THE ARTISTS, POETS and PROFESSORS of BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (the college featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE) Part 16 Willem de Kooning (Part C)


Black Mountain College: A Thumbnail Sketch

Published on Aug 14, 2014

A 13 minute documentary about the legendary arts school in the mountains of North Carolina

Legend of Black Mountain

Uploaded on Apr 20, 2008

Black Mountain College was a phenomenal circumstance. The fact that so many artists of that level in their respective fields could organize and develop such an institution is unparalleled. Who would’ve thought that a small mountain town of western North Carolina would be their home, albeit for a short while.

It has been my practice on this blog to cover some of the top artists of the past and today and that is why I am doing  this current series on Black Mountain College (1933-1955). Here are some links to some to some of the past posts I have done on other artists: Marina AbramovicIda Applebroog,  Matthew Barney, Aubrey Beardsley, Larry BellWallace BermanPeter Blake,  Allora & Calzadilla,   Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Heinz Edelmann Olafur EliassonTracey EminJan Fabre, Makoto Fujimura, Hamish Fulton, Ellen GallaugherRyan Gander, John Giorno, Rodney Graham,  Cai Guo-Qiang, Jann HaworthArturo HerreraOliver HerringDavid Hockney, David Hooker,  Nancy HoltRoni HornPeter HowsonRobert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Martin KarplusMargaret KeaneMike KelleyJeff Koons, Richard LinderSally MannKerry James MarshallTrey McCarley,   Paul McCarthyJosiah McElhenyBarry McGee, Richard MerkinYoko OnoTony Oursler, George PettyWilliam Pope L.Gerhard Richter, Anna Margaret Rose,  James RosenquistSusan RothenbergGeorges Rouault, Richard SerraShahzia Sikander, Raqub ShawThomas ShutteHiroshi Sugimoto, Mika Tajima,Richard TuttleLuc Tuymans, Alberto Vargas,  Banks Violett, H.C. Westermann,  Fred WilsonKrzysztof WodiczkoAndrea Zittel,

The amazing setting and backstory of The #LongestRide Movie

20th Century Fox invited our writer, Jennifer Donovan, on an expenses-paid set visit to North Carolina for Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Longest Ride, in theaters April 10.

Earlier this week, I wrote about my visit to the set of The Longest Ride movie, focusing on the casting and the characters. In this post, I’m going to look at some of the interesting elements of the plot, which made for a great book, but will also look great on screen.

TLR-bull riding

Nicholas Sparks on the Bull-riding Element

One of the great things about this film, but the partnership that Fox had with the PBR to develop this film was like nothing you’ve ever seen. And it was necessary because people who make movies are good at making movies. And every time you see an animal in a movie, that animal is tame or trained, so they go to their spot, and so you know where to put the camera.

You don’t know where that bull is going, so how do you get Scott on the bull? How do you get the angle right? Well, guess who knows How to do that? The PBR, among other things.  So, then Fox can do things that the PBR can’t with the level of quality of the camera. It’s the most realistic stuff. These are real cowboys. They’re from the PBR.

These are the real bulls from the PBR. I mean, you can look up the bull in the PBR. The thing is ranked number three in the world right now. It’s unbelievable.


Art in post-war North Carolina

In my post at 5 Minutes for Books, On Reading Nicholas Sparks for the First Time, I wrote about talking with one of the other bloggers for whom this was her first experience with a Nicholas Sparks novel. One of the things she noted, and that I liked about this novel as well, was the rich backstory and characterization of Ira and Ruth Levinson. The backdrop of art was interesting to me, not only because my daughter is an artist, but because I always love learning about a different culture or hobby or occupation while I’m reading fiction. Between bull riding and art collecting in post-war North Carolina, I learned a lot while reading The Longest Ride.

So, I have this idea for this story, and Ira and Ruth, and I have in my mind that they’re going to collect art. And I’m sitting there thinking, “How am I going to pull this off? I live in North Carolina, right. There’s a nice Jewish couple in North Carolina. If they’re in New York, maybe you could see it happening, right.”
So, I said to myself, “How can I make this seem believable?” So, my first notion was that they were just going to meet an artist who happened to be vacationing in North Carolina, befriend this person, man or woman, go with him to wherever the art scene was, and that’s how they got started.
So, that was my plan. So, I said, “Okay. So, let’s find a North Carolina artist who might have been around in the ’40s, ’50s. So, I Google like literally “North Carolina artists in the 1940s,” or something.
And boom, up pops Black Mountain College. And it turns out that Black Mountain College was this experimental college, ran for about 24 years in the 1930s to, I think, 1956 or 1957.
And it was the center of the modern art movement for American painters. Everyone from Willem de Kooning was there, to Rauschenberg, to Franz Kline, to Pat Passlof.
I mean, De Kooning’s paintings, they go for $350 million. He’s over here teaching at Black Mountain College. Buckminster Fuller was there. Robert DeNiro’s father, who was a very famous artist, he was a graduate of Black Mountain College.
Came in, they did painting and sculpture, whatever they did. And it was there, and it was a couple of hours away.
So, there I’m writing, I’m looking for an artist, and I find out that this key element that I need to make the art collecting believable, that center was like two hours from where I placed them originally.
I was like, “Wow.” So, I called my agent and I said, “You are not going to believe this. You are not going to believe what I just found.” And so, of course, then I learned all I could about Black Mountain College.

