– This article opens the catalog of the exhibition Willem de Kooning – Zao Wou-Ki which took place from 19 January to 11 March 2017 at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York. Through a selection of some twenty paintings, this one puts into perspective the works of the two great contemporary artists, produced between the late 1940s and the early 1980s. Dominique de Villepin delivers his personal look on both painters and their works –
A surprising idea, this summit meeting. Everything seems to herald a silent stand-off: two giants of the twentieth century who never met, never wrote about each other, and were born at opposite ends of a gigantic continent, while their adoptive lands are separated by an ocean.
This exhibition is a monster. Not a match, not a combat, for there would be nothing to gain from their confrontation. They are both too swift, too solitary, too singular for their canvases to lend themselves to such foolish games. It would be just as futile to come looking for windows onto two types of reality, as if we had reached the random intersection of two closed universes. The exhibition is monstrous, first of all, because of the exceptional quality of the canvases assembled here, thanks to loans from leading museums, institutions, and collectors, and thanks, most of all, to the work done by Dominique Lévy to make this event possible. It is monstrous because it carries within itself a matchless demonstrative power: it allows us to see and understand with no need for explanation. The eye can understand on its own. Finally, it is monstrous because it offers a fine setting for icons by two monstres sacrés at the heart of the creative undertaking.
It is clear the moment we enter: there is no point in contrasting them, uniting them, or even comparing them. Of course, it is still tempting to do so; such are the exchanges that these canvases seem to set up, the fleeting and uncertain relations between them. We only have to look at the oldest paintings by each artist: Sail Cloth (page 31) by Willem de Kooning and the untitled landscape by Zao Wou-Ki (page 91), both completed in 1949. There is a kind of kinship, like personal variations around shared motifs: the choice of color and light, the articulation, the density and movement of the line. The works seem to respond to each other as if by enchantment. Later, when their palettes grow apart — one painter exploring the howling colors of exhibited flesh, the other the disquieting golds, lights, and gray tones of eclipses — the assessing gaze continues to seek footholds and is constantly surprised to find them.
Hard as it may be, we must resist this temptation. Otherwise we would drown the true subject of this show in the noise of chance. For, make no mistake, the works here hide what is essential: the summoning of two spirits. The magic of voices from beyond the tomb, speaking of two lives dedicated to art and to passion, two lives caught up in the headlong pursuit of freedom.
These rooms vibrate with the energy that made the canvases possible. Something happens when we are around these sumptuous canvases, among both artists’ finest. One man’s paintings come alive in contact with the other man’s. Between these works, hung just so, voices speak out.
Their resonances suddenly bring home the points where these two lives came unexpectedly into contact. Two excep- tionally long artistic careers, more than a century of painting between them. Two experiences of exile and uprooting. Two lives forged by ordeals, difficulties, illness. The two threads they spin were knotted at the same essential points, the 1940s and the 1950s, when they each forged the style that would make them famous.
What emerges from this collision is, first of all, the incandescent core of their humanity. That moment when civi- lization turned, that moment of choice when both men, rather than being swept away, rather than clinging to their roots, decided to take their destiny in hand — their own and, as I see it, the world’s. In the whirlwind of history, they stood firm. They grabbed the reins and bestrode a diabolic mount that is still bucking beneath us today: modernity.
At the current moment of globalization, when so many are displaced — tangling cultures and identities, causing clashes and instability, making it impossible to know what will last and what may disappear — the seeds these two artists sowed are more salutary than ever. We must go back to their sources, back in effect to their testimonies, which offer a reason for being and living that is neither the technological platitude of comfort, nor the painful and sterile nostalgia for a closed meaning confined within a self-contained world.
