Content is a Glimpse
Interview with David Sylvester, recorded March 1960.
DAVID SYLVESTER: Your position must be unique among the painters of the so-called New York School in that you’re the only one of the leading painters who was neither born here nor came here as a child nor came here as a refugee. That is to say, you came here by your own choice, when you were about twenty, twenty-one.
WILLEM DE KOONING: Twenty-one years old.
Most people leaving Holland would have gone and stayed in Paris, and you chose to come here. Did you have any desire to go to Paris?
Not particularly, no. In those days when we went to the Academy, doing painting, decorating, you know, making a living, the young artists, they were not interested in painting per se. You used to call that, you know, good for men with beards. And the idea of a palette with colours on it, was rather silly. At that time, we were influenced by the de Stijl group. The idea of being a modern person wasn’t really being an artist in the sense of being a painter. And so it wasn’t really so illogical to come to America. And also, being young, I really didn’t understand the nature of painting. I really intended to become an applied artist. I mean it was more logical to be a designer or a commercial artist. I didn’t intend to be really a painter. That came later.
When did that come?
Well, first of all I didn’t expect that there were any artists here. We never heard in Holland in those days that there were artists in America. There was still that feeling like that was the place where an individual could get places and become well off, if you work hard; art was naturally in Europe. But very soon when I was here for about six months or a year I found out that there were a lot of artists here too. There was a Greenwich Village; there was a whole tradition of painting and poetry; I just didn’t know about it, and it must have directed me back to the interests I had when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. I must have got an idea when you’re about nineteen and twenty that you really want to go up in the world and you don’t mind giving up art. I was here only about three days and I got a job in Hoboken as a house painter. I made nine dollars a day, which was quite a large salary, and after being around four or five months doing that, I started looking for a job doing applied art work. I made some samples and I was hired immediately. I didn’t even ask them the salary because I thought if I made a few dollars a day as a house painter, I would make at least twenty dollars a day being an artist, you know. And then in the end of two weeks, the man gave me twenty-five dollars and I was so astonished I asked him if that was a day’s pay and he says, no, that’s for the whole week. And I immediately quit and then went back to house painting. So it took quite a while for me to make that shift from being a Sunday painter, you know, working most of the time and painting once in a while, until I was able to paint longer periods and take odd jobs here and there on the side.
About when did this begin to happen?
I really don’t know. It was a gradual development but it was really more of a psychological attitude. In other words, the amount of painting and amount of working would be equivalent to one another more or less. It was just an attitude that it was better to say, no, I’m an artist, I have to do something on the side to make a living. Do you see what I mean? So I styled myself as an artist and it was very difficult. But it was a much better state of mind.
When the Depression came were you involved in the WPA?
Oh yes. When the Depression came, I got in the WPA. Of course that went over a period of quite some years on and off, and then I met all kinds of other painters and sculptors and writers and poets and architects, and all in the same boat because America never really cared much for people who do those kind of things. I was on the project probably a year or a year and a half, and that really made it stick, this attitude, you know, because the amount of money we made on the project was rather fair, you know. In the Depression days one could live modestly and nicely. And so I felt, well, I have to just keep doing that. The decision to take was, was it worth it that I should put all my eggs in one basket, that kind of basket of art. I didn’t know if I really was competent enough, if I felt it enough.
Did you make contact with people like Pollock at that time?
No, they came later. They were younger men. I was in it lots before them, you know. No, the one I really met was Arshile Gorky.
You met him when?