The Longest Ride is in theaters April 10.

Based on the bestselling novel by master storyteller Nicholas Sparks, THE LONGEST RIDE centers on the star-crossed love affair between Luke, a former champion bull rider looking to make a comeback, and Sophia, a college student who is about to embark upon her dream job in New York City’s art world. As conflicting paths and ideals test their relationship, Sophia and Luke make an unexpected connection with Ira, whose memories of his own decades-long romance with his beloved wife deeply inspire the young couple. Spanning generations and two intertwining love stories, THE LONGEST RIDE explores the challenges and infinite rewards of enduring love.

Starring: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, and Alan Alda

Directed by: George Tillman, Jr.

My first post in this series was on the composer John Cage and my second post was on Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg who were good friend of CageThe third post in this series was on Jorge Fick. Earlier we noted that  Fick was a student at Black Mountain College and an artist that lived in New York and he lent a suit to the famous poet Dylan Thomas and Thomas died in that suit.

The fourth post in this series is on the artist  Xanti Schawinsky and he had a great influence on John Cage who  later taught at Black Mountain College. Schawinsky taught at Black Mountain College from 1936-1938 and Cage right after World War II. In the fifth post I discuss David Weinrib and his wife Karen Karnes who were good friends with John Cage and they all lived in the same community. In the 6th post I focus on Vera B. William and she attended Black Mountain College where she met her first husband Paul and they later  co-founded the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Vera served as a teacher for the community from 1953-70. John Cage and several others from Black Mountain College also lived in the Community with them during the 1950’s. In the 7th post I look at the life and work of M.C.Richards who also was part of the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Black Mountain College.

In the 8th post I look at book the life of   Anni Albers who is  perhaps the best known textile artist of the 20th century and at Paul Klee who was one  of her teachers at Bauhaus. In the 9th post the experience of Bill Treichler in the years of 1947-1949  is examined at Black Mountain College. In 1988, Martha and Bill started The Crooked Lake Review, a local history journal and Bill passed away in 2008 at age 84.

In the 10th post I look at the art of Irwin Kremen who studied at Black Mountain College in 1946-47 and there Kremen spent his time focused on writing and the literature classes given by the poet M. C. Richards. In the 11th post I discuss the fact that Josef Albers led the procession of dozens of Bauhaus faculty and students to Black Mountain.

In the 12th post I feature Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) who was featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE and the film showed Kandinsky teaching at BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE which was not true according to my research. Evidently he was invited but he had to decline because of his busy schedule but many of his associates at BRAUHAUS did teach there. In the 13th post I look at the writings of the communist Charles Perrow. 

Willem de Kooning was such a major figure in the art world and because of that I have dedicated the 14th15th and 16th posts in this series on him. Paul McCartney got interested in art through his friendship with Willem because Linda’s father had him as a client. Willem was a  part of New York School of Abstract expressionism or Action painting, others included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

Black Mountain College: An Introduction

bmc logo by j.albersThe story of Black Mountain College begins in 1933 and comprises a fascinating chapter in the history of education and the arts. Conceived by John A. Rice, a brilliant and mercurial scholar who left Rollins College in a storm of controversy, Black Mountain College was born out of a desire to create a new type of college based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education. The events that precipitated the College’s founding occurred simultaneously with the rise of Adolf Hitler, the closing of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, and the beginning of the persecution of artists and intellectuals on the European continent. Some of these people found their way to Black Mountain, either as students or faculty. Meanwhile, the United States was mired in the Great Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt, committed to putting people back to work, established the Public Works Arts Project (a precursor of the WPA).

The founders of the College believed that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education, and they hired Josef Albers to be the first art teacher. Speaking not a word of English, he and his wife Anni left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina.