Gradually, at the end of the nineteenth century, like oil spilling across the world, the metamorphosis of modernity spread from one point to another, often accompanied by eruptions of violence. Everything was changing at the same time, as a new world grew and pushed under the skin of the old: ways of life, ways of working, the place of the individual in society, and the organization of families and states went through an upheaval. The most thoroughgoing transformation in the his- tory of humanity since sedentarization was in process, and still is today in many territories. This modernization has had serious effects. After the suicide of Europe from 1914 to 1945, after the collapse of eastern Asia between 1895 and 1979, amidst the self-mutilating spiral of the Middle East, begun in around 1979, and perhaps before the convulsions of Africa or India — even if we may hope that they are spared and immunized— we shall glimpse, or so we hope, the light of an uncertain peace.
These two men will count among those who accomplished the revolution of minds— in other words, the decisive and ultimate transformation. More than chiefs of war, more than empire builders or great lawmakers, we will remember these great creators, these wandering souls who dug deep into the chaos of the flesh and of nature and brought forth new ways of seeing, imagining, and thinking. For, beyond the paths of exile — and because of them, and no doubt beyond the world’s hurlyburly, beyond the abstraction of forms, they shaped the global art that was still to come. They are on a par with Picasso, Matisse, or Pollock, its pioneers, its pathfinders, and its sentinels. This global art with multiple roots sinking into both earth and sky, past and present, can better withstand the storm. It will be our cure and our recompense after the sacrifices of a century, perhaps two, of modernization’s march.
What touches me so much in these two painters, as revealed here, is indeed the intensity of their human lives, caught up in the tempests of their times, seeking, sometimes desperately, to attain transcendence. As with all great artists, their life and their work are one. Two intransigent quests for freedom leave us these moments of eternity by way of comfort and example. Two masters of freedom trace for us paths to the future that are more relevant and vital now than ever.
Individual paths, at a time when in our own lives we must confront fears, hopes, and the whirlwinds of change. Collective paths, when art enables us to question history, and sometimes to guide it, to make it intelligible to itself. These two threads of life— the history of the solitary self and the history of all— are, for me, inextricably intertwined in Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning. This exhibition is not about art history but about the power of art itself, that fragment of history which, with each artist, became a spark of freedom. All that endures beyond a man’s life is his freedom, the only effective form of eternity.
The Children of Saturn
Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning share the secret of an extraordinary crime. Like so many others of their time, each took part in the collective murder of the father that made this modernity possible. They helped tear us away from tradition, to break with the figuration within which they had grown up and matured.
A morbid filiation was threatening to swallow its sons, but they started the work of rebirth. Like the children of Saturn, they disemboweled their father in his treacherous sleep. They replaced him with the collective reign of the sons. For the unchangeable god of time, they substituted the law of change, of searching and wandering.
For centuries, art seemed to be following its meanders in both East and West, pursuing— if no doubt with improvements and metamorphoses— a long continuity of works and artists. When Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning lifted themselves up to the level of the greats, the cracks had already spread and grown; transgressions had taken place, from Kandinsky to Braque or Malevich. Abstraction was no longer new. Some even held that it was already exhausted.
But the two painters shrugged this off. The paths they followed were their own. Their youthful works struggled doggedly and patiently with the kingdom of the visible. The transition to abstraction was the mark of a personal choice, an existential crisis, a decision that was in many respects emancipatory. They became seers by breaking free of the visible.
With Zao Wou-Ki, the crucial moment can easily be dated to around 1954, in those violent, dark compositions, steeped in despair. Flights of signs now eddy in clouds of colors, replacing the skeletal human figures and trees that straggled on in his last landscapes. From this time on, the eye was free of the codes of the past and would no longer come back to them, or at least only belatedly, to betoken a symbolic reconciliation and the definitive triumph of the “vibrant lifes” of abstraction over the still lifes of figuration. During these same years Willem de Kooning crossed the frontier, forsaking the representation that he had been following ever since his formative years, devouring like an ogre the visual forms inherited from tradition, making images from every antecedent, be it Uccello, Ingres, or Soutine. Neither of them doomed, misunderstood, and solitary, nor crushed by the grandeur of their predecessors, they managed to carve out their respective paths among forms, sidestepping the intellectual constructions of abstract experiment in favor of an intuitive grasp of the sensorial.
