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Willem de Kooning

by Donald Kuspit
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Directly our paranoid potential is aroused, it is as if we set foot into a mythological world inhabited, not by human beings, but by demons, ogres and witches whose evil practices can only be combated by equal malice on our own part. Of course, when we enter the other state in which projection plays such a marked part, the state which Freud called "the psychosis of normal people" and which is better known as the state of being "in love," we also enter a mythological world which suddenly seems transformed by the magical influence of the beloved into a place of sweetness and light inhabited by only the kindliest and most noble of persons.

"Falling in love" is generally recognized as being a common state of mind, and, in spite of Freud’s diagnostic label, is not considered abnormal. Its opposite, "falling in hate" is not so widely acknowledged. Yet I believe it to be about as common, and a great deal more dangerous.

-- Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness(1)

Well, yes, we must face it: the little woman -- or, more specifically, her body -- has, throughout history though to varying degrees, been considered dirty, diseased, putrid -- the more so, perhaps, as she is actually desirable.

-- Wolfgang Lederer, The Fear of Woman(2)

The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego. . . .i. e. the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body.

-- Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id(3)

In relation to all the other sensory registers, the tactile possesses a distinctive characteristic which not only places it at the origin of the psyche, but allows it permanently to provide the latter with something which one might also call the mental background. This is the background against which psychical contents stand out as figures, or alternately the containing envelope which makes it possible for the psychical apparatus to have contents. . . .

[T]his is based upon the container-content relation which the mother brings into play in her relation to her infant. . . the crucial relation of the containment of exogenous excitations, a relation of which the child -- initially stimulated no doubt by its mother -- derives its experience from its own skin.

-- Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego(4)

When it was shown at Martinet’s, [Manet’s Music in the Tuileries, 1862] was judged scandalous, both for its technique -- setting off the striking, almost caricature details of the faces against the sketchiness of the apparel and the setting -- and for its allegedly violent palette. . . . In 1867, Babou speaks of Manet’s “mania for seeing things as patches” [taches], particularly in the portraits of this painting: “the Baudelaire patch, the Gautier patch, the Manet patch.” 

. . . . The prevailing reactions to [Olympia, 1863] have always been of two kinds. The formal reaction responds to technical, painterly values. . . . It comes directly from Zola. . . in an apostrophe to Manet: “For you, a picture is but an opportunity for analysis. You wanted a nude, and you took Olympia, the first to come along; you wanted bright, luminous patches, and the bouquet served; you wanted black patches, and you added a black woman and a black cat. What does all this mean? You hardly know, nor do I. . . ." This frame of mind, emphasizing the “work of painting” aspect, has persisted in [various theoretical] commentaries. . . . The other reaction, widely represented by the critics of the day, in revulsion or derision, emphasizes subject matter. In the past 20 years, it has drifted into preoccupation with image alone, among many art historians primarily concerned with sources, iconographic significance, and public response as clues to psychological history.

-- Francoise Cachin and Charles S. Moffett, Manet 1832-1883(5)

"In my case a picture is a sum of destructions," Picasso famously said. "In the end, though, nothing is lost."(6) The same could be said of a de Kooning picture. It too is a sum of destructions, an even more provocative sum of destructions, for it shows that, in the end, everything is lost -- ruined, shattered, mocked, despised -- everything that art once valued: the humane beauty that came into existence with classical art. It made explicit the beauty implicit in the human body, showed that its form was inherently beautiful however ugly its flesh seemed, suggesting that it was ideal despite itself. Beauty promised transcendence of the flesh even as it needed the body to be fleshed out -- needed to be embodied -- to be taken seriously: to be more than an abstract mirage, Platonically perfect but humanly purposeless.

The development of humane beauty in classical art marks the maturation of art. It was no longer immaturely primitive -- pre-art, that is, art unconscious of itself -- but self-consciously art, and with that conscious that its purpose was to facilitate human self-consciousness, and with that human development, enable and cultivate whatever is ideal in human beings. Classical art was imaginatively elaborated in Renaissance and Baroque art, in pursuit of new modes of beauty, regarded as the symbol and form of the ideal, suggesting that until so-called avant-garde art came along, the task of art -- the task that made for genuine art -- was understood to be the creation of new modes of beauty, by building on old ones, or ingeniously reconfiguring them, or else preserving -- one might say academicizing -- them, which is better than abandoning and destroying them, reducing them to historical rubble. Art existed to articulate and will the ideal with whatever creativity it had at its command, reminding human beings that without the ideal they are less than human, certainly less than they are capable of becoming.