I met him in 1929. Of course, I met a lot of artists, but then I met Gorky. Well, I had some training in Holland, quite a training, you know, the Academy. And then I met Gorky, who didn’t have that at all, he came from no place. He came here when he was sixteen, from Tiflis, in Georgia, with an Armenian upbringing. And for some mysterious reason, he knew lots more about painting, and art, he just knew it by nature – things I was supposed to know and feel and understand – he really did it better. He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head, very remarkable, so I immediately attached myself to him and we became very good friends. It was nice to be foreigners meeting in some new place. Of course, New York is really like a Byzantine city – it is really very natural too. I mean, it is probably one of the reasons why I came myself, without knowing. When I was a child I was very much interested in America; it was like a romantic…you know, cowboys and Indians. Even the shield, the kind of medieval shield they have, with the stars on top and the stripes on the bottom, like it was almost the heraldic period of the Crusaders, isn’t it, the eagle – and as a child I used to be absolutely fascinated with this image.
Are you conscious of your sort of European formation?
No, I’m not conscious of it at all.
Now that is all over. It’s not so much that I’m an American; I’m a New Yorker. You know, I think we have gone back to the cities and I feel much more in common with an artist in London, or Paris. It is a certain burden this American-ness, a sense of…I know if you come from a small nation, you don’t have that. When I went to the Academy and I was drawing from the nude, I was making the drawing, not Holland, do you see what I mean? It was getting a little bit of a bore. I feel sometimes as an artist must feel, like a baseball player or something. Members of a team writing American history. Do you know what I mean? I mean…got all the respect, and somehow the artist…I think it is kind of nice that at least part of the public is proud that they have their own sports and things like that – and why not their own art? I think it’s wonderful that you know where you came from – I mean, you know, if you are American you are an American.
When you started to paint the Women, you were doing something much more overtly figurative than any of the other Abstract Expressionists had been doing?
This must have made you feel you were out on a limb?
Yes, they attacked me for that, certain artists and critics. But I felt this was their problem, not mine. I don’t really feel like a non-objective painter at all. I just visited in San Francisco and Diebenkorn and Bischoff and fellows like that who paint now, they feel they have to go back to the figure, and that word ‘figure’ becomes such a ridiculous omen. In a way, if you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I’ll have to follow my desires.
So it was a simple desire, then, doing the Women? It wasn’t a moral decision, it wasn’t a theoretical decision; it was just a desire?
Yes. It had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols. And maybe I was stuck to a certain extent, that I couldn’t go on, and it did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light – I mean all this silly talk about light, colour and form. Because there was this thing I wanted to get hold of. I put it in the centre of the canvas, you know, because there was no reason to put it a bit on the side – do you see what I mean? So I thought I might as well stick to the idea that it’s got two eyes, a nose and mouth and neck. So I go to the anatomy and I felt myself almost getting flustered. I really could never get hold of it. I mean, it kind of almost petered out. I never could complete it and, when I think of it now, it wasn’t such a bright idea. But, well, I don’t think artists have particularly bright ideas. Matisse’s Women in Blue, Woman in a Red Blouse, or something, you know – what an idea this is! Or the Cubists. When you think about it now, it is so silly to look at an object from many angles. It’s very silly. It’s good that they got those ideas because it is enough for some of them to become good artists.
And why do you think it especially silly to paint the Women?
It is a thing in art that has been done over and over, the idol, the Venus, the nude. You know Rembrandt wanted to paint an old man, a wrinkled old guy – that was painting to him. He got an idea about painting, he thought he wanted to paint this guy with the wrinkles, you know what I mean? No, the artists are in the state of a belated Age of Reason. They want to get hold of things, like Mondrian. He was a fantastic artist, but now when we read his ideas and his idea of neo-plasticisim, pure plasticity, it’s kind of silly, I think. I mean, not for him, but I think one could spend one’s life having this desire to be in and outside at the same time. He could see a future life and a future city – not like me, who am absolutely not interested in seeing the future city. I’m perfectly happy to be alive now.
Were you troubled while you were actually painting them by the absurdity of doing this thing again which had been done so many times before?
