`Twould not be meat, for justice sake,
To burn the butcher at his steak,
And so, behind the bars he'll go!
Bars of what? SAPOLIO!
- Jingle to sell soap a good 80 years ago
Eighty years ago, jingles were not heard on radio and television, but were read on trolley-car cards and in the ``ready-print'' pages of the hometown newspaper. Well, about 50 yards from the automatic door of our super-dooper grocery mart last Tuesday, I stopped stock-still in my tracks and went into a lamentation. This was because at that distance I got a whiff of the imitation vanilla extract these efficient emporia use in their ovens to turn out the ``home-baked'' pre-frozen dough that comes from far away and is presumed to be just like mother made - mother, in this instance, being your mother's grandmother's mother. The store has signs hanging from the ceiling that say, ``We're Here To Serve You,'' and when you look around for a clerk you notice another sign that says, ``Press Button For Assistance.''
The butcher, or usually, in Maine, the ``meat man,'' always wore straw wristers and a boater straw hat. Ringing a bell to get his attention was unnecessary. He was there, and he spoke to you when you came in: ``Good morning, Henry, what is your pleasure this brisk forenoon?'' Or, ``Well, Mrs. Muldoon - I was just thinking of you because I've some brisket just your size, and two days corned, just as the Muldoons like it!''
And you never smelled any fake vanilla because nobody believed in it, and they didn't do any baking in the store anyway. Bread - ``store-bought,'' that is, came unwrapped and unsliced, and you could smell it because it was still hot and had just been fetched in from Pratt's Bakery across the street. The white bread wasn't a fast mover, because at seven cents a loaf few people could afford it, but for a change people liked Pratt's rye bread and felt it was well worth a dime. Mostly, bread was foundried at home, and a barrel of flour could still be had. Otherwise, a kitchen had a storage barrel under the pantry shelf and bought flour in hundred-pound bags at the feed store. The only time my mother bought store bread was when she roasted a hen and gave me five cents to go buy a ``loaf of stale bread.'' When I asked for a loaf of stale bread, Mr. Magoun would nod and say, ``stuffin' grist!'' as nobody used fresh bread to stuff a Sunday bird. Seven-cent bread was only a nickel after it aged. Today you buy chicken stuffin' all prepared in a box at a great price, and it's not that you can't tell the difference, it's that nobody knows the difference.
Mr. Magoun did cut meat, but he was mainly the grocery man. Herman Gee stood at the block, which had a cardboard box underneath it from which Mr. Gee would select a free bone for your dog if you asked for one. And this is a fact that everybody in town knew all about except the beneficiaries - the Salter family. True the Salters were ``on the town'' and depended on the selectmen, not Uncle Sam, for grocery orders. They were ``poor.'' And when a couple of the Salter children would come in with a list and a ``town order,'' Mr. Gee would slyly add a generous piece of stew beef, pretending it came from the dog-bone box, and he'd say, ``And this is for Fido.'' The Salters didn't have any dog.
Meantime, Mr. Magoun, as the grocery manger, would have his grab-stick to reach onto the high shelves and take down the items specified. The old-time grocery store could stack goods higher than customers could reach because Mr. Magoun had a grab-stick. Fresh eggs were displayed in a wooden tub on the floor. Cookies were ``bulk'' and had a display cabinet supplied by the Huston Baking Company. Butter was dipped from tubs. Pickles from a barrel. There was a banana hook in the ceiling and a banana knife stuck in the suspended stem from which Mr. Magoun carved ``hands'' as wanted.
But a grocery store smelled all the good smells, each to itself and all wonderful. The molasses barrel with dark Barbados flavor, the vinegar barrel that talked out loud of many things, and the chocolate suggestion from the wooden pails along the aisle by the canned goods. The pail of chocolate creams was the one from which Mr. Magoun took four or five to put in a small paper bag as a ``treat'' when you paid your bill. Thus, and then I went into the super market. The artist freely moved between figure and abstract painting, changing his focus throughout his career and often blurring the line between the two.
De Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam, where he attended the city's Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. Though he emigrated to the United States in 1926, his training in and memories of the Netherlands influenced his entire career.
Before 1936, when de Kooning committed to working primarily as an artist, he supported himself by painting houses and doing odd jobs. As he made the transition from being a ``Sunday painter'' (as he called it), he worked as a commercial artist on the side.
In the early part of his career, de Kooning did both abstract compositions and figure painting. De Kooning was influenced by Pablo Picasso and his friend and contemporary, Arshile Gorky.
As de Kooning developed his style, he began to concentrate on figures, including a series of paintings of men. Like Gorky, de Kooning sanded and scraped these paintings, exposing buried layers of paint and creating a smooth surface.
De Kooning is probably most noted for his paintings of women, which he began after meeting Elaine, who later became his wife, in the late 1930s. He created garish-looking women by processes of adding and subtracting, scraping and layering, peeling off and tacking on. Elaine later recalled Willem's comment that before he met her, his paintings were ``quiet and serene. Then they became turbulent.''
In the 1940s, de Kooning began to gain recognition, especially after his first solo exhibition of black-and-white paintings at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York.
Two of de Kooning's most famous works are from this period: ``Attic'' and ``Excavation,'' predominately white canvases with black curves and slashes, with bits of color tucked in. De Kooning commented in 1951, ``I'm not interested in `abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint the way I do because I can keep putting more and more things in - like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.''
De Kooning's ``more and more things'' challenge the viewer to decipher cohesive figures, objects, and landscapes. Anatomy is often indecipherable: too many limbs and at the wrong angles, teeth becoming necklaces. The work seems to reflect de Kooning's way of working. Paintings would metamorphose many times in the process of layering and scraping. De Kooning seemed most at ease with constant change, and he strove to capture fleeting impressions.
De Kooning relished the texture of his paint, which he mixed himself for a unique consistency and appearance. ``I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface,'' de Kooning has said. Many of the surfaces are uneven: rippled, splattered, scraped, and gouged. The canvases appear wet and shiny, as if de Kooning was not yet finished.
Although he did not display any of his paintings of women at the Egan Gallery show, he was at work on these figures, becoming more involved with figure painting again after the completion of ``Excavation.'' In 1953, de Kooning displayed ``Paintings on the Theme of Woman.'' A number of de Kooning's ``Women'' paintings wear toothy, bug-eyed expressions, and are large, imposing, aggressive-looking figures.
These depictions evoked strong reactions from both artists and critics, prompting discussions of contemporary figure painting's viability. Some artists, including Jackson Pollock, felt that de Kooning was betraying abstract art. While some critics defended de Kooning's work, others questioned de Kooning's attitude toward women.
De Kooning seemed almost baffled by the response to his art.
Marla Prather, curator of the exhibition, writes: ``De Kooning's reactions over the years to what he perceived as accusations of misogyny express dismay and range from defensive to apologetic, from forthright to disingenuous.
``Since the beginning, he disavowed any critical sociological content in the paintings and claimed that his views were not determined by gender difference.''
By the end of the 1950s, de Kooning had taken a new direction in his work, turning away from urban themes and figures. His paintings became more simple, with broader, wider brushstrokes and great swipes of color. ``Most of de Kooning's paintings from this period record sensations the artist associated with a particular season or place,'' Prather explains.
Eventually, de Kooning tired of New York City and built a home and studio on Long Island in East Hampton in the mid-1960s. He said of the new environment: ``The dunes and all that water reminded me of Holland. Who knows, perhaps unconsciously that's what made me want to settle here.''
Once there, he began painting women again: ``I can't get away from the woman. Wherever I look, I find her,'' he was quoted as saying. Influenced by his new setting, the women are softer-looking, bathed in water and light.
De Kooning's surroundings have also affected his more recent shift toward an atmosphere of serenity in his paintings: sparse white canvases with twisting and flowing ribbons of color.
* ``Willem de Kooning: Paintings'' will be on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until Sept. 5. The exhibition will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Oct. 11 to Jan. 8, 1995) and the Tate Gallery in London (Feb. 16 to May 7 1995).