by Jeanne Raffer Beck, www.jeannebeck.com
Two fascinating artists get Barrett’s scrutiny in this chapter, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Sean Scully (1945-). De Kooning is considered one of the major figures in the Abstract Expressionist period of the mid-20th century New York School and Scully’s work has been termed a synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. What intrigues me about looking at these two artists is how differently they approach expressing their ideas visually.
Reference to the female figure is very evident in this series of de Kooning’s paintings, although the figures are exaggerated and at times distorted. Scully, in contrast, limits himself to painting bands and geometric shapes of colors, abstracting themes of power, survival, competition, the tyranny of perfection, staircases and ladders, masculinity and feminity into squares and rectangles.
Barrett hones in on de Kooning’s “Women” series in this chapter. While the subjects of these paintings are figures of women, their features are exaggerated and the paintings appear to be comprised of layers and layers of gestural lines and marks. One reviewer (O’Doherty) is quoted as saying that for de Kooning the process was more the subject than the women. “When a subject (for example, a woman) appears in a de Kooning, it appears like an abstraction embedded in the real subject — the process.” Another reviewer, Sarah Rogers-Lafferty, says these paintings are more about the space of the canvas and the action of the painter on the canvas than they are about women.
Some critics at the time these works were first exhibited viewed DeKooning’s “Women” as too representational; others thought DeKooning’s images indicated deep-seated hostility and anger towards women. When you look at the image, “Woman, Sag Harbor”, 1967, what do you observe? Having read about his conflict filled relationships with women, particularly his mother and his wife, Elaine, what do the marks, colors and shapes in this piece indicate to you about the artist’s attitudes and feelings? Do you feel that the idea of “women” and expressing his attitudes and feelings about them were the driving forces behind these paintings or do you agree with the reviewers who considered the subject matter merely a vehicle for his preoccupation with gestural strokes and their relationship within a space?
Woman, Sag Harbor, 1967, Willem de Kooning, 80″ x 36″, oil on wooden door.
Woman Accabonic, Willem de Kooning, oil on paper, 79 x 35
In contrast to de Kooning, when we first look at Scully’s painting, Wall of White Light, it can seem to be just a simple geometric composition. But when art critic Donald Kuspit observed this painting, he pointed out that Scully arranges many of his rectangles in units of three, forming squares or rectangles. “But sometimes one unit is missing, and some squares are larger than others, disrupting the neatness of the serial sequence. Moreover, the painterliness softens the geometry — edges are not always firm and straight — and the geometry contains the painterliness, so that is seems peculiarly concentrated, almost solid.”
Another critic points out that Scully works strictly with vertical and horizontal elements, each with a single attribute of lightness or darkness. A curator of Scully’s work, Ned Rifkin, adds that Scully puts self-imposed limits on the imagery he works with and restricts himself to just a few visual motifs.
Think, now, of the spareness of Scully’s visual language in contrast with the densely layered, passionately gestural strokes of de Kooning’s brush and the differing degrees to which they abstract ideas and themes. Engaging with the work of these two celebrated artists presents us with very different perceptions by the artists themselves of their works; adding to the discussion are the numerous comments and observations by the art historians, curators and art critics who comment in this chapter on these artists’ approaches, content and themes. I find Scully fascinating for his constraint and the way he uses minimal imagery to convey a vast amount of information, but I respond most strongly emotionally to the layered surfaces of de Kooning, whose soul and spirit seem to be infused on the surfaces of his canvas.
Wall of White Light, Sean Scully, 1998, Oil on linen, 96″ x 9″.