Black Mountain College was fundamentally different from other colleges and universities of the time. It was owned and operated by the faculty and was committed to democratic governance and to the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning. All members of the College community participated in its operation, including farm work, construction projects and kitchen duty. Located in the midst of the beautiful North Carolina mountains near Asheville, the secluded environment fostered a strong sense of individuality and creative intensity within the small College community.

Legendary even in its own time, Black Mountain College attracted and created maverick spirits, some of whom went on to become well-known and extremely influential individuals in the latter half of the 20th century. A partial list includes people such as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Ben Shahn, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, Francine du Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Dorothea Rockburne and many others, famous and not-so-famous, who have impacted the world in a significant way. Even now, decades after its closing in 1957, the powerful influence of Black Mountain College continues to reverberate.

For more information:

Willem de Kooning

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning in his studio.jpg

De Kooning in his studio in 1961
Born April 24, 1904
Rotterdam, Netherlands
Died March 19, 1997 (aged 92)
East Hampton, New York, United States[1]
Nationality Dutch, American
Known for Abstract expressionism
Notable work Woman I, Easter Monday,Attic, Excavation
Awards Praemium Imperiale
National Medal of Arts (1986)

Willem de Kooning (/ˈwɪləm də ˈknɪŋ/;[2] Dutch: [ˈʋɪləm də ˈkoːnɪŋ]; April 24, 1904 – March 19, 1997) was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.[3]

In the post-World War II era, de Kooning painted in a style that came to be referred to as Abstract expressionism or Action painting, and was part of a group of artists that came to be known as the New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

Early life[edit]

Willem de Kooning, Woman V(1952–53), National Gallery of Australia

Woman III, (1953), private collection

Willem de Kooning (1968)

De Kooning as sculptor: Seated Woman on a Bench, bronze of 1972 (cast 1976), in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, in South Holland in the Netherlands, on April 24, 1904. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced in 1907, and de Kooning lived first with his father and then with his mother. He left school in 1916 and became an apprentice in a firm of commercial artists. Until 1924 he attended evening classes at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen, the academy of fine arts and applied sciences of Rotterdam, now the Willem de Kooning Academie.[3]

In 1926 de Kooning travelled to the United States as a stowaway on the Shelley, a British freighter bound for Argentina, and on August 15 landed at Newport News, Virginia. He stayed at the Dutch Seamen’s Home inHoboken and found work as a house-painter. In 1927 he moved to Manhattan, where he had a studio on West Forty-fourth Street. He supported himself with jobs in carpentry, house-painting and commercial art.[3]

De Kooning began painting in his free time; in 1928 he joined the art colony at Woodstock, New York. He also began to meet some of the Modernist artists active in Manhattan. Among them were Stuart Davis, the Armenian Arshile Gorky and the Russian John Graham, who together de Kooning called the “Three Musketeers”.[4]:98 Gorky, who de Kooning first met at the home of Misha Reznikoff, became a close friend and, for at least ten years, an important influence.[4]:100 Balcomb Greene said that “de Kooning virtually worshipped Gorky”; according to Aristodimos Kaldis, “Gorky was de Kooning’s master”.[4]:184 De Kooning’s drawing Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother, from about 1938, may show him with Gorky; the pose of the figures is that of a photograph of Gorky with Peter Busa in about 1936.[4]:184

De Kooning joined the Artists Union in 1934, and in 1935 was employed in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, for which he designed a number of murals including some for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn. None of them were executed,[1] but a sketch for one was included in New Horizons in American Art at the Museum of Modern Art, his first group show. From 1936, when De Kooning had to leave the Federal Art Project because he did not have American citizenship, he began to work full-time as an artist, earning income from commissions and by giving lessons.[3]


Early work[edit]

De Kooning’s paintings of the 1930s and early 1940s are abstract still-lifes characterised by geometric or biomorphic shapes and strong colours. They show the influence of his friends Davis, Gorky and Graham, but also of Arp, Joan Miró, Mondrian and Picasso.[1] In the same years de Kooning also painted a series of solitary male figures, either standing or seated, against undefined backgrounds; many of these are unfinished.[1][3]

Black and white abstractions[edit]

By 1946 de Kooning had begun a series of black and white paintings, which he would continue into 1949. During this period he had his first one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery; it consisted largely of black and white works, although a few has passages of bright color. De Kooning’s black paintings are important to the history of Abstract Expressionism of their densely impacted forms, their mixed media, and their technique.[5]:25

The women[edit]

De Kooning’s well-known Woman series, begun in 1950 the time after meeting his future wife and culminating in Woman VI, owes much to Picasso, not least in the aggressive, penetrative breaking apart of the figure, and the spaces around it. Picasso’s late works show signs that he, in turn, saw images of works by Pollock and de Kooning.[6]:17 De Kooning led the 1950s’ art world to a new level known as the American Abstract Expressionism. “From 1940 to the present, Woman has manifested herself in de Kooning’s paintings and drawings as at once the focus of desire, frustration, inner conflict, pleasure, … and as posing problems of conception and handling as demanding as those of an engineer.”[7] The female figure is an important symbol for de Kooning’s art career and his own life. This painting is considered as a significant work of art for the museum through its historical context about the post World War II history and American feminist movement. Additionally, the medium of this painting makes it different form others of de Kooning’s time.