The will to the ideal, perhaps first evident in the invention of the gods -- ostensibly ideal beings although not always acting in an ideal way let alone to the benefit of all human beings -- becomes self-evident when they are given beautiful human bodies in classical art. They are no longer primitive forces of nature, half human and half animal like the destructive Minotaur -- Picasso’s "role model," as Minotauromachy, 1935, makes clear. They can never again become completely animal, as Zeus did when he became the bull who raped Europa -- and as Picasso did when he identified with the bull in Guernica, 1937, however unconsciously. It was an identification with the aggressor, the rapist of Spain, the enemy of European civilization, suggesting that Picasso realized that his art was uncivilized, primitive, animal, barbaric or, as he said, destructive. He was as destructive as a wild bull, however much his art seemed to “manage” -- not tame -- his destructiveness, or at least give it socially tolerable, “displaced” form. His ugly Cubist and Surrealist figures are a far cry from the embodiments of civilized, humane -- humanizing -- ideals in classically beautiful figures, which the figures in his so-called Ingres style drawings and paintings are a pale, diluted emulation of. De Kooning follows Picasso down this path of ugliness, which seems to have had its modern beginning in what Gautier called "the ugliness and vulgarity" of Courbet’s paintings(7) -- bringing to mind de Kooning’s remark "I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity."(8)  (Picasso is an unmistakable influence on de Kooning. His art has been understood as a kind of interlocution with, not to say interrogation of Picasso’s art -- he’s certainly a latter-day Cubist -- suggesting that he shares Picasso’s ideas about art however "outrightly abstract" -- "pure painting," as it were -- his art finally becomes.)

Beauty is no longer hinted at and incidental, as it may be in some details of pre-classical primitive art, but informs every detail in a classical work of art, which is why it seems spontaneously self-evident. The ideal has become inevitable, triumphing over the actual even as it uses it to make itself esthetically manifest. The first "glimpse of the ideal" occurs in "the intimate esthetics of mother and child," the psychoanalyst George Hagman writes. Every child is beautiful -- ideal -- to its mother, and every mother is beautiful -- ideal -- to its child, he notes. Their "interaction" involves the "idealization" of the "gestures, shapes, sounds, colors, and rhythms" that are later elaborated in "mature forms of esthetic experience"(9) -- such as classical art, the most mature form, still unrivaled.

Picasso’s whole art -- certainly in its Cubist, Surrealist and Cubo-Surrealist phases -- can be said to be premised on the contemptuous dismissal, not to say nihilistic rejection, of classical beauty, indeed, deliberate violation of its idealism in the name of a perverse regression to primitive pre-art. De Kooning carried this art-defeating -- and self-defeating -- nihilism to a point of no return to classical beauty, leaving only the dregs of art -- his last shallow paintings, with their inert gestural shards, a sort of reified, flattened, deadened and dead-ended painterliness and primitiveness, with colors glowing in fluorescent decay(10) -- in its wake, however much he flirted with it, as Seated Figure (Classic Male), ca. 1941-43, shows, and as Picasso also did in his neo-classical works. De Kooning’s art is a sort of reductio ad absurdum of Picasso’s insulting attitude to classical art, and, more pointedly, to beauty -- the lovely beauty of his painted Seated Woman, ca. 1940, and of his wife Elaine de Kooning in his exquisite, tender pencil portrait of her, ca. 1940-41. It is a beauty still apparent, however forlorn and distressed, in Woman Sitting, 1943-44, and Queen of Hearts, 1943-46. It is mocked in the grimacing toothy Woman that appears in 1948 and 1949, crushed and smashed in Woman, 1949-50, and finally completely disappears in the famously monstrous, intimidating Woman I, 1950-52, and the equally grotesque, domineering Woman IV, 1952-53, Woman V, Woman with Bicycle, both 1952-53, and Woman VI, 1953, with their equally vicious faces and sardonic smiles. The early woman images convey love -- the women are treated kindly, respectfully. The later images are full of murderous hatred, as their battered, perversely distorted bodies -- sadistically slashed and hacked and finally torn to pieces, their skin shredded so that it can no longer contain its flesh, which spills and spins out of control, leaving their bodies barely recognizable(11) -- strongly suggest. De Kooning’s woman is certainly a far cry from the classical beautiful Venus, not only because she’s ugly and repulsive, but because she’s hateful and malicious.

