"Everything is already in art. Like a big bowl of soup. Everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you."
I came across this quote over the weekend in a Los Angeles Times article and have been thinking about it ever since. The holistic, zen-like tone is striking. It makes art sound easy-peasy*, as if all one has to do is dip your hands in a gallon of house paint, fling it at a canvas, and— voila!—Art results. Which, of course, usually isn’t the case.
Yet I think what de Kooning is saying is that the artist traffics in the same material he or she swims through every day**. You stick a hand into that soup, but rather than just flinging it unadulterated, the artist transforms and shapes that soup into something different. Which ain’t easy-peasy.
De Kooning’s figurative paintings (think of his women, how ferociously teethed they can be) and his late-period canvases with their thick but often cool lines have always amazed me. We lived in the Washington DC metropolitan area for many years and frequently visited both the Hirshhorn, which has an outstanding de Kooning collection, and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), which boasts some of his finest post-1970 work. And of course we saw the big 1994 retrospective, both in New York and DC. This fall, New York’s MoMA is hosting a new retrospective, which we hope we can see.
On the day Stephen, our first child, was born, I was writing a roman à clef-ish short story based on Willem and Elaine’s last years together. The birth was to be induced, a process that should have taken several hours, so I brought the story along with me to the hospital. While Alison lay on the birthing room bed awaiting her first contraction, I wrote on a small rolling desk that the nursing attendants thoughtfully located for me.
My de Kooning story was one of the first real stories I ever tried to write and it really wasn’t that good.
De Kooning, however, stayed with Stephen.
Especially in his early years, Stephen had an amazing appetite for art galleries. In Washington, most museums either charged no admission or offered ridiculously affordable family membership, making it easy for us to visit and re-visit several museums each weekend.
It wasn’t just de Kooning that held his attention. Warhol isn’t featured prominently in DC public collections, but the BMA’s holdings are excellent. Plus, for about six months, The Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted a huge exhibit of works culled from Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. We’d go almost every Thursday night, when the Corcoran had extended evening hours, and he’d gawk at the electric chairs, skulls, and, strangely, Warhol’s Screen Tests, which were screened continuously.
Because Stephen is on the autistic spectrum and had difficulty reading facial expressions in his early years, we’d go together through the National Gallery’s Old Masters galleries and I’d quiz him on whether the people in the paintings looked happy or sad, angry or befuddled.
In the National Gallery’s East Building, he’d plop himself on the floor and stare at Pablo Picasso’s The Tragedy for thirty minutes at a stretch. This would happen on an almost-weekly basis. I never saw someone so captivated by a single painting.
Shortly after we moved to Blacksburg in 2006, I looked at Stephen’s drawings and realized, my god, he drew eyes just as de Kooning drew eyes! And his figures—his lines were like the lines that Warhol employed when outlining his late-period silk-screened portraits!
Okay. I know snarkier readers of this blog are going to sneer— How derivative!-- but, as a parent, I took it as a sign that we were doing something right.
Art museums in Southwest Virginia are few, their holdings not vast. We go to Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art at least a couple of times each month, plus take in exhibits at local colleges (Virginia Tech, Radford, Hollins, and Roanoke College), but really, we just aren’t able to expose our children to the same quality and variety of art as we’d like. Absent of constant exposure, the lines of Stephen’s drawings reverted to a childish scrawl; children forget quickly.
We’d been in Blacksburg for ten months when the 4/16 shootings happened. In the wake of the tragedy, I drove back to DC with Stephen and went to the Jasper Johns retrospective (then at the National Gallery). When he becomes intellectually excited, Stephen goes into self-stimulation mode. He’ll flap his hands, shaking them as if he were a wizard casting a spell. Sometimes, his whole body will shake. It’s a classic ASD trait. That afternoon, he stopped at each Johns’ painting and flapped his hands. Still shaken from the shootings, I cried, for it was only then that I realized how long of an absence it had been since he was so engaged with a painting.
*this is one of Stephen’s favorite terms, and yes, this is the first time I’ve typed that term. Would everything be so easy-peasy.
** and yes, this implies that the artist is as much a part of the “soup” as his or her art is.