Paris, New York: Wandering Souls
For them, the rupture came in life and not in art. To cast off: this was the shared, concrete, and immediate aspiration that drove the two painters to leave their homelands, to breathe the air of cargo boats and steamers. Both men foreigners and exiles in the two art capitals of the twentieth century: the ascendant capital, New York, and the descending capital, Paris. Here are two privileged witnesses of those ten decisive years in the 1940s and 1950s when the art world completed the transmutation begun half a century earlier. This passing of power over contemporary art, with the baton going from Paris to New York, meant the uprooting of Western art and the coming of an American art that always saw itself as radically new. The two painters appeared in those two metropolises two decades apart, but with the same impression of being naked and at odds with their own time.
Their aim in leaving was to enable change. They traveled with a cargo of dreams. Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning both sought to break with a stifling tradition. For Willem de Kooning, commercial drawing school meant thumbing his nose at the dreamy, nebulous, and floating world of Dutch painting. The precision of his line bespeaks a desire for other places, the appearance of a chimney funnel or the sharp edge of a New York skyscraper. Zao Wou-Ki, born into a family of scholars, turned his back on Chinese landscape and took Matisse and Cézanne as his guides. “I wanted to paint differently,” he wrote, simply, in his autobiography, as he recalled his decisive arrival in a Paris exhausted by the war, where the 14th arrondissement was no more than the gleaming ghost of a formerly triumphant Montparnasse.
Like all who leave their homes, no doubt, these two voluntary exiles still had their insistent, atmospheric dreams, memories of the ambience back in the old country. Indeed, Willem de Kooning was reminded of the Netherlands by his house facing the sea in Louse Point, Long Island, a Flemish landscape cut out from the New World. As for Zao Wou-Ki, his garden in the rue Jonquoy gave him a domesticated version of Chinese scenery. Uprooting forced them to open up their own territories at an early age. This is how the Chinese painter entered “Zaowouquie,” that imaginary space of forms and dreams described by Henri Michaux.
Highways and Byways
In the solitude of inhospitable metropolises, they found the vital counterpoint to solitary creation: the camaraderie of young spirits, fellow-seekers of a new art. This radical spirit haunted circles of orphans, the rootless, and the potential parricides. The New York School, the School of Paris— in each instance, in the turbulence of the twentieth century, the sense is acute: modernity is the failure of the fathers and the order of the brothers. On every side they rejected the fathers, mocked them, gibed at them. And yet all were looking for a guiding hand to help them along their path. But they sought an older brother, not an intellectual guru. Willem de Kooning found his in the figure of Arshile Gorky. “I was lucky when I came to this country to meet the three smartest guys on the scene: Gorky, Stuart Davis, and John Graham.”
Zao Wou-Ki, too, found the warmth of lively discussion soon after his arrival in 1948. A group coalesced, its uncompromising members circulating, meeting, and then parting at a moment of critical debate in the arts: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. All through his life, Zao Wou-Ki kept this prodigious talent for friendship, his capacity to connect with those in whom he perceived a common vibration, a shared artistic energy.
These peer groups spurred each other on. They emboldened each other to break, to be always wilder, more reckless. Often they seemed like groups of schoolchildren, hungry for life and loving to laugh at the bourgeoisie, even if that meant living from hand to mouth. In the solidarity of equals, painters and poets found the strength of a collective action that transcended individuals.