Like Picasso, De Kooning was a kind of minotaur, and like the minotaur both sacrificed human victims -- as ideally beautiful as he was monstrously ugly, and so whom he had to hate and defile -- on the altar of their art, feeding on them to keep it alive, until it lost its way in a labyrinth of its own making, and became a dull brutality feeding on itself. De Kooning’s figure loses its boundaries and form, and we are left in the gestural haze of the abstract landscapes, finally dissipating into fastidious patches of color, a sort of petrified painterliness -- an outward show of energy with no inner dynamic and necessity, a barren, sterile landscape of forced gestures each pretending to be an oasis -- showing that de Kooning has become heavy-handed, not to say lost his touch, suggesting that modernist painterliness has played its last strong hand.     

Why is woman the target of de Kooning’s hatred? Why does he have to destroy her? Why does he skin her alive -- the bodies of Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964, and Woman, 1964-65, are no more than strips of skin, pink animal hides -- disembowel her, and smash her face, as though wanting to knock her teeth out, tear her body apart like a wild beast (crazed Fauve, as it were)?  Each painterly gesture is a like a cutting wound -- a cutting edge indeed, leaving disfigured flesh in its wake. The remnants of her body are scattered in various abstractions, from the black paintings which first established his reputation to the later white paintings. They may be esthetically edifying -- formally ingenious, as it were -- but they putrify into surreal morbidity. De Kooning, like Picasso, had an "attitude" to woman and to beautiful art.

"The beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, nymphs, Narcissuses, are so many lies," Picasso aggressively declared. "Art is not the application of a canon of beauty" -- as though beauty was merely "academic," he adds -- "but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon." Uncontained by any canonical order, the artist is free -- if it is freedom rather than compulsion -- to "express what is in [him]," more pointedly "unload" his troublesome emotions: the "anxiety" of Cézanne, the "torments" of Van Gogh. "Even if the apple Jacques Émile Blanche painted had been ten times as beautiful" as the apple Cézanne painted, it would not convey "the actual drama of the man."(12) This attack on beauty -- now supposedly in the name of the sublime, which he finds in primitive pre-art rather than in the human drama -- reaches a climax of sorts in Barnett Newman’s assertion that "the impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty," more particularly, to "discard Renaissance notions of beauty" grounded in "the ideals of Greek beauty."(13) The "simple low mud walls" of "the Fort Ancient and Newark earthworks" in "the seductive Ohio valley," with its "dramatic landscape," are not only "the greatest works of art on the American continent," but "perhaps the greatest art monuments in the world."(14) I am not sure if this is moronism, but it is certainly anti-classical art and beauty.

So who is de Kooning’s woman? Originally a virginal maiden, she becomes, and remains, her opposite: the archetypal Magna Mater, known to psychoanalysts as the phallic woman.(15) Her breasts are ample, if not as many as those of Diana of Ephesus and other ancient mother-goddesses,(16) and are the seat of her power -- the primordial power attributed to the erect phallus.(17) The breasts of de Kooning’s women are invariably huge, and tend to dominate her body, projecting into space even when flattened, sometimes into triangles, like several in Picasso’s Demoiselles de Avignon, 1907, clearly among de Kooning’s "models." Even in the later images of the female nude -- always young (if not clearly virginal) -- such as Clam Diggers, 1963, Woman, 1964-65, and The Visit, 1966-67, her breasts are given special attention and emphasis, and seem to occupy more space than any of her other parts, indeed, take over her whole body, as July Fete in Plattsburgh, 1964, shows. De Kooning may like to think of his women as Fallen Angels, 1964-65, but unconsciously they’re all mothers -- the mothers of us all, certainly of his art.

