Willem De Kooning at MoMA: How Alcoholism Affected His Art
Willem De Kooning's messy, mesmerizing paintings and life made him the greatest artist of his day. But when he got sober at 74, his paintings changed so much that the art world recoiled. Can only a fellow ex-alcoholic get it?
For most of his life (1904-1999) the painter Willem De Kooning was a painter’s painter and a drunk’s drunk—an artistic wild man whose bottle was an even more constant companion than the sexy young women he liked so much.
Then, with help from his wife Elaine, he got sober at the age of 74.
His sober work, painted in the precious years after De Kooning stopped drinking and before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, is the most moving part of the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of the artist. (To see reproductions of De Kooning's paintings, visit the MoMA exhibition's website here.) These late paintings have a gorgeous spareness that makes his most celebrated work seem frantic. Here, less is more. If the paintings for which he is famous are a brass band in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the controversial work of his final years is like a perfect tenor voice singing "Danny Boy."
De Kooning, whose brilliant draftsmanship was the foundation for some of Abstract Expressionism’s most powerful canvases in its heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, emigrated from Holland as a ship’s stowaway in 1924. He spent the hard years of the Depression and World War II working as little as possible in order to find time to paint—and, of course, drink. Once established in the dynamic art community in the Village, with its “Tenth Street” low-rent studio space, he began meeting other young painters and making connections with critics and galleries. He passed many evenings at the local Cedar Bar drinking one scotch after another in his paint-stained overalls—and building a romantic myth about creativity and drunkenness—with colleagues like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg. By most accounts, after a few drinks and before too many, De Kooning was a mesmerizing thinker and talker, with his Dutch accent and canny malapropisms completing the effect.
Later, after Pollack’s DUI death in a car crash, De Kooning moved his floating cocktail party of a social and sexual life out to the Springs on the east end of Long Island. With his genius—and his uniquely sensitive brushstroke—fueled by binge drinking, he painted in a gaudy, excessive style that made the world seem, by turns, enchanting, colorful and terrifying. His landmarks works, a series of huge menacing female figure done in the 1950s—all breasts and eyes and feet—are brilliantly ambiguous, at once homages and indictments. The first “Woman I” is “one of the most disturbing images in the history of art,” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swann noted in their biography of the great painter, De Kooning: An American Master.
De Kooning’s famous flamboyance is at the center of the MoMA show, which demonstrates the phenomenal sweep and productivity of his talent as he roared through decades of alcoholism, and the usual domestic turmoil (marriage and affairs and neglected children), and then settled into a surprising sobriety and old age. After the familiar dying alcoholic’s round of almost dying, hospitalizations, relapses, A.A. meetings, and more binges, De Kooning finally got more or less sober in 1981 when he was in his mid-70s. Ironically, it was his on-again, off-again wife, the artist Elaine De Kooning, who re-entered his life after discovering Alcoholics Anonymous for herself and endeavored to help her husband work the program to save his life. De Kooning was not a good pupil. Although he had a sponsor and went to meetings, he sometimes also returned to the bottle. But the dramatic shift in the way he saw and painted the world in his last decade or so is recovery writ large.
The profoundly sober paintings from De Kooning’s last sober years are collected in the final room of the show—gently colored abstract landscapes with graceful brushstrokes that I found much more moving than his “mythic” Women series or other historic canvases. This is undoubtedly the single-most spiritual room in New York City right now. Here a few ribbons of color waver across a white and gray space. The painter is no longer afraid of empty spaces, and they speak to him for the first time. Like the Matisse cutouts that he loved, like sobriety itself, the last De Kooning paintings are so powerful because of their absences and what the painter has left out; they are exquisitely simple and almost unbearably beautiful. Serenity oozes from these big works with their pleasing colors and spare curves.
His final work is also, as I say, his most controversial. The art world and its critics are not exempt from the general cultural denial of the life-changing effects of both alcoholism and sobriety. If anything, the art establishment is in thrall to the concept of genius, which De Kooning undoubtedly had, but the art world likes to imagine that genius is independent of such banalities as hangovers and hand tremors and sour moods. The romantic myth of creativity and excess, especially regarding substances that dramatically alter brain function, also plays a role. To many people, De Kooning's progress from the exuberant craziness of the paintings he did while he was drinking to the sanity and simplicity of his later work looks like a sad. even embarrassing, diminishment. For some critics less is always less. But the soul who has struggled to get sober knows how much the critics are missing.
When they were first exhibited, art critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times about their “many points of repose.” These paintings make De Kooning’s more celebrated work seem frantic and uncontrolled—the oil thrown off by a huge broken engine that can’t stop running. Here he is at peace. In Swan and Steven’s biography, De Kooning’s friend Joan Levy tells De Kooning that the late paintings “are so ethereal. It looks like you died and went to heaven.” De Kooning agreed. “Yes, that is what I was going for,” he said.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.