Significantly, at no moment in the history of art was collaboration between painters and poets as intense and as necessary as it was at this revolutionary moment. Zao Wou-Ki was nourished by the gaze and the words of poets. Part of his art was constructed in confrontation with this prophetic speech. And, all through his life, he illustrated poems by friends or admired poets, such as René Char. In this confraternity, it was Henri Michaux who spurred and supported Zao Wou-Ki’s creative impetus. In 1950 he exhorted him to claim his freedom and thus made possible the bold rupture of the next decade. Each needed the intervention of other arts to break free of tradition. One could say the same, at the same time, of poets, who searched painting and its frontier zones of Art Brut and the primary arts for the Archimedean lever that would force words free, unleashing them beyond all convention, morality, and even resemblance. The mold of language must be shattered, as Dada and the Surrealists had tried to do.
We cannot forget that in these years the world was in a state of constant upheaval. America was assailed by the tragedies of the Great Depression. Willem de Kooning himself had been a painter with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program instituted as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide employment for those whom the economy had failed. The artist made no secret of his rejection of the established order, railing against the reactionary power of style, vituperating against established artists and their certainties.
Elsewhere Soviet communism threatened, as did the rise of fascism and the crisis of democracies. On the other side of the world, the collapse of China’s millennial regime ushered in an age of wars and revolutions: the fall of Sun Yat Sen’s republic, the cruel Sino-Japanese war, the civil war between the nationalists of the Kuomintang and the communists of Mao Zedong. Zao Wou-Ki took refuge from it all in the painting school at Hangzhou and in Western painting, which he was discovering. Born into a modest family, Willem de Kooning came to adulthood in a Europe roiled by violence, tormented by revolutions.
Both seem to have been simultaneously at the heart of events and apart from them, singularly impervious to the storms raging round them. By another biographical coincidence, they both acquired the nationality of their host country during the same period: 1961 for Willem de Kooning and 1964 for Zao Wou-Ki (thanks to the intercession of Culture Minister André Malraux).
Men Under the Influence
Deep down, the two men were not so much rejecting tradition as digesting it. The eclecticism asserted by both painters was a kind of dissection. Returning to Hangzhou decades later, Zao Wou-Ki was surprised and dismayed to see those who had stayed on still painting like Matisse and Cézanne. He and Willem de Kooning chose new fathers, but only to break free again. No doubt, when they borrowed their palette from Rubens or Matisse, and their drawing from Picasso or Klee, they must have felt like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. But soon they had jumped from these lofty perches and were raising themselves to the level of their predecessors.
Rather than imitate or copy, they strove to distill art, to seek its strength beyond figurative forms. Willem de Kooning explained his approach in an interview with Harold Rosenberg in September 1972: “If I am influenced by a painter from another time, that’s like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice; the smile left over when the cat is gone. In other words I could be influenced by Rubens, but I would certainly not paint like Rubens.”
In exploring these new territories, albeit weighed down by the thousand eyes of their predecessors, the two painters accepted discomfort. They combined the piety of the sons with the solitude of orphans, refusing the easy poses of academicism or revolt for revolt’s sake. “Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional,” said Willem de Kooning with a mixture of humor and instinctive rebelliousness. For his part, Zao Wou-Ki was no less tortured by the demands of his art: the brush as a flimsy oar to take him through the storm.
On these very personal journeys, with all their borrowing, buttressing, and reinvention, the relation to painters of the past was deeply ambivalent. Yes, they were like the rungs on a personal Jacob’s ladder, raised skywards. To continue the unending painting of humanity, they borrowed, reused, diverted. The intense pinks of flesh in Willem de Kooning’s Woman series (for example, Woman in a Garden, 1971) do effectively recall the brilliance and play of light on Rubens’s figures. The dark, vaporous silhouettes of the mountains that rise up from Zao Wou-Ki’s canvases recall the silk paintings of the Song era.
But at the same time, they were digging into the universe of forms, mining the diamonds of vision by stripping off the gangue of realist illusion. From each one they kept only the light captured in the curve of a cloud, on a patch of wall, in the fold of a silhouette. They honed in on the essence of things, both no doubt persuaded that absolute painting is, if not possible, then something one can seek to attain. Louis Marin has emphasized the connections and influences reflected in Willem de Kooning’s work, that Rembrandt-like play of shadow in the 1959 painting titled Black and White Rome M (page 39), but also those Flemish landscapes that invite us to make an almost cartographic appropriation of the real, whereas Italian landscape always constructs a setting that awaits a very human narrative.
