Sunday, March 06, 2005
"On July 18, 1926, the British freighter SS Shelley weighed anchor in Rotterdam, the great port of the Netherlands."

Ok so the opening line is not as great as Coetzee's, but Mark Steven's and Annalyn Swan's de Kooning an American Masterwas terrific. Let me start by saying I have no particular grounding in, or love of, modern art movements (or much art history at all--a series of physical mishaps in college (dislocated shoulder, oral surgery, badly sprained foot--all at once) conspired to pull me out of the one major survey course I took, though not before I had fallen asleep in many, many of the classes). I certainly claim no understanding of de Kooning's work or that of his peers, or even a visual vocabulary to navigate from one movement to the next.

What is remarkable about this biography is their unsentimental portayal of his pursuit--the integrity of his choices to paint and paint and paint--and of the consequences of that for his relationships, his family, his friends. The sheer relentlessness of it is very inspiring--makes me feel profoundly lazy. I was struck, in particular, by the section covering the 30s--when de Kooning and his peers had little prospect of making much money and there was no real fame to be had as an American painter. On and on they paint, in their grimy, freezing studios, grubbing for money--switching to house paint because it is cheaper. I think every person who imagines an artistic life sees some montage of this flash by on their way to fulfillment (and naturally, the economic freedom from worry). But to think of them there for 10 years, painting on and on, arguing about what they are doing. 10 years. More really, though Pollock starts to break ground for them, starts to create a model of success.

I think it is impossible for us now to think about that same kind of pursuit in that same vacuum--even if we push it off, the narratives of success are so pervasive that we are reacting to it.

There is much else that is rich in the book, but the other element most striking to me was of de Kooning's decline--of the period when he clearly begun to lose touch with reality and on and on painted--the grooves of that work worn so deeply into who he was that they persisted past speech and memory. (4 stars)

There is plenty else of merit--fine, clear writing, an excellent survey of modern american art, the growth of the commercial art world, reflections on the impacts of fame and money, the ongoing struggle of de Kooning despite all of his success to subside ever into ease with his art. The struggle remains the struggle, but for some moments free of it. An excellent book for anyone serious about making art.


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