Essay: Willem de Kooning and Wildstyle
Last Monday, the once-in-a-lifetime retrospective, de Kooning, closed its doors at the MoMA. The 12ozProphet crew squeaked in at the last minute on Sunday to check out the two hundred paintings by the Abstract Expressionist/Action Painting Master. He and the other painters of his generation actually have more in common with graffiti than you’d think. Much like the Wildstyle masters of the late twentieth century into the new millenium, de Kooning had impeccable drafting skills; professional experience as a house painter, sign painter and designer; considered himself a working class artist; and explored full-body gestures, improvisation, and deconstruction of form. When he painted he totally bugged out and shredded reality.
Willem de Kooning was born in 1905 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He had the innate gift of perfect eye-hand coordination and tightly controlled draftsmanship. As a teenager he excelled at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques, which was a highly demanding technical school in the Netherlands. He emigrated to the US in 1926, settling in Hoboken where he painted houses and signs to make money before he could move into Manhattan. At that point, he started working as a department store display designer and painter, while also studying at The Art Students League with the likes of Hans Hoffman, a well-known American abstract painter who was one of the earliest teachers to champion European Modernism.
As he matured, he became enthralled by Picsso and other European masters’ experiments in Modernism and took on a more intellectual and challenging approach to his work. He became good friends with Arshile Gorky who was a decade older and was well connected to the Surrealist transplants in NYC. Therefore, he was able to discuss aesthetics and learn techniques directly from him and other European masters, like another good friend, Roberto Matta, who was also an architect and also had a natural gift for draftsmanship, but also chose to mostly dispense with it and explore other wilder techniques when painting for himself.
From the late 1930s through the late 1940s, De Kooning became highly-respected and embroiled in the social circles of these displaced Europeans and the younger artists that he met at the League. Like the stereotype of hardcore graffiti writers, these artists were mostly men who were known for machismo, hard-drinking, and womanizing. They constantly argued about who was better, judged each other harshly, and got into fistfights regularly at the legendary Cedar Tavern. Eventually this group of artists flattened out Cubism, absorbed the practice of automatism of the Surrealist, and created a truly American idiom for the first time, which consisted of elements taken from expressionism, pop culture, improvisation, abstraction, psychological self-expression and individuality.
Jackson Pollock eventually became the most well known AbEx painter due to his drip technique championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, the most influential critic during that time period. Greenburg was in favor of the term Abstract Expressionism which had first been used to define these artists in 1946 by Robert Coates, although it had been originally used to refer to Wassily Kandinsky’s experiments with improvised gestural abstraction. Even though Pollock became the most famous, many agreed that de Kooning was the better painter, because of his education, drafting skills, concentration, and the complex density of his canvases, all of which Pollack let slide as he began to exploit the drip technique, became famous and drank constantly.
Most of the AbEx artists wore their lack of drawing ability as a badge of honor, whereas de Kooning never abandoned his love of fine rendering and draftsmanship. After a period of intense abstraction at the end of the forties, he returned to the figure with his infamous Woman series, although hanging onto the crazy Cubist slicing and messy expressionistic techniques.
Cubism and Abstract Expression/Action Painting can be compared directly to Wildstyle as the complete dissection and mutation of the subject, whether it was the human figure or the alphabet, into a complex web of shapes unrecognizable from the original subject. Many AbExers took this even further by abandoning any reference at all to a subject. They chose instead to focus on one aesthetic element such as color, or movement, or shapes, and so on.
In the early fifties, de Kooning found his own supporter in the critic Harold Rosenberg who redefined the movement which had become predominantly known as Abstract Expressionism as Action Painting, removing the focus of Greenburg’s obsession with abstraction and giving de Kooning the theoretical freedom to explore the figure within the movement that he helped define. This redefinition of Abstract Expressionism as Action Painting put the emphasis on the technique of full-body gestures that began with Pollock, and removed the necessity of abstraction in the work. Canvases became bigger and bigger to allow for these huge gestures, and theories of dissolution of the edge of the canvas into infinity were important elements of this movement.
This makes it extremely easy to connect their movement that began in the mid-forties with the graffiti movement that started about twenty-five years later, because it too was also about the use of the whole body in the work, self-expression and huge surfaces to make marks on. Graffiti even took it one step further by not only using one’s full body to paint on and in a giant canvas, but to totally forgo the canvas entirely and step into life to paint directly in and on the world.
In his 1958 essay The Legacy of Pollock, the theorist and artist Allan Kaprow summed up these ideas as an influence on and connection to his own work., although they were on the surface totally different. Kaprow gave up painting completely and was the founder of the Happenings movement in the late fifties, which became the precursor to many movements as diverse as Performance Art and Environments. He states that he was inspired by the theories he developed based on Pollack’s conceptual breakthroughs. Along with the success of Pop Art, which took Fine Art out of the ivory tower and brought it down to the realm of the everyday object and into the popular media, Kaprow’s theories create a bridge to what the next generations inherently found to be the most effective and relative art form to explore in the late twentieth century.
Even if the early graffiti writers and street artists did not know who Willem de Kooning was, he and the other Action Painters can still be considered their theoretical and cultural heritage. If nothing else the tendency for any movement to develop from a primitive style to a highly complex expression of the original form is fully evident in the development of Wildstyle in the late seventies from the primitive scrawl of early taggers in the late sixties. Wildstyle, in the late part of the seventies and early eighties, was an apotheosis of style equivalent to the development of Cubism from Fauvism via Symbolism and Impressionism, and also similar to the way AbEx developed from a simpler form geometric abstraction.
Most movements in all the arts go through this progression. In graffiti it happened within a mere five to ten years, because of the immediacy and speed of the subways to share the work with a whole city of young artists the very next day after it was created. There were no studio visits to schedule, no galleries to organize shows, no hiding the work from prying eyes. It was in your face the day after the artist painted it. This sped up the process of transition towards complexity.
The Feral Diagram illustrates these connections with a 2-D info-graphic, charting the revolutionary change in Fine Art History as Graffiti and Street Art became the most relevant movement(s) throughout the world, as evidenced by their popularity and influence. As time has passed, because of the successes of the Pop Art movement as well which allowed for the acceptance of the movement into the art world in the first place, Graffiti and Street Art have continued to grow in acceptance and popularity, becoming the most relevant movement of the late twentieth century and at the start of the new millennium.
As a final note, the recent rise of the use of Urban Art as an umbrella term to tie together graffiti, street art and any of the other related forms is highly contentious within the communities because it does not seem to have developed within the communities themselves. It is usually heard when gallerists or auction houses are discussing business and sales, not when the artists are discussing their work. Although it seems that a term is needed to be able to categorize the past fifty years of varied aesthetic exploration in public spaces, it is too bad that it is upsetting to many of the practicioners. But like the term Cubism, Impressionism, Contemporary Art, Modernism, none of them were coined by the artists themselves.
Over time, Urban Art may well become the most popular and easiest way to refer to a movement that has been as long lasting and culturally important as Impressionism and Modernism, and also lasted about fifty years each as well.
Text: Daniel Feral