One can read them away into his “abstract expressionist” (man)handling of them, but he’s doing battle with his muse, indeed, suggesting that the muse of modern art is a monster unlike the beautiful classical muse, which is why modern art (and modern woman) seems far from ideal, however cosmetically idealized, as de Kooning’s fascination with her flashy red lipstick in some works suggests -- suggesting also the source or inspiration for his flashy, not to say sensually excited and exciting, brushstrokes. De Kooning’s painterliness is a manic defense against the depressing and destructive effect of the Magna Mater on the infantile, primitive psyche, even as it suggests that he takes a certain perverse pleasure in being overwhelmed by her. He spoils her out of paranoid envy, even as he luxuriates in her flesh, hanging on to her breasts for dear life, even as he acknowledges that they they’re not exactly a comforting resting place, and that she stares at you like a Medusa, as Woman I does, ready to turn men into stone, if stone not as heavy as her breasts -- suggesting that de Kooning’s slithering gestures are the snakes that formed her hair, as fascinating for him as her eyes and lips.

Duchamp once dismissed painting as olfactory masturbation, but like de Kooning he liked masturbating to women’s image, and humiliating them -- suggesting neither understood what it means to love and care for a woman (perhaps for anything except their art) -- which, as the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller tells us, is the inner meaning of pornography. De Kooning destabilizes woman’s body, projecting his own instability into it, suggesting that his sadistic use and abuse of their bodies shows his identification with them, even as it suggests that his art is a nightmarish wet dream, affording a certain masochistic pleasure in the suffering he puts her -- and himself -- through.

It may seem strange to say so, but de Kooning’s nightmare of woman has an emotional affinity with Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781. If Marilyn Monroe was the modern Venus, as has been thought, then her “melodramatic” body, with its uncontainable flesh, with its false promise of happiness and abundance -- the American Dream -- is a vulgar version of beauty, as de Kooning’s rendering of it (1953) indicates, unlike the serenely self-contained beautiful body of the aristocratic Pauline Borghese in Canova’s neo-classical rendering of her (1808). However much de Kooning identified with the mother-muse-goddess in her various incarnations, he never learned the containing function of her reverie, however full of reverie his so-called abstract pastoral landscapes, such as Door to the River, 1960, and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, 1963, seem to be. They lack the clarity of classical pastorals, for example, those of Poussin, which maintain their dignity despite thematizing death. De Kooning’s whiplash brushstrokes, however geometrically contained some of them are, suggest that the mother’s containing, transformative reverie has failed, that is, he never completely internalized it.(18)  

De Kooning’s images of men seem anti-climactic. The early Seated Man, ca. 1939, Seated Man (Clown), 1941, and Figure, 1944, have an aborted classical look. As Seated Figure (Classic Male) suggests, he struggled with classicism -- the heroic classic torso -- while reducing it to a mirage, as though it made no sense in the modern world. His sensibility is clearly classical in the wonderfully dignified Still Lives, 1927-28, which integrate abstract ideas with traditional decorum -- the ca. 1927 Still Live seems indebted to Matisse’s still lives and interiors, and his “classicizing” venture into Cubism around 1914, when he produced darker toned, more melancholy works than his colorful joie de vivre Fauvist works -- and the sculpture Clam Digger, 1972, suggests a return to a heroic male model, however extravagantly expressionist it remains. Indeed, it is one of the masterpieces of 20th century figurative expressionism. Lurking within it is a heroic Rodin figure, or perhaps Matisse’s The Slave, 1905 -- a heroic figure torturing itself alive, its grotesque body a patch work of gestural clumps, flayed alive as its rawness and roughness suggests. It has an affinity with the crucified -- so it seems -- twisting body of the male figure in Untitled #13, 1969, seemingly writhing in death. As the delicate, tender drawing Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother, ca. 1938, strongly suggests, de Kooning had a great need for a male selfobject, as Heinz Kohut calls such a dependable figure -- for what Kohut calls a twinship transference, the last hope for the self when the mirroring transference (to the mother) and the idealizing transference (to the father) don’t seem to work. For de Kooning the male figure signals integration and integrity, while the female figure signals disintegration and the lack of integrity.          