Oh yes. It became compulsive in the sense of not being able to get hold of it and the idea that it really is very funny, you know, to get stuck with a woman’s knees, for instance. You say, what the hell am I going to do with that now, you know what I mean, it’s really ridiculous, and it may be that it fascinates me, that it isn’t supposed to be done. I knew there were a lot of people, they paint a figure because they feel it ought to be done, because since they’re a human being themselves, they feel they ought to make another one, a substitute. I haven’t got that interest at all. I really think it’s sort of silly to do it. But, like I said before, at the moment you take this attitude, it’s just as silly not to do it. One has to have one’s own convictions. I don’t have those things like, I imagine, Mark Rothko.
But, when you were painting them, you said you found the problem of having to deal with a very specific subject stopped you from having to worry about aesthetic problems in the painting. It stopped you from having to think too much about problems of picture-making.
Well, yes, but in another way it became a problem of picture-making, because the very fact that it had a word connected with it – ‘figure of a woman’ – made it more precise. Perhaps I am more of a novelist than a poet. I don’t know; but I always like the word in painting, you know.
You like the word in painting?
In painting, yes. I like the word in painting.
You mean, you like the forms to be identifiable?
Well, they ought to have an emotion of a concrete experience. I mean, like I am very happy to see that grass is green – you see what I mean? Like at one time, it was very daring to make a figure red or blue. I think now it is just as daring to make it flesh-coloured. I found that out for myself. Content, if you want to say, is a glimpse of something, an encounter, you know, like a flash – it’s very tiny, very tiny, content. When I was painting those figures, I was thinking about Gertrude Stein, like they were ladies of Gertrude Stein. Like one of them would say: how do you like me? Then I could sustain this thing all the time because it could change all the time. She could almost go upside down, or not be there, or come back again; she could be any size. Do you understand? Because this content could take care of almost anything that could happen, you know; and I still have it now from some fleeting thing – like when one passes something, you know, and it makes an impression.
But the impact? You weren’t concerned to get a particular kind of drama or a particular kind of feeling?
No. I look at them now: they look vociferous and ferocious, and I think it had to do with the idea of the idol, you know, the oracle, and above all the hilariousness of it. I do think that if I don’t look upon life that way, I won’t know how to keep on being around.
So there was no question of any sort of attempt to make a comment on the age?
No. Oh, it maybe turned out that way, and maybe subconsciously when I’m doing it. But I couldn’t be that corny.
It has been said that to some extent these paintings have a relation to current popular mythology. You remember Tom Hess’s phrase, ‘a Michelangelo Sibyl who has read Moon Mullins’. Were you conscious of this in painting them?
A little, yes.
In one of the first studies you collaged in a mouth cut out of an ad.
Yes. That helped me. I cut out a lot of mouths. First of all, I felt everything ought to have a mouth. Maybe it was like a pun, you know what I mean, but maybe it’s even sexual, or whatever it is, I don’t know. But anyhow I used to cut out a lot of mouths and then I painted those figures and then I put the mouth more or less in the place where it was supposed to be. It always turned out to be very beautiful and it helped me immensely to have this real thing. I don’t know why I did it with the mouth. Maybe the grin. It’s rather like the Mesopotamian idols, you know. They always stand up straight looking to the sky with this smile, like they were just astonished about the forces of nature, you feel – not about problems they had with one another. That I was very conscious of; and it was something to hang on to.
Because the mouth always stayed pretty well the same.
I wouldn’t know what to do with the rest, you know, with the hands maybe, or some gesture. And then in the end I failed, you see, but it didn’t bother me because I’d in the end give it up, and I felt it was really an accomplishment. I took the attitude that I was going to succeed and I also knew that this was just an illusion.
Do you feel that the paintings are failures?
I never was interested, you know, how to make a good painting. For many years I was not interested in making a good painting, you know, like you could say: now this is really a good painting or a perfect work. I didn’t want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found out it was not my nature.
That’s one of the big differences, isn’t it, between post-war and pre-war thinking: that we now accept imperfection and we no longer have Flaubert as an ideal but rather Dostoyevsky.
You just threw it out and let it go and you knew it was imperfect.
