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Flesh for fantasy 

Remarkable exhibit showcases literal "bodies of work"

Seeing Willem de Kooning's work up close and personal is primarily a visceral experience. The difference between scanning reduced reproductions and seeing his drawings live is the difference between another's description of eating raw oysters and eating one yourself. Textbook dollops of his paintings will rouse interest for anyone with eyes in his head, but in the flesh his work will either prick your appetite for more or have you lurching for an airsick bag. There is little middle ground with de Kooning.

Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure: 1938-1955 just opened in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The drawings are worth the train ride up. Here is the only artist to wrestle the two-headed beast of Abstract Expressionism and figurative painting and walk away from the ring the clear winner. Many artists less talented, less durable -- or both -- answered the same call and died on the mat.

Sometimes de Kooning does what few others have ever done -- he reconnects us to the awful beauty, the unyielding decay and unknowable depths of our human bodies. After tearing the figure apart, he hand stitches and binds the unwieldy flesh back together with line, color and form. His figures, women's bodies, are drawn, scratched, rubbed out, pulled apart and redrawn. His women are volatile, libidinal and borderless. He offers, without irony or apology, evidence of what it is to be wholly, abundantly and merely human. In de Kooning's world, emotion is the baseline of existence.

These drawings expose the fret work beneath de Kooning's fleshy paintings. The painter said that "flesh is the stuff people were made of" (true), and he claimed it's the reason painting was invented. These drawings are primers and studies anticipating his lifelong forays into painting representational Abstract Expressionism.

"Study for Marilyn Monroe, 1951" is a lesson in The Power of Line 101, in charcoal and chalk. The image is the icon of American sexuality of the Ozzie and Harriet age. Marilyn is rendered in gestural thrust and parry, slashes of charcoal softened with loopy, arching lines suddenly free-falling and catching wind to rise before hitting ground. Marilyn's hips are sparrows in pursuit of prey. She is without hands and feet. Arms, breasts and shoulders are redefined in smudges, fingerprints and paint-ball bursts of orange and yellow. Her clothes are pasted over her body with patches of reworked paper like an afterthought. Her large vixen eyes profess unadorned anger and wily doubt, not the Marilyn we remember. She is large-lipped and possibly carnivorous -- the Marilyn we remember.

There are about 60 drawings here in the lower galleries of the East Wing, mostly of women. De Kooning had a lifelong wrestling match with women or, more specifically, the woman-myth as nature, fecundity, fertility and abundant, inexorable sexuality. She was his primordial idol and lifetime muse, his juicy express to painterly greatness which he rode until he fell out of the saddle.

In his 1991 book on the Abstract Expressionists, author Stephen Polcari quotes from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. The words capture the fleshy material substance of de Kooning's work:

What then was life? It was warmth, the warmth generated by a form-preserving instability, a fever of matter, which accompanied the process of ceaseless decay and repair... too impossibly complicated, too impossibly ingenious in structure. It was not matter and it was not spirit, but something between the two... it was sentient to the point of desire and disgust... It was a secret and ardent stirring in the frozen chastity of the universal; it was a stolen and voluptuous impurity of sucking and secreting.

De Kooning's work is neither spirit nor matter, but something between the two. Mann's figurative exposition (or inspired rant) spoke about inner human life as something material made (water, salts and fats), "not spirit borne (but) shaped by the somehow awakened voluptuousness of matter, of the organic, dying-living substance itself, the reeking flesh."

"Torsos, Two Women, 1952-52" is awakened voluptuousness in pastel, born of reeking flesh. Well, perhaps not reeking. This drawing is a testament to the power of the human hand to hint at the ineffable vastness of the human body, what lies within, and a description, though no explanation, of the mysteries within each of us.

Two women stand naked and headless, stout top-heavy bodies relaxed and alert. Flesh colors run from rose to scarlet, tangerine to chalk white. The bodies mutate, they're fixed only by the fluid line connections to each other. The work appears labored over, like a child's drawing showing countless erasure marks and reconsiderations, reshaping, deletions and additions. The net effect is an overabundance of substance, and our recognition of the unsettling complexity and depth of all that is within that flesh. It's like opening up and inspecting the innards of your computer, but without the comforting certainty that someone knows how it works. The flesh, the body, the living-dying substance is inscrutable, but de Kooning, and perhaps we, keep looking.

Willem de Kooning never abandoned the figurative tradition. As a member of the Abstract Expressionist crew who largely abandoned any representation of recognizable objects, he was the exception. De Kooning was not a fan of movements, manifestos or any absolutist doctrine that constrained his, or anyone's, explorations. He maintained no one style was necessarily better than the next. He believed a non-hierarchical inclusiveness was the birthright of any artist, saying, "I'm not so crazy about my style... I'd just as soon paint some other way." He maintained no painting was wholly pure or new, and he prided himself for doing something that pre-dated him by 30 thousand years.

De Kooning connects to us -- man to man, gut to gut. Like a Godiva chocolate after a month of M and M's, like a politician uttering, "I did it," de Kooning takes our breath, then lets us slowly exhale and smile. So treat yourself. You can take the night train up from Charlotte, see the greatest figurative draftsman of America's greatest art movement, grab some dinner downtown and catch the five-forty-seven home to Charlotte.

The exhibit Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure will be on display at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2003. Call the gallery at (202) 842-6690 for further information, or visit their website at

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