Regression to primitive painterliness, supposedly a regression in the service of art -- of art that had been made tired by classicism, by a classicism that had seemed to have exhausted its creative possibilities and lost the will to ideal beauty, as though beauty had become trivial and unsustainable, and the aspiration to perfection irrelevant in an imperfect real world -- reaches a sort of grand climax in de Kooning. It is a destructive climax, for it involves the burning alive of the objective on the pyre of subjective expression, and with that the paradoxical self-defeat -- suicide -- of art set in motion by Kandinsky’s separation of the abstract "artistic element" from the realistic "objective element," more particularly, the figure and nature. De Kooning tries to return to them, but in his rendering they seem bankrupt of meaning -- or rather only subjectively meaningful, and thus incompletely meaningful, incompletely "realized." Moving from his early relatively smooth surfaces to his increasingly crude, roughly hewn surfaces, and from his early poised, self-balancing figures to his later precariously balanced, even unbalanced figures -- his women have no inner, controlling gyroscope, which is why they seem more breast than brain, more deliriously formless flesh than mindful person -- one traces this regression of art to its primitive, "touchy," painterly skin. It is a regression supposedly in the service of creativity but inherently destructive, for it involves the destructive disintegration of the body ego -- the first and most fundamental ego, the ego on which all the mature egos are built and which is the source of their strength -- that has been the primary theme of art since its beginning. In primitive art it was conceived as an animal ego -- thus the half-human, half-animal gods of the Egyptians -- until it was recognized as all human by the Greeks.

To emphasize the materiality of the medium at the expense of the figure -- to turn the picture inside out, as it were, that is, to argue that the medium in which the picture is made, which supports the representation, is more important than the picture and what it represents, that a picture in the last analysis is a picture of the medium, as it were, with, as Zola said of Manet’s Olympia, the object represented no more than a prop for the medium, "bright, luminous patches" or "black patches" ("sensational touches" with little or no meaning, or perhaps with personal meaning for Manet and de Kooning rather than the social meaning of the whorish woman they represented) -- is to regress to the primitive condition of tactility, to make a work in which the foregrounded figure eventually collapses and disappears into its tactile background (the so-called "all-over field"), becoming irrelevant, unnecessary, extraneous, incidental, suggesting that human presence is beside the artistic point, which is the point of Interchanged and Gotham News, both 1955, The Time of the Fire and January 1st, both 1956, February and Palisade, 1957, and the Black and White Rome series, 1959. When the painterly skin becomes more important than the human body -- when the human body is flayed alive, for whatever emotional reasons -- then painting no longer serves consciousness, but drowns us in the delusions of the unconscious, the mire of the unconscious into which it finally collapses and dissolves.  

"De Kooning: A Retrospective," Sept. 18, 2011-Jan. 9, 2012, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 86-87

(2) Wolfgang Lederer, The Fear of Woman (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 37

(3) Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id [1923], Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957), XIX, 26

(4) Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Self (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 84-85

(5) Francoise Cachin and Charles S. Moffet, curators and authors, Manet 1832-1883 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Paris: Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1983; exhibition catalogue), 126, 176

(6) Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking Press, 1972), 8

(7) Théophile Gautier, "Salon de 1853—11th article (extract)," Gustave Courbet (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008; catalogue essay), 445

(8) Willem de Kooning, "Symposium: 'What Art Means to Me'" [1951], Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 560. See my "The Unveiling of Venus: De Kooning’s Melodrama of Vulgarity," Vanguard, 13 (Sept. 1984):19-23 for an analysis of his idea of vulgarity, which involves the vulgarization of art by Abstract Expressionism. That is, the idea that it is a sort of revolutionary "people’s art," for it directly arouses, excites, engages and appeals to the emotions of "the people," the anonymous Many -- in general, Expressionism, abstract or figural, supposedly breaks through the repression barrier of reason to articulate and convey seemingly inarticulate, irrepressible, irrational feelings -- rather than the indirect, contemplative, "disinterested" appeal it had for the privileged aristocrats, that is, the socially powerful "rational" few, art served in the past.

(9) George Hagman, Aesthetic Experience: Beauty, Creativity, and the Search for the Ideal (New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 4

(10) For a discussion of the dubiousness of de Kooning’s last paintings see my essay "A Shameful Cultural Sham? Willem de Kooning’s Last Paintings," The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK and New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 34-37

(11) W. R. D. Fairbairn observes that the "aggressive and destructive impulses, which represent a denial of the life principle, . . . play an important part" in modern art. He notes that "the sadism of Goya and the Surrealists is expressed chiefly in the subject-matter of their pictures; but sadism may be expressed in the brushwork of a picture, even when it is absent in the subject -- as in the case of Van Gogh," and, one might add de Kooning. Fairbairn singles out Picasso’s "sadistic phantasies" in particular, remarking that "even in his pre-Surrealist period the objects represented give the impression of having been either grossly distorted or broken up into fragments -- or else subject to both these mutilating processes," making for an effect of "chaos." "They must be regarded as giving expression in no uncertain terms to [the] sadistic, 'tearing in pieces' tendency." "Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art" [1937], From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), II, 389, 390.

