Apocalypse Now

By: Dr. David Anfam

Willem de Kooning’s Collage compresses a veritable universe into its relatively modest dimensions. The compact size – significant per se – encompasses myriad associations, ideas and deep meanings. Collage also dates from a key moment in Abstract Expressionism. For de Kooning in particular, the year 1950 was probably the greatest watershed in a highly fecund career spanning seven decades and two continents, Europe and North America. In its complex style and enigmatic references, Collage nods, so to speak, to both the Old and the New Worlds. So did de Kooning.

Born in 1904 in Rotterdam, de Kooning journeyed from there as a twenty-two year old stowaway aboard a British ship to Newport News, Virginia. The errant Dutchman avoided Ellis Island’s legal immigration hub by taking a boat to Boston, train to Rhode Island and then another boat to Manhattan, eventually reaching Hoboken, New Jersey, that summer on the Hudson ferry.[1] This ordinary, youthful craftiness set a pattern, mingling fluidity and fixity, the savvy and the sly,[2] for imaginative things to come. Flash forward two decades.

Willem de Kooning at his East Hampton studio, August 1953. Photo: Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images

Attaining his full artistic maturity in New York from around 1946 onward (notwithstanding a classical training at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences), de Kooning rapidly approached abstraction with a series of more or less monochromatic phantasmagorias done on canvas, board and paper. Some explored a fearful blackness, such as Dark Pond (1948) and Night Square (c.1949). Others veered in the opposite direction. That is, the deathly pallor evident in Mailbox (1948) and Attic (1949). This evolution climaxed in 1950 with de Kooning’s magnum opus, Excavation. That same year, he began the iconic Woman I that would consume almost three years, initiating sundry “Women” variants and offspring continuing to the 1960s.[3] Thus Collage represents a historic nexus. Past, present and future trends coalesce in a masterful mix – an interface between figurative shards and an ambiguous whole. Classical draftsmanship – note the precision-honed contour lines – meets avant-garde boldness. The resultant pictorial tumult whooshes across our visual field with almost frightening speed. A tearaway.

Tearaway? Yes, because in American English this adjective captures the essence of Collage’s tectonics, a process which in this instance involves reconfiguring paper torn from other painted pieces into a novel medley. In British English, the noun “tearaway” also means a wild, wayward person. Set the two together (a merger that my transatlantic mindset cannot resist) and… hey presto, the result is a double entendre that encapsulates the dual aspects to Collage, wherein the actual medium incorporates its messages.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago / Bridgeman Images. Art © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Firstly, tearing or cutting lends an existential edge to this visceral labyrinth: fleshy pinks seem simultaneously wrenched apart and crowded together. Put another way, de Kooning at once dissected erstwhile corporeal surfaces (as often happens in Surrealist imagery) and resurrected them. Hence Collage’s quirky humanoid curves. Bodies may no longer be recognizable though their movements pulse everywhere. Scant wonder that de Kooning later named a major painting Easter Monday (1955–56).[4] That titular calendar day serves to commemorate a certain human incarnation, hitherto nailed to a cross on a Friday (de Kooning titled a 1948 composition Black Friday) and cruelly pierced with a lance, then next transfigured (much later, in the 1960s and early 1970s de Kooning sketched numerous drawings based on the Crucifixion).[5] A comparable play between tactile immediacy and unseen forces animates every square inch of Collage. The outcome is a ferocious tussle, an almost kinetic, optical hide-and-seek. Collage electrifies Collage.

Secondly, as a self-declared “slipping glimpser”,[6] collage suited de Kooning’s perennial impulses to a tee. His quintessential urge was never to stay still, while always jamming together otherwise disparate or conflicting elements. The artist’s quip speaks volumes, “I have to change to stay the same.”[7] Collage is all repetition and renewal as kindred shapes shift into different parts or conjunctions. Historically, such metamorphoses were rooted in Cubism as developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. On this score, a study of the subject merits quoting at some length: “By its very nature, collage connotes the temporary, the ephemeral. The fragment can be a bit of newspaper or a theater ticket, a found object or a ready-made, but in combination with other dissimilar fragments the collage fragment proposes a dislocation in time and place. Collage also layers into a works of art several levels of meaning…. The technique of collage was ideally suited to capture the noise, speed, time, and duration of the twentieth-century urban industrial experience. Collage became the medium of materiality… capturing the topical, the transitory, and the absurd.”[8] These lines might as well have been tailored to describe de Kooning’s fascination with metamorphosis, tactility, transitions and disjunctions. He was also the urban, nocturnal wanderer par excellence, finding shapes in the cracks and patterns of Manhattan’s sidewalks. Such strands of memory, chance and changefulness infiltrate Collage’s structure and multiply its ramifications. In de Kooning’s hands, collage became a dense hybrid of additive and subtractive energies. Momentarily we might sense a shoulder, a breast or some other anatomical members – notice the apparent spectacles perched vertically and a bit to the upper right of the center in Asheville – only to find them dissolving into cryptic planes, angles and gaps. Such was de Kooning’s elusive goal to conjure “something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either.”[9]

