Happy or Not

If you are an artist the problem is to make a picture work whether you are happy or not.

-Willem de Kooning, from Modern Artists in America, edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt; quoted in de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

Unknown-3I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this splendid biography over the past few weeks. The book is more than a highly detailed picture of a life that stretched from Rotterdam to Manhattan to eastern Long Island; it offers a history of American Art in the mid-20th century. de Kooning’s life rotated around painting, women (you may need a sizable scorecard to keep track), and alcohol. Like all good scholarship about the arts, the book makes you want to re-engage with the artist’s work. The book includes some color reproductions, as well as good commentary about a number of individual pieces.

I remember fondly a de Kooning show at the Whitney in the mid ’80s, but was saddened to read it described in the book as “poorly selected… packed tightly into claustrophobic rooms…” It was an overwhelming show, and not necessarily in a good sense. But you do want to remember the big artistic experiences of your student days as being uniformly splendid – yet another way of fooling yourself, I guess.

UnknownThe book got me  thinking about what it would mean to write music that speaks, as de Kooning’s work does, in the languages of both cubism and expressionism, both figuration and abstraction. How to write music that somehow manages to be exquisitely crafted, yet always askew?  As Stevens and Swan write:

…that unstable quality was also one sought by de Kooning. “It all fits real good, don’t you think?” de Kooning once asked his assistant Tom Ferrara, who was with him from 1980 to 1987, as they stood before a painting. “Fantastic,” said Ferrara. “That’s the whole problem,” de Kooning answered. “There’s no contradictions.”

Wolpe comes to mind as an artist comparable to de Kooning, not only in outward circumstances (an immigrant who came to New York City), but in his goals, writing a kind of abstract expressionist music, yet never choosing a purist path, preferring to be inclusive, whether it be the figure and landscape in de Kooning or jazz in Wolpe. Find one of my favorite examples of Wolpe’s work here; the de Kooning Foundation’s home page, with images of his work, is here. One of my favorite de Koonings is Ruth’s Zowie.

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