Yes, and I have worked on it probably just as long as they did. Not with the idea of perfection but to see how far one could go, you know – but not with the idea of really doing it.
But always with the aim of trying to get this impact on to the canvas?
Yes. Anxiousness and dedication to fright maybe, or ecstasy, you know, like The Divine Comedy. To be like a performer; to see how long you can stay on the stage, with that imaginary audience.
The pictures done since the Women, are they all landscapes? A lot of them are just called Painting or Untitled, arent’ they? But they are not, in any case, non-objective; or are they in some cases?
No, they’re emotions, most of them, the later ones. Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city. With the feeling of going to the city or coming from it, you know. In other words, I’m not a pastoral character, you know, I’m not a – how do you say that? – ‘country dumpling’. I am here and I like it in New York City, but I love to go out in a car. I’m crazy about weekend drives even if I drive in the middle of the week. I’m just crazy about going over the roads and highways and…
In those landscapes, is it the sensation at times of things seen while you are in movement?
Well, in Merritt Parkway I was doing that, but that came almost incidentally in the sense that I love to be on those highways. And they are really not very pretty, but the big embankments and the shoulders of the roads and the curves are flawless – the lawning of it, the grass. This I don’t particularly like, or dislike, but I wholly approve of it. Like the signs. Most people want to take those signs away – and it would break my heart. You know, all those different big billboards. There are places in Connecticut and New England where they are not allowed to put those signs, I think, and that’s nice too, but I love those grotesque signs. I mean, I am not undertaking any social…I’m no lover of the new; it’s a personal thing.
But in the parkway pictures you really wanted to convey the sensation of something seen from a moving car?
Well, I didn’t intend to do that but, when I was working on this picture, this thing came to me: it’s just like the Merritt Parkway.
So you didn’t intend to paint the Merritt Parkway.
No, but I’m there in those kind of places.
So in these paintings what sort of an idea do you begin with?
I don’t think I set out to do anything. But I find, because of modern painting, that things which couldn’t’ be seen in terms of painting, things you couldn’t paint…it’s not that you paint them but it is the connection. I imagine that Cézanne, when he painted a ginger pot and apples and ordinary everyday wine bottles, must have been very grotesque in his day, because a still life was something set up of beautiful things. It may be very difficult, for instance, to put a Rheingold bottled beer on the table and a couple of glasses and a package of Lucky Strike. I mean, you know, there are certain things you cannot paint at a particular time, and it takes a certain attitude how to see those things, in terms of art. You feel those things personally and, inasmuch as I should set out to paint Merritt Parkway years ago, it seems I must have liked it so much I must have subconsciously found a way of setting it down on paper, on canvas. It could be that. I’m not sure.
The idea of what is possible, this works itself out for you in the act of painting?
Not before you begin to paint?
No. Well, now I can make some highways, maybe. Well, now I can set out to do it and maybe it will be a painting of something else. Because, if you know the measure of something, for yourself…There’s no absolute measure that you can identify yourself. You can find the size of something. You say, now, that’s just this length, and immediately with that length you can paint, well, a cat maybe. If you understand one thing, you can use it for something else. Well, that is the way I work. I get hold of a certain kind of area or measure or size and then I can use it. I mean, I have an attitude. I have to have an attitude.
And this isn’t merely something that you recognise after the picture is finished? This thing becomes conscious for you while you are in the course of painting a picture?
I feel now, if I think of it, it will come out in the painting. In other words, if I want to make the whole painting look like a puddle, you know, like a lot of puddles, for instance – maybe the end of the day, when everything is very light but not in sunlight necessarily – and so, if you have this image of this puddle and if I really think about it, it will come out in the painting.
And do you think about it?
Yes. I would, yes. That doesn’t mean that people notice a puddle but I know when I succeed in it the painting would have this.
Does it matter to you whether other people see?
No, I don’t mind.
It’s sufficient that other people should get the painting as a configuration of forms.
