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.
In Genesis, it is said that in the beginning was the void and God acted upon it. For an artist that is clear enough. It is so mysterious that it takes away all doubt. One is utterly lost in space forever. You can float in it, fly in it, suspend in it and today, it seems, to tremble in it is maybe the best or anyhow very fashionable. The idea of being integrated with it is a desperate idea.
In art, one idea is as good as another. If one takes the idea of trembling, for instance, all of a sudden most of art starts to tremble. Michelangelo starts to tremble. El Greco starts to tremble. All the Impressionists start to tremble. The Egyptians are trembling invisibly and so do Vermeer and Giacometti and all of a sudden, for the time being, Raphael is languid and nasty; Cézanne was always trembling but very precisely.
The only certainty today is that one must be self-conscious. The idea of order can only come from above. Order, to me, is to be ordered about and that is a limitation.
An artist is forced by others to paint out of his own free will. If you take the attitude that it is not possible to do something, you have to prove it by doing it.
Art should not have to be a certain way. It is no use worrying about being related to something it is impossible not to be related to.
Style is a fraud. I always felt that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns. It was a horrible idea of van Doesburg and Mondrian to try to force a style. The reactionary strength of power is that it keeps style and things going.
It is impossible to find out how a style began. I think it is the most bourgeois idea to think one can make a style beforehand. To desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety. Anyhow, I think innovators come at the end of a period. Cézanne gave the finishing touches to Impressionism before he came face to face with his “little sensation."
Whatever an artist’s personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists.
An artist is someone who makes art too. He did not invent it. How it started —“to hell with it.” It is obvious that it has no progress.
The idea of space is given to him to change it if he can. The subject matter in the abstract is space. He fills it with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.
You are with a group or movement because you cannot help it.
Willem de Kooning. “A Desperate View.” Talk delivered on Friday, February 18, 1949 at Subjects of the Artist: A New Art School, 35 East 8th Street. Reprinted in Thomas B. Hess. Willem de Kooning. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968: 15-16.
All quotations by Willem de Kooning © Estate of Lisa de Kooning.