Michael Balint, writing about "a series of lithographs by Picasso" that "began with a naturalistic drawing of a bull and gradually eliminated all the 'inessential elements'," wonders "whether or not the bull survived this process of elimination," that is, "whether the end-result" of this process of elimination "conveys anything important about the bull or only how Picasso saw." Balint goes on to say that Picasso’s art, and modern art in general, involves "a kind of frightened withdrawal into a narcissistic preoccupation." Fear of the object leads to mistreatment of it: "our attitude towards it cannot remain on the mature level; it assumes more and more immature 'pre-genital' forms. Something like this has happened in 'modern art.' The treatment of the object, or the artist’s attitude to it, i.e., his fantasies, feelings, emotions, ideas, images, etc., when stimulated by his chosen object, are conspicuously on what psychoanalysis would describe as the anal-sadistic level. The objects are dismembered, split, cruelly twisted, deformed, messed about; the dirty, ugly qualities of the object are 'realistically' and even 'surrealistically' revealed; some forms and methods of representation in 'modern art' are highly reminiscent of primitive 'anal' messing; less and less regard is paid to the object’s feelings, interests and sensitivities; kind consideration for, and 'idealization of, the object becomes less and less important." "Degrading the dignity of the object," the artist turns it into a "mere stimulus." It becomes the vehicle for his "subjective internal mental processes" -- that is, for his expression of his "narcissistic withdrawal" into himself at the expense of the object, "traumatic" because it can never be completely satisfying, as Narcissus thought his image in the mirror of his art was. "Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art" [1952], Problems of Human Pleasure and Behavior (London: Maresfield Library, 1957), 119-20, 122-23

It seems clear that Picasso and de Kooning could not live with or without a woman. They messed around with her body, conveying their ambivalent attitude to her. It seems that for them fucking her was never as completely satisfying as making art, which is why they fucked around with her -- and fucked her over -- in their art. Looking at de Kooning’s diarrheic gesturalism -- great art, no doubt, however emotionally backward -- one cannot help but think of Jonathan Swift’s inability to accept the fact that his beautiful Stella defecated. Her shit was ugly, her body was beautiful, and Swift couldn’t reconcile himself to the fact -- to what he experienced as a perverse contradiction, confirming the diabolical double-nature of woman. It almost drove him mad. Beauty was good, shit was bad, so why does beauty have bad in it. Did Swift ever defecate? But then female beauty was not supposed to have the aftertaste of shit, that is, external beauty was not supposed to be internally ugly. Woman was supposed to be unequivocally, completely beautiful and good. Slowly and surely, because she was disappointingly neither -- because she was a bad girl underneath her good looks -- De Kooning vengefully turned her body into painterly shit.  

(12) Ashton, 11, 10

(13) Barnett Newman, "The Sublime is Now" [1948], Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 172. The zip in Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951 is hardly manly, heroic, or sublime, except by virtue of theoretical legerdemain and hypocrisy—magical thinking.

(14) Ibid., "Ohio, 1949," 174

(15) According to Robert Bak, "the fantasy of the maternal or female phallus is ubiquitous in the human psyche and is regressively revived, dramatized, and acted out in sexual perversions." Freud "suggested that the sight of the female genital leads to a split in the ego whereby two contradictory attitudes (women have a penis; women do not have a penis) are retained in the mind." In contrast, Bak argues "that the child is actually uncertain of whether women do or not have a penis and later puts this uncertainty to defensive uses. . . . All sexual perversions in men are ritualized denials of castration and rest upon the fantasy of the 'phallic woman'." Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2009), 243.

