There are 24 charcoal drawings now on display at the Museum of Modern Art that Willem de Kooning did with his eyes closed.
This was not an uncommon thing for de Kooning, who often liked to close his eyes, or avert his eyes, or use them to watch TV while he drew. This may sound like a gimmick, or some kind of dada or surrealist gambit, or an act of desperation from an artist running on fumes.
But it was none of these. In a fascinating, in-depth study called “’With Closed Eyes’: De Kooning’s Twist” (published in Master Drawings, vol. 40, no. 1, Spring 2002), the art historian Richard Shiff argues that de Kooning’s closed-eye technique:
… allow[ed] de Kooning to circumvent what was for him the more intellectual and regulative organ, the eye, lest it inhibit the more physical organ, the hand.
Shiff’s description of de Kooning’s splitting of sight and touch, intellection and spontaneity brought to mind Allan Kaprow’s influential essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” (1958) in which Kaprow treats Pollock as a precursor to Performance Art:
We saw in his example the possibility of an astounding freshness, a sort of ecstatic blindness.
With the huge canvas placed upon the floor, thus making it difficult for the artist to see the whole or any extension of “parts,” Pollock could truthfully say he was “in” his work. Here the direct application of an automatic approach to the act makes it clear that not only is this not the old craft of painting, but it is perhaps bordering on ritual itself, which happens to use paint as one of its materials.
Compare this with what Shiff says about de Kooning:
Those close to him during the 1960s report that he appeared to feel visual form within himself, stretching and bending in imitative ways while either observing a figure or making a rendering.
Even in the way they used their bodies in their art, de Kooning and Pollock remain the yin and yang of painting in their time, with Pollock as outwardly directed, placing himself in the center of the action while flinging skeins of paint all around him, and with de Kooning as inwardly directed, feeling his forms inside his body and pushing them out through the more conventional means of paintbrushes and charcoal sticks.
But with both artists we encounter the implication of blindness. Kaprow notes that the scale of the canvas on the floor made it “difficult for the artist to see the whole or any extension of ‘parts,’” and he terms Pollock’s act of painting “a sort of ecstatic blindness.”
Shiff quotes an often-cited statement that de Kooning wrote for a book published in 1967 comprising the same suite of 24 untitled 8 x 10-inch drawings now at MoMA:
I am the source of a rumor concerning these drawings, and it is true that I made them with closed eyes. Also the pad I used was always held horizontally. The drawings often started by the feet … but more often by the center of the body, in the middle of the page. There is nothing special about this … but I found that closing the eyes was very helpful to me.
This is fairly matter-of-fact, and, frankly, not very useful. But Shiff offers another quotation that gets a little deeper into the matter:
A model can take many different poses, but the only thing that counts is how the hand sets her on the paper. How she lives on the paper. I draw while she lives on the paper.
De Kooning’s hand, then, feels out the image in two dimensions, creating space and volume that exists in its own enclosed precinct. I speculate that the sensation would not be far removed from the way he squeezed clay between his fingers to make his gangly, clotted sculptures, which were always one or two steps removed from being bas-reliefs.
These drawings would be marvelous by any standard; that they were done blindly is astonishing. The sensitivity of touch, the rawness of the sexuality, the tactility of the forms, the wit and invention of the imagery, and the ethereal gradations of the charcoal line are masterful even by de Kooning’s very high bar.
Unlike many of the artist’s works on paper, the closed-eye drawings are not heavily revised — the anxiety engendered by “the more intellectual and regulative organ, the eye,” does not enter the picture. They are as economical in their free-floating lyricism as anything the artist ever made, including his problematic last paintings, which some would contend were handicapped not by closed eyes but by cognitive impairments.
The drawings’ relative simplicity reveals a more basic de Kooning, one that allows his impulses to transition from imagination to representation unimpeded. The dominant themes — male and female nudes and crucified men — afford a more straightforward portal into de Kooning’s Eros/Thanatos conflict than his paintings, where the force of the brushwork and the dazzle of the color can lead the mind in dozens of different directions.
This view of de Kooning also more readily gives up his sources, with successive drawings conjuring up a parade of Northern European masters from Bosch and Rubens to Ensor and Nolde to Dix and Kokoschka.
You would think that drawing without the usual dialogue between eye and hand would result in repetitiveness, the same marks wandering over the page in insignificant variations. But the 24 drawings include figures grappling with each other, or cavorting in party dresses, or hefting themselves on chin-up bars, or nude and spread-eagled, or nude and nailed to a cross. The lines are dense or wispy, the charcoal applied in pearlescent gradations or explosive flecks and hatches.
As de Kooning wrote in his 1967 statement, the drawings were done horizontally, but they are displayed vertically. One piece reveals its latitudinal origins: it depicts a woman who appears to be hanging off another, but if the sheet were turned on its side, it would be evident that she’s bending over the second woman, who is lying on a divan or bed. We accept this breach of pictorial logic, however, because the image so fully “lives on the paper.”
Not just the image, but the artist as well. Shiff points out the equivalence that de Kooning drew between life and art, between the body and the act of making:
Identifying physically with his art, de Kooning made little distinction between configuration in a drawing and in himself: rendering a model with eyes closed, “you think about your [own] eyes, your ears, your nose and mouth.” This kind of substitution or “slippage” corresponds to the linguistic trope of metonymy, as when we say of a mere picture, “This is me,” only to mean, “there is my image” … Given de Kooning’s practices, one is all the more inclined to take his metonymic assertions as literal fact.
The power of these drawings and, for that matter, MoMA’s epic de Kooning retrospective last year, is commensurate with the amount of skin he put into the game.
The suite of 24 untitled drawings by Willem de Kooning is part of Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings, which also features work by Franz Erhard Walther and Martha Rosler. The exhibition continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 7, 2013.