If you were to talk about what made American art exciting in the two decades after World War II, you could hardly fail to mention this painting by Willem de Kooning. I mean, just look at it. Those brushstrokes are traces of the painter’s vigorous arm movements. Such a powerful sense of freedom and velocity! The color is so sweet it seems to hum with self-pleasure. (That musky pink beside the yolky yellow, the peripheral outbreaks of blue.) Marvel, too, at the subtle but unaccountably powerful opening up of imaginary space generated by those slivers of dark gray between the sturdy verticals just to the left of center.
The whole painting feels like an alloy of massive gestural energy and fleeting delicacy. Heft married to contingency. It’s in a museum, thank goodness. But imagine it hanging on your living room wall. You’d never watch TV again! You couldn’t drag your eyes from it.
“Door to the River,” which is at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, is nearly seven feet high and six feet wide. The Dutch-born de Kooning painted it in 1960. He was at the height of his powers. His friend and rival, Jackson Pollock, had died in a car accident in 1956; de Kooning surprised people a year later by dating Pollock’s girlfriend, Ruth Kligman, the only survivor of the crash.
De Kooning’s career, meanwhile, went from strength to strength. He was the kingpin of a newly dominant movement, abstract expressionism. His friend, Thomas Hess, had just published the first de Kooning monograph. The Museum of Modern Art was planning a retrospective. He went to Rome, where he lived for several months, hanging out with artists Alberto Burri, Cy Twombly, Afro and Marisol, and an entourage of admirers. There was something epic about his life’s narrative to date, from Dutch stowaway to American culture hero.
At the same time, de Kooning seemed lost. He was in his mid-50s. Some artist friends cursed his success, describing him as a sellout. The critic Clement Greenberg had turned on him, lamenting his adherence to conventions Greenberg saw as staid (easel painting, drawing, figurative content).
Then he painted “Door to the River.” The canvas had little of what John Elderfield called “the gritty buildup and scabrous intermingling of paint, charcoal and granular particles” that characterize de Kooning’s earlier paintings. The paint here was much smoother, more fluid. De Kooning applied it to a cotton duck fabric with a commercially primed white ground, with little of the scraping back that had been integral to his earlier process.
Eager to capture transient effects, he worked quickly, twisting his brush at the end of his long, house painter’s brushstrokes to create smashed, splattered or feathery effects, as if the paint were pure light reflected off undulant water. He occasionally added water to the paint, creating emulsions that left bubbly textures on the surface. (“I think he remained a Dutchman,” said the Stedelijk museum director Edy de Wilde, “in his love of light and water.”)
Elderfield, who put together a great de Kooning retrospective at MoMA in 2011, has described how de Kooning simplified his colors in “Door to the River” (and other works of the same period): the pink is an organic red pigment mixed with titanium dioxide and a small amount of zinc oxide. The blue is artificial ultramarine combined with titanium white. The yellow is cadmium yellow. Primary colors, essentially, and therefore prescient of his mesmerizing, pared-down late work.
In the 20th century, artists had embraced chance over deliberate intent in all kinds of ways. De Kooning loved to talk about the content of his art as a “slipping glimpse.” “I have to do it fast,” he said. “It’s not like poker, where you can build to a straight flush or something. It’s like throwing dice.”
But it wasn’t quite as random as all that. De Kooning was a great draftsman, with years of training under his belt, and no one was better at harnessing accidents. In painting after painting, with feline prowess, he found ways to recover compositional balance, and in the process — it was really a kind of high-wire act — he amplified the overall effect of energy and resplendence. The result, in the case of “Door to the River,” was cosmically lovely.