Individual works[edit]

Solo exhibitions[edit]


Willem de Kooning, Egan Gallery, New York, April 12-May 12.[5]:126


Willem de Kooning, Egan Gallery, New York, April 1-30, and tour to Arts Club of Chicago[5]:126


Willem de Kooning: Painting on the theme of the Women, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, March 16- April 11.

De Kooning 1953-1953, Museum School, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 21-May 8, and tour to Workshop Center, Washington, D.C [5]:126


Recent Oils by Willem de Kooning, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, November 9- December 3.[5]:126


De Kooning, Sidney Janis Gallery, April 2-28[5]:126


de Kooning, Sidney Janis Gallery, May 5-30[5]:126


Willem de Kooning, Paul Kantor Gallery, Beverly Hills, California, April 3-29[5]:126


Recent painting by Willem de Kooning, Sidney Janis Gallery, May 5-31 [5]:126


“Women” Drawing by Willem de Kooning, Hames Goodman Gallery, Buffalo, January 10-25.

Willem de Kooning: Retrospective Drawings 1936-1963, Allan Stone Gallery, New York, February[5]:126


Willem de Kooning, Paul Kantor Gallery, March 22- April 30, and tour to Aspen Institute, Colorado

Willem de Kooning: A retrospective Exhibition from public and private collections, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts, April 8- May 2, and tour to Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of technology Cambridge.[5]:126


De Kooning’s Women, Allan Stone Gallery, March 14- April 2.[5]:126

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]



Paul and de Kooning

Small details from three paintings

From left to right: Robot and star, 1995, Brains on fire, 1994, Black scratch I, 1994

“You have to paint abstract after you’ve been seeing Bill de Kooning” – Sir Paul McCartney

Paul credits the artist Willem de Kooning with being one of his greatest influences, as well as being a family friend. They met at the end of the seventies when de Kooning was a client of Linda’s father’s law firm.

Linda and Paul frequently visited the artist in his studio and Paul often became so fired up by the visits that he would go to the paint shop on the way home and buy all the same paints and canvases as de Kooning, or ‘Bill’ as he affectionately refers to him.

Abstract painting

Paul remembers De Kooning’s attitude to his painting as a particular source of inspiration. One day he asked the artist what his painting was meant to be, to which de Kooning replied, “I don’t know, it looks like a couch, huh?” Paul found the remark profoundly liberating. In his own words, ‘he never looked back’.

Art Criticism journal, volume 20, number 1.
[Images, not originally in Art Criticism, have been added here]Martin Ries                        DE KOONING’S ASHEVILLE  
“Perhaps I am more of a novelist than a poet.”
-Willem de Kooning
“What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
-Harold Rosenberg

One of the important experiments in American art education began in Asheville , North Carolina , in 1933. Black Mountain College was conceived at a critical moment in history; its founding occurred concurrent with ominous events abroad: Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and the Nazi terror of book-burnings, street beatings, political arrests of Jews, communists, homosexuals and others, and incinerations in concentration camps. The Nazis closed the famous Bauhaus, the innovative school of art, architecture, and design. Josef Albers came to Black MountainCollege as director, bringing his Bauhaus experience to encourage artistic cross-fertilization. By the time the College closed in 1957 it had attracted a venerable Who’s Who of the avant-garde, including Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Eric Bentley, Robert Motherwell, Paul Taylor, Alfred Kazin, and many others. Willem de Kooning taught there in 1948.[1]

In the late 1930s and early 1940s Abstract and Cubist art were formalist structures that did not necessarily embody transcendent, universal themes. Inspired by the Freudian method of free association, the Surrealists put great emphasis on the instinctual and invented “psychic automatism” to breed buried images unavailable to the conscious mind. The goal of forward-looking American artists (fellow artist Jacob Kainen called them “the alert artists”) was to synthesize the modern movements into an entirely new pictorial style; what interested them about Surrealism was its processes, its attitudes toward creativity and the unconscious, and its emphasis on content as opposed to form. A few of the Surrealist artists “painted responses to the political and historical events of the period … Picasso’s Guernica more successfully captured the Americans’ imagination as a direct response to disaster…” [2]