As the involuntary heirs of two traditions of landscape painting that were at once opposing and familiar, the Chinese painter and the Dutch painter were constantly struggling in their desire to move beyond the concept of landscape as the simple laying down of things. The two traditions do effectively share the belief in an atmospheric essence of landscape that connects objects laid out in space within a common energy. In those northern clouds heavy with white light, or in those interpenetrating waters and tracts of land, landscape swallows up the human figure and creates the conditions for a presence of being, for a celebration of the power of nature, active and acted, for a proliferation made independent of any creative hand. A breach was opened for the fashioning of a new figuration, since the invention of landscape was the necessary link for the invention of a truly poetic painting. In the dialogue of the canvases presented here, we can still sense the vibrating energy of these lineages of images, each born at an opposite end of the planet, the landscapes of East and West, and the promise of their possible reconciliation.
The paintings by these two masters of modernity struggle to contain creative energy. The paintings become com- positions because they are pieces cut out from reality, raw pieces of creation. These artists painted details of the world, aware of the impossibility of bringing that permanent renewal of the gaze to completion. What strikes us about the paintings here is their solidity. They are structured, in a proliferation that is nevertheless always organized, a disorder held in place on the edge of civilization. In this sense they are very much go-betweens. Intermediaries between worlds, certainly, between the Old and the New, between East and West, but even more between a world of forms and a world of beings, a world of the living and a world of the dead — that is to say, at once the abyss of shadows and the place of forms freed from time.
These intermediaries create openings. The depth of the canvases’ surfaces is pierced with colors, forms, and movements. Again, here, an impromptu dialogue seems to develop: in works by both artists, vertical compositions — solid, like tempestuous columns— speak to upright bodies, devoid of pose or artifice, in exuberant corporeality.
The Spell of Imagination
Choosing depth against surface meant the obligation to redefine what a painting really is. Ultimately, the great formal revolution of the mid-twentieth century was a triumph of abstraction only on the surface. For abstraction was just a byproduct, a fleeting way of engaging in a much more intense battle, that of the immanence of the truth of painting. “The drawing of a face is not a face,” insisted Willem de Kooning. “It is the drawing of a face.”
In their quest for freedom, these men also had to strip painting of its chains, the chains that for centuries had tied representation to the constraint of mimesis, to the imitation of a reality which calibrated and measured a painter’s talent. The painted work could only be creature and not creation, so dependent was its truth on something outside it. Let us be clear, the spell of painting’s transcendence, which in fact is the painting’s subordination, did not cease with the end of the cult of representation as resemblance. The struggle is permanent because it is a constant process of learning about oneself. It is the continuation within ourselves of the Enlightenment program, of that sapere aude proclaimed by Kant, which defined the emancipation of mankind as the purpose of philosophy.
The forces tempted to enslave painting are always at work. Once the obligation to represent the visible had been abandoned, there were those who wanted to compel painting to represent an idea, exchanging an easygoing master for a more violent subjection. The very word abstraction, the convenient names of the schools— action painting or lyrical abstraction — give a glimpse of the danger of totalization. In their fundamental, abiding aspiration to freedom, both Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning were constantly rejecting all new forms of domination.
Therein lies a founding paradox of art. For while it is held by the ties of filiations and heritages that produce, little by little, a history of art, a progress of forms, each artist must also keep waging, over and over, the battle for human freedom within the limits of an individual life.
In this sense, every painter who attains his freedom can claim to have totally accomplished art. This applies to Giotto just as it does to Cézanne. Every great painter, whatever the period, manages to go beyond representation and transmute it into presence. Imagination is, in this sense, humanity’s highest faculty, above even reason, because it is the capacity to produce freedom, to break the glass wall between object and subject, between thought and thing. This is what bestows a sacred dimension on the work of art, something that no other human undertaking can hope to attain. Only imagination can subvert the immutable order that separates human beings from gods, mortals from immortals. It embodies the élan vital. And for that reason too, it disturbs and isolates.
