The paintings must never dry

For Willem de Kooning, success or failure took place only on the canvas

The first thing said about the 20th-century painter Willem de Kooning at the start of this massive biography is that he was "stubborn." Referring to their childhood in the Netherlands, his sister said: "My mother was a tyrant and Willem was stubborn." The same word reappears some 600 pages later, near the close of his career, which spanned much of the 20th century. "He was so stubborn," observed his assistant Tom Ferrara. Then, finally, Joan Ward, the mother of his only child, used it in her eulogy at his funeral.

Those who knew de Kooning close up knew his stubbornness well. That characteristic could support an endlessly stoical heroism - or a monumental self- centeredness. It was his obduracy, anyway, that underpinned his unyielding determination to be a serious artist, in spite of anything and anyone. No one - except himself - was allowed to interfere with his concentration. "Woman" in various manifestations - ironic, horrific, erotic, and lyrical - was a mainspring of his art, yet his promiscuous relationships with actual women were largely peripheral to his day-by-day work.

As this biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan proceeds steadily onward through the struggling decades, a tellingly stubborn image of the artist persists. He sits obstinately in front of his painting in his studio, stuck, frustrated, staring and staring, thinking and thinking. He endured years of "painter's block" and actual poverty, but he never gave up. Even when, at last, he achieved a reputation, he still suffered years of economic insecurity. As the authors suggest, de Kooning was not far from being the archetypal artist in the garret.

He unquestionably became one of the stars of the so-called New York School. Yet his European origins and commercial art training, and his respect for the old masters and their essential challenge to a modern artist, were sometimes used as critical sticks to beat him with.

He had reached America as a stowaway immigrant. His heavy Dutch accent and novel, often witty, version of English never let this be forgotten. He retained a romantic, slightly naive view of America that did not quite yield to the brutal reality of the American art world or to the decades of indifference he suffered from an anti-art culture not much less obstinate than he was.

His hard-won success - well after World War II - was the fruit of a national change of attitude that his art had helped foster. But in the long run, it bore surprisingly little relation to what happened, or didn't happen, in his studio. For him, success or failure was determined only by what occurred within the rectangle of a canvas on his easel.

Something about de Kooning and his generation of New York artists - the generation that made New York the center of the art world rather than Paris - was driven by the idea of what "being an artist" necessitates. Poverty, promiscuity, and alcoholism were often its ingredients. De Kooning suffered, or enjoyed, them all.

He also enjoyed critical dismissiveness and hyperbolic critical praise in equal measure. Paradoxically, as his fame widened, so his irrelevance in the development of modern American art was increasingly stressed by the tastemakers. Yet as an artist, he repeatedly resurrected his themes, style, and methods. He periodically stunned and provoked the world outside his studio by startling degrees of stubborn originality.

Movement, tension, doubt, and a reckless, daring belief in the need to disrupt good taste or fashion were integral to the vitality of the very paint he applied. He found ways of keeping paintings alive, wet, and fluid for long periods because, he felt, once a painting dried, it would be dead. He often had extraordinary difficulty knowing when a painting was finished.

He was equally reluctant to terminate relationships with women once they had cooled. Obviously, this caused remarkable complexity in his life and his art.

Finally, he decided not to decide. Even late in his career, painting on despite the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, he spoke of abandoning a piece rather than finishing it. What really mattered to him was "painting" rather than "a painting."

By its nature, the biography of an artist, as opposed to a retrospective exhibition, concentrates on the personality as much as it analyzes the art. In this biography, it remains a question whether the other facets of de Kooning's life were a central stimulus to or a detraction from his work.

Certainly, his weaknesses didn't make him the outstanding artist he was. His art was ferociously willed. But, paradoxically, it also entailed ambiguity, restlessness, and uncertainty. Unsettled and unsettling, his paintings are determinedly - stubbornly - sensuous, earthy, and potentially savage rather than idealistic, otherworldly, or transcendent.

Only his last works in the 1980s, pared down like orange skins with all their flesh removed, seem to achieve some kind of primitive ethereality. The authors of this compellingly written, exhaustively detailed biography characterize these late paintings as "airborne," differentiated from earlier phases when his elements were earth or water. Typically, even these works have provoked critical debate. Did they signify a loss of vitality or a new, lighthearted tranquility? De Kooning's relish of ambiguity lives on. He was never an artist who could be pinned down.

Christopher Andreae writes about art and other matters from Glasgow, Scotland. 'A Word or Two,' a new collection of his essays from the Monitor's Home Forum section, is available from PublishAmerica.

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