The Europeans had shown the way; yet the avant-garde American artists had to work desperately to break away from the influence of the School of Paris and especially from that Olympian, Pablo Picasso. Like the Collective Unconscious or the dreams of childhood, Picasso’s images and icons kept creeping in while the Abstract Expressionists used both Surrealism and Abstraction to break the Spaniard’s stranglehold. Discussing art in the 1930s and 1940s, Jackson Pollock complained, “Damn that Picasso, just when I think I’ve gotten somewhere I discover that bastard got there first;” Arshile Gorky mourned that they were “defeated” by Picasso; while de Kooning said, “Picasso is the man to beat.”

De Kooning drew on the School of Paris (Pollock called him a “French” painter); his “apparent aim is a synthesis of tradition and modernism that would grant him more flexibility within the confines of the Late Cubist canon of design,” stated Clement Greenberg; “… there is perhaps even more Luciferian pride behind de Kooning’s ambition than there is behind Picasso’s.” [3]Thomas B. Hess wrote, “He will do drawings on transparent paper, scatter them one on top of the other, study the composition drawing that appears on top, make a drawing from this, reverse it, tear it in half, and put it on top of still another drawing. Often the search is for a shape to start off a painting…” [4]Harold Rosenberg, who upheld the idea of “high art” in defiance of mass culture, applied existential relationships between artists and the world: “The vision of transcending the arts … rests upon one crucial question: What makes one an artist?” [5]He did not see abstraction as a projection of individual emotions so much as a reflection of overall psychic need. Abstract art in its final analysis, he asserted, was transcendental.

            De Kooning admired Cubism for its emphasis on structure; [6]  yet Asheville, (1948, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) its surface sensuality dominating compositional logic, is both linear and
Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948, oil and enamel / cardboard,
64.9×81 cm (25½x31-7/8), The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
painterly as well as structural. The need for the ordered geometric background structure of Cubism did not begin to disappear from de Kooning’s work until he increased his gestural activity, probably under Jackson Pollock’s influence, by loosening shapes and allowing the paint to run in such paintings as Light in August.
Willem de Kooning, Light in August, 1947,
55×41½, Museum of Contemporary Art, Teheran
               The use of the sign painter’s liner brush [7] allowed him to get the precipitate look of a quick expressionist sketch; each stroke is integrated with every other stroke that shift ceaselessly as forms merge with background as well as with other forms to mold a single consolidated surface. Art dealer and friend of the artist, Allan Stone, described the forms as opening up and flowing into the background, “creating fluidity and movement which can be termed ‘liquification of cubism.'”  [8]

The push toward a new expression in Asheville is beyond literal legibility. [9] Nevertheless Charles F. Stuckey says the sulfuric color scheme of ocher, red, black and white “evoke flames, smoke and ashes”; [10] he reads a large dark “eye” to the right as looking like a “cigarette burn in cloth;” he also sees “torn and displaced legs, elbows, and torso”, body parts [11] scattered like martyr’s attributes, as well as “lips cracked to expose teeth”, and finds a “darkened left side of a mouth that

Diagram of Ashville

seems to curl forward to suggest the way paper curls when it burns” (there is a plethora of gnashing teeth in Picasso’s Weeping Women [“postscripts” to Guernica, summer,1937]).

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Women 1937

However, Stuckey also finds these conflagration similes in the frantic brushstroke of de Kooning’sLight in August as they refer to the fire episode in William Faulkner’s Light in August, a novel the painter especially liked. The titles of several of de Kooning’s black and white paintings at this time:Dark Pond, Night Square, together with Black Friday (the darker name for “Good Friday,” the day of the Crucifixion) and Light in August, are “drawn from the Bible, Aeschylus, and William Faulkner.” [12]

The title of Light in August is derived from the novel of the same name by Faulkner. Heir of the Symbolists, he was little appreciated until Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner was published in 1946. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a similar fate: when he died in 1940 none of his books was in print, “The revival – or, better, the apotheosis – of [The Great] Gatsby began after the author’s death ….  That was in 1941. It took another five years for a new generation to rediscover it.”[13] De Kooning, a “fervent reader,” [14] may have been part of that generation and read about “the macabre valley of ashes presided over by the eyes on a billboard” in Gatsby.

