Why do we care about deKooning in 2011? Even though deKooning painted decades ago, as a present day artist, I am interested in his playful and explorative working style. I went to a day long symposium in November at the MOMA in New York to learn more about deKooning as an artists from people that have researched his work extensively, and from some who worked beside him. I was delighted, ( yes, delighted) when speakers reported meticulously how deKooning worked, and the materials he worked with. DeKooning worked relentlessly, constantly revising his work, with dozens of major re-works of canvasses. A flurry of activity was followed by refinement, a kind of editing.
DeKooning's work process in the 1980’s was documented well. One of the people who visited his studio during this time was Tom Ferrara. At Elaine deKooning's request, he photographed the stages of deKoonings paintings. Ferrara was lucky enough to be around when dekooning was working steadily, creating up to a painting a week.
At the symposium, he showed several paintings in their various stages. The following is part of a documentation of one painting (I wish I had the accompanying photographs, but you can get an idea):
1. Started with a charcoal drawing and reoccurring theme of figures in a landscape 2. Ignores drawing that he started with. Goes in with the paint. 3.If wasn’t happy, deKooning would scrape down. Made surface receptive to the new paint. 4.Go back in with charcoal, reorganize and define the composition. 5. When falls apart, turn upside down, and try again. 6.Refining, editing, and eliminating signs of process (a departure from earlier work).
Above portrait of deKooning taken by Ferrara in 1984
According to Ferrara, deKooning was very interested in Matisse during the 1980’s. He was trying to pull free of the structure of influence of Picasso and Cezanne. He wanted a "floating quality."
Although complicated, deKooning’s approach was not static. Sometimes he started with a sketch, but other times he started painting directly. Pinholes indicate idea possibilities pinned to works, a process of cut-outs worked out on the painting. He experimented in different oil mediums, such as safflower oil, to introduce new tactics. He sometimes sanded the canvass to make it more receptive to the paint. He later added foam board behind to canvass to create the “give” of the canvass he desired.
Because his working style is well documented, it is almost like we are there with the artist as he is creating. We can look to his playfulness and allow experimentation and patience with our work.
By the way, deKooning's brand of paint was Winsor Newton.