The paintings brought together here are, for this reason, all alive. They speak for themselves, invite us to think, but remain impenetrable by nature.
The Quest for the Concrete
Because they imagine life, these canvases collide frontally with matter. What, really, is abstraction? What do these canvases, which made their way from figuration to abstraction, have in common?
“The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.” This maxim of Willem de Kooning’s shows just how conventional are the commonly held ideas about the origins of the two artists’ abstraction. It seems intellectually satisfying to suppose that one forged his abstraction from landscape, and notably from the tradition of the water-and- mountain landscapes of ancient Chinese painting, while the other pulled on the figurative thread of the human body and pushed the female nude towards abstraction, yet always letting fragmented forms come to the surface, allowing the appearance of compositions of flesh to open to desire. And yet Zao Wou-Ki forcefully rejected the idea that he was a landscape painter and for many years refused to paint after nature, for fear of being held in thrall to the visible. He painted nature. Willem de Kooning, for his part, intermingled forms and subjects in his paintings— sometimes referring to the human figure, indeed, and other times to landscape. A Tree in Naples (1960, page 41) plays with chance elements in the motif, the tree in question being both indefinite and precise, like a detail out of a painting. It thereby becomes an event and not just a piece of matter extracted from the real. This avoidance of the motif is far from incidental. It indicates the will to show something else and to designate differently.
That is why the detour via the sign was so necessary — those swarms of characters often devoid of meaning in Zao Wou-Ki, the “sign painter” practice of Willem de Kooning, who in his early days painted industrial signs. What he took from this practice was a certain loss of distinction between ground and figure.
Color and Line
The battle against matter effects the transmutation of the sign into color. It announces the victory of painting, the transition to the regime of seeing. The entry into illumination. There is in the two painters brought together here a celebration of color that simultaneously involves its negation. In 1948 de Kooning owed his fame to the series of Black and White works that he continued for nearly a decade. As for Zao Wou-Ki, he was loath to give up color and to return to the water-drowned shades of India inks. And yet, despite all this avoidance, for all his efforts— and once again at the instigation of Michaux, in relation to poetry, espousing its play of black lettering drunk in by the white paper — he eventually threw himself body and soul into the inks on paper of the 1970s, giving them more and more time and energy. He found, in a moment of despair and creative crisis, the energy to resume, to revive his palette, to open up new horizons. From now on, his colors would never be the same. This opened his more contemplative, almost stellar, later period, in which deep, serene blues are married with the golden light and green flourishes seen as early as the painting 05-03-76 (1976, page 122).
Willem de Kooning’s paintings appear to be in perpetual motion. The brushstrokes vibrate. They fill all the space of the painting, having no precise origin, no definitive organization. They shrivel and twist on the canvas, infusing it with life. The line is buttressed by color and color radiates, projected by line. The painter plays with our eye, compels it, perturbs and guides it round the tracks of the canvas. He captures and records our gaze which, out of habit, and in disarray, cannot keep itself from clinging to the lines, from following them and believing in them.
The situation is different in the canvases of Zao Wou-Ki. Here, truth is uncompromising. Yes, the gaze is guided too, but by other artifices and other scaffolding. Closer to realist landscape, Zao Wou-Ki allows us to believe in the existence of vanishing lines, of perspectives hidden in the depths of the canvas. His canvases captivate and bewitch. The eye is always attracted in a movement in the major mode, reprised in a minor key by the painting’s details. 09-01-63 (1963) shows a horizon of light propelled forward from the painting, seeking contact and confrontation with the dark shadows that edge and delimit it, above and below.