  1. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda embodied the “flaming youth” [15] in the 1920s before she suffered a mental breakdown. Zelda was confined to mental institutions throughout the 1930s and 1940s until her tragic death in March of 1948 when fire destroyed the Highland Hospital inAsheville, North Carolina, where she was a patient. De Kooning may have read about Zelda’s death in the New York Times of March 12, 1948 : “Flames quickly engulfed the four-story central building of the Highland Hospital for Nervous Diseases. … Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, widow of the author and a victim of the hospital fire, had been ill for some years and went to the Highland Hospital three months ago…”

Assuming de Kooning read of the tragic fire at Highland Hospital, he probably would have recalled the devastating fire in Gorky’s studio, Gorky’s Charred Beloved of 1946 and Agony of 1947 (Gorky committed suicide while de Kooning was working on Asheville), as well as the flames in Picasso’s Guernica (fig. 2) and related studies. Stalin’s scorched earth policy, the fire-storms ofEngland, Germany, and Japan during the war, as well as the frequent blazes in New York City , may have also occurred to him.

De Kooning’s penchant for the soot and detritus of the city is the reverse of Marcel Proust’s “golden morning brightness of a Parisian sidewalk” and more like Baudelaire’s “botanist of the sidewalk.” Edwin Denby, poet and friend in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled the artist’s attraction to minute details encountered in his environment:  “I remember walking at night in Chelsea with Bill … and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions – spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflection of neon-light…” [16] Indeed, Rosalind Krauss similarly has commented on Picasso’s turning the dross of collage into art [17] as he shaped “these bits and pieces into an organized montage.” [18] In Apollinaire’s Zone, written just as Picasso was embarking on collage, the poet praised what the artist saw in the streets: “The inscription on the sign boards and the walls … You read the handbills, catalogs, posters that sing out loud and clear  …” [19]

Willem de Kooning, Abstraction, 1949/50,
Thyssen-Bornamisza collection, Madrid.

De Kooning often began several pictures with related images; Asheville [20] andAbstraction (1949/50, Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Madrid) have much in common. The floor line in the ashen-hued Abstraction, leading in from the bottom right corner, creates a “nook” on the right side (and a resting place for a dark skull – an unusually non-abstract and specific image for the artist at that time) which “houses” a ladder, window, and door, as well as the torso, leg, and rectangular structure at bottom left. The vibrant yellows, blues, and fuchsias are dispersed by black strokes within modified white areas. There is a Picassoid hoof-form in the upper left corner, a house structure in the upper right (the same double-bar as in Asheville, a visual abutment which undoubtedly corresponds to the window edge in Guernica and related sketches), as well as several rectangular window and door shapes and a ladder from Minotauromachia.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica , 1937,
oil / canvas, 349x777cm (137-3/8×305-7/8),
Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Pablo Picasso, Minotauramachia, 1935,
etching, 49.5×69.2 cm (19½x27¼).

Is the ladder a metaphor for escape? A fireman’s attempt at rescue? A passage from one plane to another? The ladder of life and the time-honored symbol of ascension, the primal idea that one climbs the ladder of one’s forebears (however Olympian) as with Jacob’s Ladder?

In Asheville de Kooning depicts a book of charred matches (left) which he seems to have used from his earlier Still Life with Matches (c.1942, collection Mr. & Mrs. Stephen D. Paine),

Willem de Kooning, Still Life with Matches, c.1942,
13.9×19 cm (5½x7½), Mr & Mrs Stephen D. Paine collection.

very much as Thomas Hess described his working methods. This detail is topped by a blackened circle that probably was originally a thumbtack (top left) to keep fragments of drawings in position as the artist worked. A second folded matchbook is at the top just below the “thumbtack.” Are the shapes references to squares, rectangles, openings, windows, doors, and other apertures? Are they meant to appear burnt and damaged? Geometric shapes, imbued with implied order, are usually inserted in an effort to stabilize the picture, but they keep getting lost in de Kooning’s shuffle of shapes. Certainly the series of rectangles on the left of Asheville includes a “spent book of matches” (Stuckey); they are also similar to the ladder in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Abstraction, both of which may have been prompted by the ladder in Picasso’s Minotauromachia, and/or the many ladders in Joan Miró’s and Paul Klee’s and other Surrealists’ works where the Jacob-like ladder leads upwards to a fusion of tangible and intangible, a transcending union of heaven and earth, to “higher realities.”

            Indeed, below the spent safety matches is a form very much like the leg of the dying horse inComposition Study for Guernica comparable to the form in the lower left of Asheville, both in similar
Pablo Picasso, Detail, Composition Study for Guernica, (II), 1 May 1937,
pencil on blue paper, 21x27cm (8-1/4×10-5/8), Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
areas of both paintings, not to mention two very Picassoid horse’s hoofs, bottom center (also bottom center in Guernica). The foot of the Rushing Woman in Guernica is comparable to the shape in the lower right corner of Asheville (similar areas of both paintings); the rectangles in the upper right corner of Asheville are like the right-angled edges of the window of the burning house in Guernica(similar areas of both paintings).