The present work installed in the exhibition Abstract Expressionism, curated by Dr. David Anfam at Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2016. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Marcus J Leith. Art © 2022 Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Likewise, collage demands a context. On the one hand, the sole Abstract Expressionist to raise collage to epic proportions was the still-underestimated Conrad Marca-Relli. Significantly, Marca-Relli was also a transatlantic soul, albeit replacing de Kooning’s Netherlandish ancestry with his Italian one. Aptly, the two became good friends. Both evinced a preoccupation with the violence and physicality that collage can evoke, especially given that Marca-Relli slashed his canvas swatches with a razor blade.[10] Think too of the title chosen by another distinguished Abstract Expressionist exponent of the same medium, Robert Motherwell: The Tearingness of Collaging (1957). Tellingly, in view of the numerous orange and red swathes that de Kooning interleaved throughout the passages (the French word that defines painterly crossings, transitions, and so forth) that teem in Collage, in the same period Motherwell linked them to bloodiness – appropriately enough during and in the immediate aftermath to the bloodiest human conflict in history.[11] However, whereas Marca-Relli took collage to unprecedented limits while even Motherwell’s later paper works could grow as tall as six feet,[12] de Kooning stuck to the smaller scale that Collage typifies. Why? Because he valued intimacy: “If I stretch my arms next to the rest of myself and wonder where my fingers are – that is all the space I need as a painter.”[13] This is what the twentieth-century French philosopher of space and sentience, Gaston Bachelard, termed “intimate immensity”.[14] Make no mistake, Collage has a macrocosmic whiff condensed into its microcosm to the extent that its torqued shapes almost look to burst out from the format. Therein lies its pungent immediacy, like some grand spectacle that pours from the imaginative stage into our somatic geography. Or else compare the small mouth snipped from a magazine advert with which Woman I began, before it exploded into a bigger spatial and temporal battleground. Whatever, for de Kooning little and large nourished each other.

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Art © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bloodied bodies, kaleidoscopic spaces, steel tacks, dazzling colors, and so forth could attest to de Kooning’s modernist ties. Accordingly, the foregoing list and other qualities might allude, respectively, to Chaïm Soutine’s meat carcasses (New York’s Museum of Modern Art gave the Belarussian émigré his largest retrospective to date in autumn 1950[15]); Cubism’s “all-over” compositional tactics; modernism’s love affair with the fragment, fetish and found objects; and the garish contrasting hues that Pablo Picasso sometimes foregrounded. In fact, Collage’s palette – bright yellows and reds, black lines, strong green and blue incidents – is near-identical to the Spaniard’s in, say, his celebrated Weeping Woman (October 26, 1937). Not to mention also the outsize hues conspicuous in Broadway’s neon, American billboards, film posters and their ilk. Certainly, de Kooning weaponized Cubism together with more than a glance to Max Beckmann’s bold colorism and compacted interiors, such as The Night (1918–19), as well as Italian Futurism.[16] The modernist connections could continue apace. Yet stop for a second and peer further back, as de Kooning surely did. One piece is missing in the jigsaw puzzle of his works and thoughts.

Scholars had long recognized de Kooning’s deep attachment to his homeland. The art historian David Sylvester neatly summarized this factor at the start of an essay for the National Gallery of Art’s 1994 survey of the artist’s paintings. “The Dutch masters of the seventeenth century worked at home,” wrote Sylvester, adding that “the Dutch masters of modern times worked abroad.”[17] Moreover, observers had noted that such a painting as Man (1967) stemmed from the Satan-type figure in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490–1510). But none had joined all the proverbial dots. In short, de Kooning was heir on manifold fundamental levels to the Netherlandish Old Masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Specifically, Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.[18]

Suffice it to take two clues in Collage to reach a wider conclusion. For a start, de Kooning did not spike its surface with tacks merely out of convenience (instead, he could have used glue or tape). A small, unusual Abstraction (1949–50, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) reveals the deeper intent. At its lower right corner a spike lies beside a ladder and a skull. We are in an apocalyptic place, Golgotha, site of the Crucifixion, where drops of blood also appear to rain down on the catastrophe. Far-fetched? No.

On the one hand, remember that de Kooning painted a Judgment Day four years prior to Collage. At its dead center is an extraordinary touch. Resembling a trompe-l’oeil tack, four biomorphs surround this white circle. The artist himself went so far as to characterize the iconography as “the four angels at the Gates of Paradise”.[19] True to type, he was being a wit. Heaven and Hell converge in one unique precedent that, by no coincidence, has a circle at its center, Bosch’s Table of the Seven Deadly Sins. In it, Christ warns, “Beware, beware, God sees [all].” Consequently, the vital circle in Judgment Day is an oculus, an eye onto the fleshy chaos around it.[20] God is literally in the details. Clinching the argument, Judgment Day anticipates Collage’s chromatic scheme – yellow, pink, reds, green and specifically a vivid turquoise band left of center. Two banderoles feature in Bosch’s Table, the upper one poised between Death and the Last Judgment.[21] Another, final leitmotif completes the whole equation.

