(The Phillips, Twentieth-Century, Oil and enamel paint on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in.; 64.92875 x 80.9625 cm.Acquired 1952; © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)
Years ago, I belonged to a figure drawing co-op at Maryland Hall in Annapolis, Maryland. Early on Wednesday Mornings, my art mentor DaNeal and I would pack up our art supplies (sometimes paint, sometimes pencils, sometimes both), and drive to the historical building. We would climb the steps to the top floor and turn to the classroom on the left. We would find an easel, or a drawing horse, and spend the morning pushing the materials of our choice around paper or canvas. We would discuss art techniques and history with the other creatives present while sipping coffee from the café located on the bottom floor across from the concert hall.
I had just begun drinking coffee, DaNeal had insisted when she began to teach me to paint. “You’ll drink coffee while we paint. Coffee is the drink of artists, tea is the drink of poets.” So I had begun drinking coffee, hesitantly at first but soon falling in love with the drink. The first drink of the day would be a mocha, made at home, rich and creamy. The next cup, purchased at the café, would be black.
The figure co-op hall filled slowly and surely throughout the morning with an assortment of people. Some were professional artists with master’s degrees in various crafts, while some were hoping to one day be professional artists but had not yet achieved their goal. Some had started creating later in life, after careers as district attorneys, chiropractors, and school teachers. Some had been drawing and painting for as long as they could remember. The techniques and supplies were as varied as the artists, some would apply with a frantic energy, their lines thick and urgent. Others would take their time, applying their medium of choice patiently and methodically throughout the morning.
The smell of art supplies filled the room: charcoal coated the surfaces and paint stained the floor. The model would pose for twenty minutes then take a break, then pose some more. It was this rhythm that we would follow throughout the morning. As the model rested, we all would sit back away from our drawings or paintings, sip coffee and talk over our artwork, artists both dead and alive, and techniques used in various art movements. It was during these talks over coffee savored from paper cups that my art theory and thoughts were pushed.
Lee, a retired art teacher, asked questions during the breaks on Wednesdays. He loved to talk about art and hear others talk about art, and it is he who introduced me to de Kooning.
“De Kooning,” Lee said one cloudy Wednesday morning, “is the better Pollock.”
“I don’t think I know who de Kooning is.” I replied.
“Look him up.”
And so I did.
De Kooning and Pollock were friends as well as artistic rivals. They belong to the abstract expressionist, the art movement dedicated to depicting motion. De Kooning took the techniques and idea Pollock pioneered and refined and pushed them. Through my discussions with Lee, my own research, and talking to my painting mentor at the time, I learned that de Kooning pushed the “the action painting” further than Pollock. De Kooning explored with his art continuously, while Pollock niched down. Pollock did one thing, and yes he did that one thing brilliantly well. De Kooning, on the other hand, explored creatively throughout his life. His work shifted from figurative paintings, to abstractions, to a combination, then back to abstraction.
I think Lee wanted to be like de Kooning, to explore and refine his craft continuously throughout his life. I love de Kooning, because Lee loved de Kooning. I treasured our talks together with DaNeal on Wednesday mornings. And while I quaffed coffee and thought about art, I resolved to be like Lee and like DaNeal and like de Kooning. I wanted to keep painting and exploring with painting. I wanted to allow myself to explore new ideas and new ways of painting, and allow myself to return to old ways of painting as well. There’s a freedom in painting which we don’t often allow ourselves in other areas of our lives. How often do you hear of a person leaving behind a school of thought and yet be allowed back to visit whenever he or she desires?