Picasso’s Guernica and Minotaur images, often reproduced in Cahiers d’Art and Minotauremagazines, could have been seen in the late ’30s and early ’40s by American artists. The mural itself was exhibited in New York at the Valentin Gallery in 1939, and an extensive Picasso exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art in the same year. De Kooning was undoubtedly familiar with the first important book on Guernica [21] with its related studies and photographs of the mural in progress.

If Asheville is turned upside-down, the matchbooks relate to the more recognizable rectangles, apertures, and ladder in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Abstraction, as well as to Picasso’s many ladders.
Other paintings at that time indicate fragments of drawings are shuffled and scattered in the search for new paintings. Specific forms in such as those in the upper right are identical to the forms in.

Willem de Kooning, Painting, c.1950,
76.5×101.6 cm (30-1/8×40), David Geffen collection, Los Angeles

Willem de Kooning, Little Attic, c.1949, oil / paper / press board,
77.4×10.1 cm (30½x40), Dr. Israel Rosen collection.

The imagery in these two works, both the same size, presumably derived from a single drawing and then migrated from one painting to another. [22] These “specific forms” are similar to the progression of rectangular forms on the left side of Asheville. Other forms in Geffen’s Painting, such as ladders and gaping mouths, are repeated throughout the compositions of this period (the heart shape on the right in Little Attic is reminiscent of the shape of testicles in much of Picasso’s depictions of bulls. Both organs relate to man’s emotional life, they bind male psyche and male soma).

The Olympian Picasso continued to possess his progeny.

De Kooning often used window-like rectangles (usually delineated with black paint) in his early work to organize the background and relate the composition to the edges of his canvas. With no directional trajectories, the tension of the window shapes make enclosure dynamic rather than ambiguous. An aperture for penetration into space, a window often symbolizes the eye* of the artist opened for revelation; one can look in as well as out [23] into larger vistas, or greater consciousness.


After death, the eyes of the deceased are closed; this gesture symbolically shuts the “window of the soul.”


De Kooning was probably familiar with Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, (N.Y., 1947) where he attributes to colors certain universal meanings: “Black is something burnt out, the ashes of a funeral pyre … The silence of black is the silence of death …” Completed shortly after the artist’s black and white period, Asheville combines color as well as black and white, but none dominates. Generally, color isn’t abstract in the sense that it involves nuances of mood, while black and white is more abstract because it relates less to nature.  However, we’re often disconcerted by color schemes with values of equal importance when there is no dominant hue.

Space is a pre-condition of all that exists, its appearance is emptiness, and therefore can contain everything; or as de Kooning explained, space contains “billions and billions of hunks of matter … floating around in darkness according to a great design of nothingness.” [24] De Kooning’s picture plane, to which any shape or image could be attached, is not dissimilar to the relativistic unified field theory that tries to integrate into one comprehensive idea the many clashing bits of data and complex uncertainty of randomness that is modern physics.

In the manner of Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur, the handyman, tinkerer, or inventor of myths, memory accumulates appealing images and materials that can then be reshaped and used over and over again. Many of the abstract shapes in Asheville look like fragments from previous works, a kind of visual promiscuity, or what another critic called “willful pentimenti.” [25] Although there are many unrecognized and suggestive abstract forms in the painting, they pass before us almost without our recognizing them, like fleeting images in a dream. Yet Asheville , with its loopy liner brush lines and sooty colors, is certainly one of de Kooning’s most regal works.  As Rudolf Arnheim explained, in reference to Picasso: “The creative process has systolic and diastolic stages. The artist condenses his material, eliminating unessentials, or paints an abundance of shapes and ideas, recklessly crowding the concept. Rather than grow consistently like a plant, the work often fluctuates between antagonistic operations.” [26]

Or, as Harold Rosenberg said, abstract art in its final analysis is transcendental.

– E N D –


[ 1 ] Martin B Duberman, Black Mountain : An Exploration in Community, Peter Smith, Gloucester ,Massachusetts , 1988. p.283: The artist and Buckminster Fuller became “great friends, really extraordinary friends,” said Fuller. “I used to have to go to Asheville to get things for my structures, for my classes…and Bill de Kooning used to like to ride along with me and talk philosophy. Bill is a very, very wonderful thinker.”
S. Naifeh and G.W. Smith, Jackson Pollock: American Saga, Clarkson Potter, N.Y., 1989, p.710: de Kooning and Rosenberg shared a thoughtful if not deep philosophical streak; when asked if he would rather be a “half-assed philosopher or a great painter, de Kooning replied, “Let me think about that.”

