Visiting the Hirshhorn museum, I didn’t expect to be enrapt by Willem de Kooning’s Untitled III, a bright, welcoming canvas unlike the terrific violence of the Francis Bacons I’d primarily come to see. Though I didn’t know at the time, it’s one of de Kooning’s later works from the controversial era in which he kept painting despite Alzheimer’s.
The diagnosis called into question the aesthetic merit of paintings made towards the end of his life. Judging art isn’t entirely objective, especially when faced with a reputation as historically established as de Kooning’s. I’m lucky I didn’t read the museum label until I’d sat with the painting long enough to annoy my companion, who eventually wandered off. Unlike the monstrous women of de Kooning’s earlier work, Untitled III has little interest in aggression or confrontation. There’s both depth and gentleness in its impasto, a dance of light and brush strokes inviting the viewer to breathe, wander, and play.
There’s no question that de Kooning’s work changed. I’d have dismissed his later paintings as mellow surfaces without any cohones when I was a young rebel. But by the time I discovered Untitled III I was ready to see beauty in openness and power in something bigger than rage.
Recently, a fellow author expressed the fear that they’d already peaked, that their best work was behind them. I thought of Untitled III and told them not to be afraid. The peak is a myth.
Good art and writing call us to be present, both as creators and connoisseurs. Aging changes our creative muscles. De Kooning outlived most of his contemporaries, several of whom committed suicide, and kept working through progressive degenerative cognitive impairment. He stayed present with impermanence. In the words of critic and friend Peter Schjeldahl, “He had forgotten to be anxious.”
Joe Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash at horrorsong.blog.
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was a Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter best known for his Woman series.