Yes. They can interpret it their ways. I mean, it is all right.
But in taking the picture to a conclusion and finishing a picture, are you conscious, as you were with the Women, of making it correspond with the impact of its subject or do you simply work it out in terms of itself as an internal harmony?
Well, I said before, I never intended to succeed with it, but the emotion must be there.
It’s not merely to make it work within itself?
No. Not for the sake of painting or art, you know; because then I wouldn’t be able to paint.
So there is always a desire to make the painting correspond with a remembered experience?
A lot of it, yes. More like that now. I get freer. I feel I am getting more myself in the sense of I have all my forces. I hope so, anyhow. I have this sort of feeling that I am all there now and, you know, it’s not even thinking in terms of one’s limitations, because they have to come naturally. I think whatever you have, you can do wonders with it, if you accept them. And I feel with the help of all the other artists around me doing all these different things, I wouldn’t know how to pin it down. But I have a bigger feeling now of freedom. I am more convinced, you know, of picking up the paint and the brush and drumming it out.
May I ask you this question again that I asked you before about the point of departure? Is it a simple desire, say, to paint a green picture or to paint a blue picture? Do you begin with the idea of using a particular colour or a particular shape on the canvas?
No. I make a little mystique for myself there. Since I have no preference or so-called sense of colour, you know, I could take almost anything that could be some accident of a previous painting. Or I set out to make a series. There are pictures where I take a colour, some arbitrary colour I took from some place. Well, this is grey, maybe, and I mix the colour for that, and then I find out when I am through with getting the colour the way I want it to be that I had six other colours in it to get that colour. And then I take those six colours and I use them also with this colour. Now, that’s silly, isn’t it? But I figure: why not? You know, the paint manufacturers are so incredible nowadays that you go to a store, it is too vast, there is too much of everything. You can probably buy I don’t know how many different shades and pigments and qualities, and it is a burden. So I hope to limit myself and enlarge slowly. It is probably like, you know, I imagine a composer does a variation on a certain theme. But it isn’t technical. It isn’t just like found because, if I am interested in this puddle. I’m not going to find it in any place.
So it’s only when you’ve been working on the picture for a certain amount of time that you begin to see what the picture is going to refer to?
Not always. Sometimes I set out with that idea, but most of the time when I do that, I find something else. I have this measure, you see, so it’s no contradiction really. All these things are already in art and, if you can, even if you go to the Academy or go to students and you really can do it and you get the point and you can…Well, you know how to draw a basket, you see. I know I got somewhere that Rubens said for students not to draw from life, to draw from all the casts of the great classic works and you really get the measure of them. You really know what to do. And then you put in your own dimples. Isn’t that marvelous? You see. Now, of course, we don’t do that. You’ve developed a little culture for yourself, like yoghurt; as long as you keep something of the original microbes, the original thing in it, it will grow out. So I had this original – like most artists have – this little sensation, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck, you see?
And what makes you feel that a painting is finished? When do you leave a picture alone?
Well, I always have a miserable time over it. But it is getting better now.
But what is the criterion by which you know you can stop the painting?
Oh, I really…I just stop, you know. I sometimes get rather hysterical and because of that I find sometimes a terrific picture. As a matter of fact that’s probably the real thing but I couldn’t set out to do that, you know. I set out even keeping that in mind that this thing will be a flop in all probablility and, you know, it sometimes turns out very good.
But for you the coming off of a thing involves a correspondence with an experience outside painting, does it?
Yes. Yes. Oh yes. Well, that’s painting to me.
“Willem de Kooning,” in David Sylvester. Interviews with American Artists. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001: 43-57. Recorded March 1960 in New York City. Aired on the BBC (1960) under the title "Painting as Self-Discovery." Edited version assembled from excerpts first published as "Content is a Glimpse," Location 1, no. 1 (Spring 1963): 45-52.
All quotations by Willem de Kooning © Estate of Lisa de Kooning.