[2] Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge University Press, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney, 1991, p.28.

[3] Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961, p.213.

[4] Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, Museum of Modern Art , N.Y., 1968, p.47.

[5] Harold Rosenberg, The De-definition of Art, Horizon Press, N.Y., 1972, p.13.

[6] Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18,Spring 1951, p.7; reprinted in Hess, p. 146. De Kooning also described Cubism as “a poetic frame … where an artist could practise  his intuition;” in Hess, p. 146.

[7] Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, essays by Cornelia H. Butler, Paul Schimmel, RichardShiff and Anne M. Wagner, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles , Princeton UniversityPress, Princeton and Oxford , 2002. Elaine de Kooning’s brother, Conrad Fried, remembered that deKooning made his own brushes with extra-long floppy hairs designed to make “fast,” whiplash lines.Shiff, p.158.

[8] Allan Stone, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, Allan Stone Gallery catalog, New York, 1994, p. iii.

[9] Willem de Kooning: “I feel certain parts you ought to leave up to the world” in “The Renaissance and Order”, trans/formation 1, 1951; quoted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, Museum of Modern Art , N.Y., 1968, p.141; and in Robert Goodnough, ed., Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35, N.Y.,1950, p.16.

[10] Charles F. Stuckey, “Bill de Kooning and Joe Christmas,” Art in America, vol.68, no.3, March1980, p.78.

[11] Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, essays by Cornelia H. Butler, Paul Schimmel, RichardShiff and Anne M. Wagner, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Princeton UniversityPress, Princeton and Oxford , 2002. Shiff, p. 164, n. 1: “I nevertheless believe that nearly all of deKooning’s “abstractions” either began with a reference to the human figure or incorporated figuralelements along the way.”

[12] Sally Yard, “The Angel and the demoiselle – Willem de Kooning’s Black Friday,” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol. 50, no. 2, 1991, p.15.

[13] The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, introduction by Charles Scribner III , N.Y. , 1992, p.xviii]: The Great Gatsby “led the Fitzgerald rediscovery and restoration of 1945-50…” Fitzgerald wrote of “…the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes … commensurate with their capacity to wonder.” as well as the “…sporting life at Asheville …” [The Great Gatsby, preface and notes by Matthew J. Bruccoli, N.Y., 1992, p.23].

[14] Numerous friends, associates and critics have cited de Kooning’s wide reading, from Kierkegaard, Melville and Proust to Dostoevsky, Joyce and Whitman.

[15] John Tytell, Passionate Lives, Birch Lane Press , New York , 1991, .p.77. Fitzgerald said Zelda had “a more intense flame at its highest than ever I had.”

[16] Elaine de Kooning, “Edwin Denby Remembered – Part 1,” Ballet Review 12, spring 1984, p. 30; also, Edwin Denby, Willem de Kooning, N.Y., Hanuman Books, 1988, p.46.

[17] Rosalind E. Krauss, The Picasso Papers, N.Y., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, p. 72, quoting David Cottongton’s “turning the dross of the vernacular into the gold of art” in Picasso & Braque: A Symposium,  (ed., Lynn Zelevansky) N.Y. Museum of Modern Art, 1992, p. 69.

[18] Krauss, p. 42.

[19] Krauss, p. 72-73.

[20] The painting is inscribed as Ashville [sic] on the back of the panel, with the emphasis on “Ash.” Charles Moore Brock, unpublished Master’s Thesis, “Describing Chaos: Willem de Kooning’s Collage Painting Asheville and its Relationship to Traditions of Description and Illusionism in Western Art,” 1993, University of Maryland , p.8.

[21] Juan Larrea, Guernica: Pablo Picasso, introduction by Alfred H Barr, published by the art dealer, Curt Valentin, N.Y., 1947.

[22] Hess, p. 47-51.

[23] Carla Gottlieb, The Window in Art: a Study of Window Symbolism in Western Painting, Abaris Books, Pleasantville , N.Y. , 1981.

[24] De Kooning, p. 7; reprinted in Hess, p. 146.

[25] Sally Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York – 1927-1952 ( New York : Garland , 1986, p. 57.

[26] Rudolf Arnheim, Picasso’s Guernica: The Genesis of a Painting, University of California Press,Berkeley & Los Angeles , 1962, p.56.

This paper was written with the help of a Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island Universityat Brooklyn . I wish to thank John Ott, educator, computer scientist, and mathematician, for his suggestions in preparing this study.

Copyright  © 2005  Martin Ries


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