10 Jul Influence
Influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.
— Jean-Michel Basquiat
Robert Rauschenberg once told art historian Dorothy Seckler it was okay to swipe from another painter because “one can use another man’s art as material without it representing a lack of a point of view.”
Swiping is the subject of Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint, a blockbuster show now at the Barnes in Philadelphia.
“This show is the reason there are shows,” Forbes said of Soutine/de Kooning.
Soutine/de Kooning asks you to see for yourself the many ways Willem de Kooning swiped from Chaïm Soutine, 11 years his senior.
And swipe he did.
Soutine’s paintings, with their impastoed surfaces and high-energy brushwork, were eye-candy to de Kooning, and influenced most aspects of his “abstract figurative” paintings of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
The influence is hardly imaginary. There’s historical proof.
De Kooning discovered Soutine in 1950 at a posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Two years after seeing the retrospective, de Kooning asked the permission of the estate of Albert Barnes to come to Philadelphia to examine the late doctor’s vast private collection of Soutines. That permission that was granted.
De Kooning was catalyzed by the visit to Barnes’ home. A year later, the first of de Kooning’s breakthrough Woman series, a tip of the hat to Soutine’s grotesque figurative paintings, appeared.
And in 1977, David Sylvester asked de Kooning which painter he most admired. “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings,” de Kooning said.
“Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work.”
Soutine’s fleshiness certainly comes across in de Kooning’s Woman, Sag Harbor, one my favorite paintings in the show.
De Kooning painted Woman, Sag Harbor—which he called a landscape—on a hollow-core door discarded by the carpenters who’d been building his new studio in the Hamptons in 1964.
According to his studio assistant, de Kooning began Woman, Sag Harbor by painting the wooden door with a mixture of Titanium White and Zinc White, to which he added some kaolin and a cheap salad oil called Betty Crocker’s Saff-o-life (de Kooning bragged it cost only 79 cents a bottle).
When it was dry, he sanded the door smooth, painted it white again, and transferred several charcoal drawings onto it. De Kooning then painted the image we see today.
His paint mixtures comprised Bellini Artists’ Oil Color (including pastel yellows, pinks, reds, greens, and blues), Saff-o-life (which is made of safflower oil), water, and kerosene. (Period photographs show de Kooning kept a handmade chart on the wall alongside his easel, so he could later recall his concoctions.)
The viscous mixtures were satiny and exceptionally slow-drying, which allowed de Kooning to rework his wet-on-wet painting over and over, scraping and scouring paint away to reveal painted layers below, the original charcoal drawings, and even the wooden door itself.
His brushwork was rapid, fluid and gestural, like Soutine’s; and the painting’s surface built-up and chunky. The surface is in fact partly wrinkled, shriveled and cratered, due to the way the de Kooning’s goopy paint-mixture dried—another homage to Soutine’s active surfaces. But the overall end-product is distinctly unlike Soutine’s end-products, which are heavy, opaque, and somber. De Kooning’s Woman, Sag Harbor is light, translucent, and joyous.
The 48 paintings on display in Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint should convince anyone who worries about swiping or the legality of appropriation that Rauschenberg was right: it’s okay for a painter to swipe another painter’s work.
Because the results cannot be anything but sui generis—wholly new, fresh, exciting, and original—as this show so vividly demonstrates.
Above: Hill at Céret by Chaïm Soutine, 1921. Oil on canvas. 29 x 21 inches. Woman, Sag Harbor by Willem de Kooning, 1964. Oil and charcoal on wood, 80 x 36 inches.