"The tiny infant," Aktar writes, 2004 "perceive[s] the mother only in parts, with a special focus. . . on her breast." She is "literally an object in parts. Only gradually [and reluctantly] does the child begin to perceive the mother in toto, i.e., as a 'whole object'." It seems that de Kooning was increasingly unable to do so, suggesting a regression to childhood, even infancy, in his view of woman -- increasingly fragmented into a chaotic pile of part objects. "'Part objects' [also] mean objects at whom only one or the other form of feeling (e.g., love, hate) and not an admixture of feelings are directed. Such objects frequently contain projected parts of the self." De Kooning’s woman increasingly becomes a sum of part objects that do not add up to a whole, however much he seems to be simultaneously in love and in hate with her, although, I would argue, more hate, however interrupted by spasms of love -- sexual love, which is not always careful about its object, and often does not care who it is.  

(16) Magna Mater, Lederer, 4 writes, is "'The Mother with the faithful breast,' she whose breasts never failed, never went dry -- they were occasionally reduced to stylized rings or spirals, but they were often lustily stressed, and most impressively so by multiplication: The Great Diana of Ephesus is usually represented with numerous breasts. . . and the Mexican goddess of the Agave, Mayauel, has 400." Freud writes: "A child’s first object is the mother’s breast that nourishes it; love has its origin in attachment to the satisfied need for nourishment." "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" [1938], Standard Edition, XXIII, 64. In "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood" (1910], Standard Edition, XII, 101, Freud notes that "the penis becomes heir of the mother’s nipple." If view of this, it is worth noting that archaeologists have determined that the breasts of the Great Diana of Ephesus were modeled on bull’s testicles, confirming that she was a phallic woman, simultaneously man and woman -- the primitive fantasy of the all-powerful mother.

(17) Like Aktar, Storr emphasizes that "phallus" refers to power as well as the penis, in primordial fantasy and ancient myth the seat of power. "Penis envy," Storr writes, 68, is "not primarily sexual, but pseudo-sexual." "The little girl" is "not dissatisfied with being female as such, but discontented with being, as all children are, comparatively powerless. In her quest for dominance, she comes across the fact that boys are, as numerous experiments have shown, innately more aggressive than girls. . . . Males are therefore conceived, quite correctly, to be potentially more powerful than girls; and the symbol of masculine power is quite obviously the penis." Storr adds, 69, "So long as the child, or the childish adult, feels himself to be at a disadvantage in the dominance hierarchy, so long will both sexes show phallic envy and tend to identify with the more powerful male. But the price of being thus preoccupied is to be excluded from the pleasures of love. I should like to put forward the hypothesis that the more neurotic a person is, the more will he or she be preoccupied with status, and the more will his or her sexuality be distorted to serve dominance-submission purposes rather than the end of obtaining pleasure." Can one say that De Kooning is seeking to dominate woman by painting her (into oblivion), even as his women are clearly not submissive, even indomitable? Sometimes his paintings seem pleasurable -- even rankly hedonistic -- sometimes they seemed painful, but they are always full of the will to power over their female object, whether in the disguise of a benign Mother Nature, a seductive succubus, or an awesome idol. Is Abstract Expressionism, with its phallic power -- ruthless, powerful gestures -- the desperate last stand of patriarchal art, the futile final fling of masculine narcissism? Lederer notes that woman’s penis envy is a 19th century idea of patriarchal society. One of the things that 20th-century feminism teaches us is that it has lost its meaning and patronizing purpose. 

(18) "Maternal reverie," Akhtar, 168, writes, is "Wilfred Bion’s (1967) term for the mother’s capacity to hold, contain, elaborate, and transform her baby’s unspoken and unspeakable thoughts and affects into thinkable and understandable ideas. The existence and sustenance of this capacity is a sign of mother’s love." What Bion calls beta elements -- inarticulate, primitive sensations and feelings -- are transformed into what he calls alpha elements -- articulate elements that can be linked in learning and memory -- by the mother’s "alpha function" or containing function, bringing the infant out of the paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position, to use Melanie Klein’s terms. Beta sensations and feelings abound in de Kooning’s paintings -- including the so-called pastoral paintings, with their supposed idealization of Mother Nature -- suggesting that he never made it into the depressive position, implying a failure of maternal reverie and love, which is what I think he expected from his floozies, and which he of course never got, because they were incapable of it. He seems to have painted the wrong woman, again and again, however much he thought his painting would turn her into the right woman.

“De Kooning: A Retrospective,” Sept. 18, 2011-Jan. 9, 2012, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y., 10019.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.