Left: Hieronymus Bosch, Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, 16th century. Image: Prado, Madrid / Bridgeman Images

Right: Pieter Brugel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, circa 1562. Image: Prado, Madrid / Bridgeman Images

The essentially dissimilar critics of the American mid-century period, Thomas B. Hess and Clement Greenberg, nevertheless pinpointed the same expressive force that drives Collage and the epochal works constellated before, alongside and soon after it. Hess evidenced de Kooning’s “Procrustean” methods, an allusion to the ancient Greek bandit who sliced his victims legs to fit them to the size of an iron bed, while the customarily more temperate Greenberg invoked “savage dissections”.[22] The blood-like streaks in Collage that recur in Asheville, Attic and Excavation and render Gansevoort Street (c.1949) a total blaze have a famously cataclysmic precursor. Fire’s redness engulfs Bruegel’s bloodthirsty Triumph of Death where it fuses with countless lacerations and spikes. The day after Excavation left for the XXVth Venice Biennale in 1950, de Koning revealed to his wife Elaine one of his inspirations, a reproduction of the selfsame Breugel.[23] Collage changes beyond recognition these apocalyptic echoes from the distant past and much more beside, making them new – an indelible, endlessly dynamic spectacle for our eyes even now.[24]


[1] For the biographical minutiae, see Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

[2] In the best sense of a now-prohibited word, de Kooning ever pretended to play the idiot savant. His many eminently quotable, deadpan jests should therefore be no surprise.

[3] Not to mention the antic women that de Kooning sculpted in the early 1970s.

[4] Kirsten Hoving Powell, "Resurrecting Content in de Kooning's 'Easter Monday’", Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4 (Summer–Autumn 1990), pp. 86–101.

[5] For example, see Klaus Kertess, Willem de Kooning: Drawing Seeing/Seeing Drawing (New York: Arena Editions, 1998), pp. 36–67.

[6] de Kooning (1960), in George Scrivani, ed., The Collected Writings of Willem de Kooning (New York & Madras: Hanuman Books, 1988), p. 177.

[7] de Kooning (1981), in Judith Wolfe, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981 (East Hampton: Guild Hall of East Hampton, 1981), p. 16.

[8] Diane Waldman, Collage, Assemblage, And the Found Object (London: Phaidon Press, 1992), p. 31.

[9] de Kooning, in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning”, Art News (September 1972), p. 58.

[10] The most succinct recent overview is David Anfam, “Conrad Marca-Relli – ‘Ben Marcato’”, in Conrad Marca-Relli: Il Maestro Irascible (Rome & Milan: Mattia de Luca and Skira, 2022), n.p.

[11] Megan M. Fontanella, ”Bloodstains and Bullet Holes: Motherwell, Collage, and World War II”, in Susan Davidson, Robert Motherwell: Early Collages (New York: Guggenheim Publications, 2013), pp. 42–53.

[12] For example, The Irish Troubles (1977–81) and St. Michel with Yellow Stripe (1982) rise an impressive 72 inches.

[13] de Kooning (1951), in Scrivani 1988, p. 60.

[14] Gaston Bachelard, transl. Maria Jolas, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, [1958], 1994), pp. 183–210.

[15] Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi, eds., Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021).

[16] David Anfam, “Beckmann and Abstract Expressionism: The Space of Existence”, in Jutta Schütt, ed., Beckmann & Amerika (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011), pp. 262-69.

[17] David Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason”, in Marla Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings (Washington D.C, New Haven & London: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 2014), p. 15.

[18] David Anfam, “De Kooning, Bosch, and Bruegel: Some Fundamental Themes”, The Burlington Magazine 145 (October 2003), pp. 705–15. For additional Netherlandish links, see Anfam, Garden in Delft: Willem de Kooning Landscapes 1928–88 (New York: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 2004).

[19] Sally Yard, interview with Thomas B. Hess, in Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York, 1927–1952 (New York & London: Garland, 1986),  p. 146.

[20] Charles Brock, “Describing Chaos: Willem de Kooning’s Collage Painting Asheville and Its Relationship to Traditions of Description and Illusionism in Western Art”, Master of Arts thesis (University of Maryland, College Park, 1993) is a worthy analysis of the themes at stake.

[21] Note also the Bosch’s distinctive greens, red and yellow.

[22] Thomas Hess, “De Kooning Paints a Picture”, Art News 52 (March 1953), p. 31. Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955), in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 3 (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 222.

[23] Edvard Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), p. 34.

[24] Cf. de Kooning (n.d.), in Irving Sandler, “Conversations with de Kooning”, Art Journal 48 (Fall 1989), p. 216: “I feel myself more in tradition…. I change the past.”

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