings. When I saw the Instagram post of The Art Institute of Chicago today I felt I should share the poem.
Approaching in these sunshowers
there’s a sense of what it might be like
to be plagued by rainbows. Proof even
abstract shapes have a likeness. And do
you have any idea how difficult it is
to take snapshots of color arcing over
pastures, driving in the worst traffic
you’ve ever seen? With slippery knees,
there’s very little room for missing and
mistake, especially through this
ambiguity of space: big rigs, trees, crops,
sky, clouds, and stretching. On the way,
tiny gas station post office convenience
store towns offer scratch ticket
big game money I already spent. And sale
bubblegum, enough for sore jaws
while shouting out 2 more songs
to busting I-beam skies— the radio’s
thinking too loud and tuning fingers
scan between big, small, and useless.
These shapes and similarity create
security better than fenders or bumpers
do, while cell phone gabbing, crane-
necked people whiz by in bent, paint-
stained stripes, and imitate melting.
At least be grateful it’s not so hot
with this rain. Like 28 people
died from heat this year, and St. Peter
will not let you into heaven if you go
without a fan. Raindrops packed too tight,
the seams between collapse in
on themselves, like after Excavation,
like frigid rain in the strangest place
and the pity of being homesick, the water
moves grass-hilled wind, sits
in the bottom of the glass. One part
too thick for drinking, driving, and three
parts less believable, my prayers
have included closing one eye. But of course,
none of this is believable, and buried
beneath my skin my clothes
my seat the road fragments of layered
newsprint slow the drying of this experience
that slows the paint on other photos too—
a glorious impression of colliding image
and brand new products of forgetting. But
now the road, the water, me, and unearthing
anything, is moving on toward the ocean.
There’s a green glow through wiper blades;
white writing shown erased, shown erased,
shown skidding by erased. And seen through
people are ghosts of imagery, collage, or tall
columns of type— this complexity of any individual’s
experience, especially in urban environments,
is central. That’s what I keep remembering!
There’s road, and escape without holes
is the cat’s meow. The very thing— this traveling,
inside-outside, cheers structures toward collapse,
without remains of fragmented anatomy, or dirt
of any kind. Underneath the car, the tar combines
for intersections, buildings, stoplights green, blink
yellow, blink red, and all up the street these
relationships of glass and space know, and reveal
more than us, or decomposing— they develop
a greater richness of meaning, love within form,
a relationship of steam shovel and backhoe, tire,
tread, skyline, and that imitated sea— and explain
how understanding, and commitment are bonds
that bow before the digging— within, without—
and eventually dissolve to words, progress, horns
or yelps, before there’s change, or leaving,
or even meaning to.
De Kooning And Art Influence
Anyone who has seen my work can probably tell that De Kooning is always on my mind.
The color pink especially seems to be a De Kooning trademark in my work. There is Yves Klein Blue and there is De Kooning Pink. His painting Pink Angels was a major inspiration for my work “Synching Miners.”
While the connections are not always so direct, the layering, figurative forms, and collage in De Kooning is everywhere in my work.
His biography is a big influence too. In the internet novel Art Official there is a character named Billy Keening who is loosely based on De Kooning.
In many ways Billy Keening is the main focus of American art and artists in the novel Art Official.
But visually De Kooning does it all. His figures and his landscapes always pull me in.
When I go to Chicago I go to visit De Kooning. I see him wrestling with Franz Kline in black and white paintings on cardboard.
I see Excavation and stop.
But I also love the later works and landscape paintings. Door To The River may be one of my favorites from this period.
There seems such an otherworldly theme. A door to another place.
As with the Instagram feed of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Whitney posted an image in honor of De Kooning’s birthday today.
When I saw the picture I thought “what did we do without Instagram.” Then I thought, I should share another poem.
I wrote a poem based on the painting Door To The River as well as the experience of taking in the picture. I am including it below.
The poem originally was included in Big Red & Shiny in 2013.
Door To The River
A woman says something sweetly in the center
of the gallery, looks up to find her companions
gone. Later, in a newspaper ad for binoculars
there is no way to discern the streaks of paint
pressed down from every shoe fall, as all of us
are stuck here, the urge to surge is pushed
and smeared, and the conversation silences
are located at the backs of veins and hands.
The stream we find unbending until the next
group of paintings hangs.
After all the drinking and the women, the line
of lithe acquaintances outside pressing buzzer
beats in time to the breath of breathless hearts,
he had to invent American abstraction just to clean
his brushes and his eyeglasses from the specks
of all that gasping. All of us learned to paint
from the lies of Arshile Gorky, sure; all of us saw
the world in ice cubes and melting, just as all of us
wait for Guernica to descend.
In the meantime there is a land untouched by eyes,
sewn together by paint applied and charcoal stick
erased. Grasp on to memories while they will us to,
until they merge with headlines and repeated innuendo,
until the green you borrowed is gone, and the violent
bursts of orange are frozen at the bottom of a jar
with the paintbrush bristles bunched and bruised
in the excess of close proximity. I say one more line,
and follow it; and the river is higher every year.
De Kooning De Kooning Everywhere De Kooning
Don’t take my word for it. De Kooning is everywhere.
I love his cover art for Kenneth Koch’s book One Train.
And I love-love the Frank O’Hara poem Ode To Willem De Kooning.
Get a load of this start:
The King Is Dead. Long Live The King
Long live De Kooning. Some say painting died when he died.
I know he seems impossible to paint past. Every time I think I’ve pushed someplace new I look again.
De Kooning is there staring back.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at my painting Synching Miners.