The Conquerors of Freedom
It is surely no coincidence that these artists both settled in cities that symbolized a new sense of freedom, replete with universalist promise. Something drove them, something beyond art that defined their existence. Willem de Kooning’s brushstrokes, it seems, evoke Antonin Artaud’s wild figure of the “crowned anarchist.” Both de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki painted instinctively to save what was dearest to them: their freedom. Of this, de Kooning said in his first public state- ment on art, “A Desperate View” (1949): “The idea of order can only come from above. Order, to me, is to be ordered about and that is a limitation.” Chaos is internal, projected onto the world like an army.
The Pound of Flesh
Often, the price of freedom is solitude. It forces us to tear out a part of ourselves. For these two great painters, the path of creation took them through whole deserts of solitude.
Seeing their paintings, we are filled with instinctive respect for the sacrifice. This is what art contains, what the canvas retains: squares full of hurricanes cut from seas of oil. “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure,” de Kooning declared. The combat he waged in his art was continued in his life. He sank into alcohol. Perhaps this soothed him for a while after the exhaustion that always ensues when visions are too intense.
For these shooting stars in the history of forms, the work that they undertook of deconstructing the figure could not endure. Their ruptures called for other transgressions. Both have been without successors— a few imitators, a few pale reflections, no doubt, but nobody to continue, to improve, to go deeper.
They learned to journey with despair at their side, and despair was often the direct cause of the great ruptures in their work. Here we see the dark storms of Zao Wou-Ki’s life in several of his most accomplished canvases from the 1950s (pages 94–101). The paintings compel us, yet for him these were years of doubt, of his divorce from his first wife, his relationship with May, his second wife, and then long years at her side confronting illness, instability, fear. The landscapes of La nuit remue (1956, page 97) were found in the gulf of an inner night, from which he drew.
Paintings of Desire
The paintings assembled here tell us that there is no image without desire, without that encounter between the painter’s desires and the beholder’s. Painting is a play of drives. It exists only in the space of the imagination, capable of moving, of wrenching soul and spirit: a desire more radical and primordial than eroticism, the will to power, or the thirst for knowledge. The painter cloaks all desire in visible form. He reigns over a kingdom of forms. It is not surprising, therefore, that Willem de Kooning’s painting should evince such a physical drive, that he should make the body the matrix of this art endlessly rehearsed — as is visible in his Marilyn Monroe (1954). The painting is a fetish and a talisman.
A desire is the sole image capable of movement, because it is the canvas of creative dissatisfaction, of the back and forth of action and correction, of approaching form. Willem de Kooning’s technique bears the stigmata of this, alternating countless successive phases of drawing and color, returning to line, thickening a new layer of pigments. Zao Wou-Ki, too, tirelessly refined and revisited. Whole days were spent in front of the canvas, in a quest for perfection in the potent artisanship of mystery.
In doing this, they both chose to gamble with their lives in the assertion of their freedom, for the freedom of painting is sometimes synonymous with the painter’s own enslavement. He is confined in the studio and, even more, within the four edges of his canvas. Hence the intensity of the composition, which is not an intellectual exercise but a gesture of despair — that of the horse straining at its harness or the wild beasts whose impatient pacing behind the bars of their cages Rilke memorably observed.
This labyrinth of time, open to contradictions, to unfinished efforts, to desperate attempts, is the seal of a new human condition, of the destiny of a humanity left to its own devices. We know that we have the power to create and destroy. Nature, which we have domesticated, is dying within our embrace. We have no refuge now. We are in a world with no end, no way out. A Beckettian desert.
These wounds that gape in the canvases of Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning, these long gashes that lacerate their paintings and open onto the other world, are the living sign of our collective greatness and fragility, of our liberty and our lapsed nature, which are inextricable. In that century of crimes, in that century of crises and convulsions, we learned that to step forward was also to stumble. Therein, no doubt, lies the tragedy of the modern condition, now shared by a humanity assembled under the sign of this responsibility: to know is to wound.