FACE to face with the unleashed exuberance of Willem de Kooning's ``Door to the River,'' I am moved to contemplate how magnificent paint is. I imagine the freedom de Kooning must have felt as he so vigorously applied his brush to the canvas with that florious substance, infinitely various in hue. I think he wanted us to feel that freedom, to see paint as we had never seen it before. To be swept away by it. To love it. Or at least to sense why he loves it. With broad sweeps of the arm and small flicks of the wrist, de Kooning gave colorful pronouncement not only to the full fury of a rushing river but, no doubt, to the complex agitations of his own mind as well. There is both turbulence and calm in this painting, exhilaration and Angst.
This union of de Kooning's mind and emotions with the subject matter of his painting is expressed abstractly, and, like other ``Abstract Expressionists,'' de Kooning asserts that the paint itself, as the medium for depicting the subject and expressing emotions, is the primary issue. He moves us to be cognizant of just what ``paintings'' really are.
When we look at a painting, what our eyes literally see is paint. However, the subject matter, composition, or effect is what we often perceive as primary in traditional painting. We cognize the paint itself largely as a (beautiful) servant to one of these things. But with de Kooning, the paint is all. It is like looking at an ocean. We see the waves and the ships and the sea gulls eventually, but first and foremost we see water, and we see how magnificent water is. With de Kooning, we see how magnificent paint is.
In ``Door to the River,'' we can see the door and the river. But de Kooning compels us to see that, at its most fundamental, painting is paint, and that we can revel as seers with him, the painter, in the visceral majesty of paint with its infinite color, texture, pattern, direction, and movement. The canvas is the door. The river is the paint itself. It flows and has a life given to it by the hand of the artist who painted with an exhilaration as much for his paint as for the turbulent river he painted.
If de Kooning is expressive, Richard Diebenkorn, the Santa Monica, Calif., artist, is rigorous. Like de Kooning, Diebenkorn's exquisite works also impel us to think about paint. An inspection of his large vertical painting, ``Ocean Park No. 125,'' reveals the labored record of its making. We see drips, spillovers, worked-over lines, hesitations, and a rawness of technique manifest in the unmechanical draftsmanship of a free hand. This is in contrast to the quiet, controlled power of his Cartesian ruled design.
For Diebenkorn, the drips are his acknowledgment that what we see is an illusion, that whatever it may depict, the painting is actually just paint. The moments of technical control dominate the drips so that the paint may combine to a larger idea, namely a carefully composed abstraction of the southern California, light-drenched, Pacific landscape.
But Diebenkorn, like Matisse, who influenced him greatly and who also let his paintings fairly drip with paint, knows that perfectionism is not always a necessary aspect of art. He is telling us never to forget - and resisting any impulse of his own to clean up the drips, lest he himself forget - that art is of the human hand gloriously dialectical. The same man whose paint-brush drips can rule a canvas and delineate upon it unfathomable colors in a way that bespeaks a profound intelligence and skill.
De Kooning's drips, splatters, and errant brushwork have a different meaning. They are not accepted ``flaws'' in the technical execution of the painting, as with Diebenkorn. They are the painting. Whereas Diebenkorn's drips remind us that a painting is paint, de Kooning's entire painting shows us that this is so.
The two works by de Kooning and Diebenkorn are stirring. They are very different from each other, exploiting the common theme of the two-dimensional nature of the canvas in radically different ways. Yet they cause me to understand the joy of the paintbrush. In the hands of a master, symphonies of color and intelligence are created.
They remind us that paint is physical stuff. And that somehow, magically, its very physicalness opens for us windows to a world of colors never seen before, of exuberance and mastery that instill in us an identification with ideas, emotions, and sentiments that are anything but physical.