Friday, September 16, 2011

Willem’s women

“Willem couldn't paint women worth a shit, but they sell for million and millions.

That’s what someone posted on Facebook in response to an article about the new Willem de Dooning retrospective. It is wrong on so many levels I can’t begin to tell you.

For starters, there is the implication that there are prescribed ways and prerequisite skills required to paint certain subjects -- how to paint horses, how to paint landscapes, how to paint flowers, women, etc. (does it take entirely different skills to paint men?). Balderdash.

Then there is the whole male-view-of-women thing that is bothersome to say the least. And yes, the person who posted that comment was a man.  How does he think women should be painted? As beauty personified? I can visualize what his ideal woman looks like. I’ve seen her in fashion magazines and calendars and in 1950s and ‘60s Playboy centerfolds. She’s all sweetness and light, coy and demure, and sexy, sexy, sexy. She is Boucher’s “Mrs. O’Murphy.” She is an innocent lass ready to be defiled. Or she is a vixen or a harlot, depending on your taste.

And I imagine the person who posted that comment does not like abstraction at all. He probably thinks Picasso was a charlatan too.

Some of de Kooning’s early paintings of women, which reflect the style and drawings skill of similar works by Gorky and Picasso, indicate not so much that he was incapable of painting women in any accepted traditional manner, but that he chose not to.

I’ve known a lot of people who claim de Kooning’s  paintings depict a deep-seated hatred of women or a sexist male view of women as objects of desire. They may be right. He was a product of a time when such was the predominant view of women, and his biography and some of his known statements back that up. He might very well have been a sexist pig, but as a painter he was more about line and color and shape and texture, and more than anything else, about space and process, than he was about flesh depicted in paint on canvas. Although he did famously say, “Flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented.”
I know some women and a few men -- artists themselves, aware and sensitive to the elements of art -- who cannot see de Kooning’s paintings as paintings because all they can see is his perceived misogyny, and that’s a shame.

There was a time when I tried to counter that view by saying his paintings were purely abstract, that his considerations were all about form and not about subject matter and that the hints of recognizable bodies were incidental. But I’ve come to realize that argument doesn’t hold up. The obvious fact that he painted so many women and that his paintings of women nearly always accentuated, focused upon and enlarged or exaggerated breasts and lips give clear evidence of some kind of infatuation with women as sexual beings. De Kooning himself denied that his art was formalistic, but he often contradicted in words what his art said with paint.

There is also evidence that should be clear to anyone who has eyes to see that there was a strong element of parody in his paintings of women. They were not so much about the women themselves as they were about how women are objectified by the media, specifically by the pin-ups and advertising and centerfolds that were ubiquitous at the time he was painting them. He was not painting real women; he was parodying salacious images from true crime stories.

But when I look at his paintings I hardly notice the figures. I stand in awe of his exuberance and his control, his lush colors and lines that are harsh here and lyrical there, of the way he handles edges and his ambiguous peekaboo in and out of space on a flat surface. Damn, the guy could paint – women or whatever.

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