De Kooning began articulating his personal aesthetic theories in a series of three lectures delivered between February 1949 and February 1951. In these talks, which were delivered, at de Kooning’s request, by Robert Motherwell and curator Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, de Kooning addressed contemporary artistic concerns within the broader framework of European art history. The first of these lectures, “A Desperate View,” was presented at the Subjects of the Artist School for one of its popular Friday night lectures. The second lecture, “Renaissance and Order,” was delivered at Studio 35, a new iteration of the Subjects of the Artist School that continued the tradition of Friday night talks. De Kooning wrote the last lecture, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” for a symposium organized in conjunction with The Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 exhibition, Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. A later script, “Content Is A Glimpse,” is important for being de Kooning’s first autobiographical account of his artistic career. It was originally recorded as an interview by David Sylvester in March 1960 for a BBC radio segment and first published in print in 1963.
All quotations by Willem de Kooning © Estate of Lisa de Kooning.
A Desperate View
February 18, 1949
Talk delivered on Friday, February 18, 1949 at Subjects of the Artist: A New Art School, 35 East 8th Street.
I am surprised to be here this evening reading my piece, for I do not think I am up to it. Barney Newman decided it really and he even gave the evening its name, A Desperate View....
My interest in desperation lies only in that sometimes I find myself having become desperate. Very seldom do I start out that way. I can see of course that, in the abstract, thinking and all activity is rather desperate. When an idea is given, one is stuck with it. You cannot help seeing it and even using it as a possibility.
The Renaissance and Order
Talk delivered at Studio 35, 8th Street, New York, Autumn 1949.
In the Renaissance, when people – outside of being hung or crucified – couldn’t die in the sky yet, the ideas a painter had always took place on earth. He had this large marvelous floor that he worked on. So if blood was on a sword, it was no accident. It meant that someone was dying or dead.
It was up to the artist to measure out the exact space for that person to die in or be dead already. The exactness of the space was determined or rather, inspired by whatever reason the person was dying or being killed for. The space thus measured out on the original plane of the canvas surface became a ‘place’ somewhere on that floor. If he were a good painter, he did not make the center of the end of that floor – the vanishing point on the horizon – the ‘content’ (as the philosophers and educators of commercial art want to convince us nowadays that they did).
What Abstract Art Means to Me
February 5, 1951
Talk delivered at the "What is Abstract Art?" symposium, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 5, 1951.
The first man who began to speak, whoever he was, must have intended it. For surely it is talking that has put “Art” into painting. Nothing is positive about art except that it is a word. Right from there to here all art became literary. We are not yet living in a world where everything is self-evident. It is very interesting to notice that a lot of people who want to take the talking out of painting, for instance, do nothing else but talk about it. That is no contradiction, however. The art in it is the forever mute part you can talk about forever.
For me, only one point comes into my field of vision. This narrow, biased point gets very clear sometimes. I didn’t invent it. It was already here. Everything that passes me I can see only a little of, but I am always looking. And I see an awful lot sometimes.
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.