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John J. Curley
Associate professor of modern and contemporary art history at Wake Forest University, North Carolina
Visiting assistant professor of art history, Washington University in St. Louis, 2007

Executed in 1956, Willem de Kooning’s Saturday Night is a canvas full of frenetic painterly activity. Befitting the title’s associations with a night out on the town, the painting’s brushstrokes and planes of colors articulate a simultaneously sensual and dissonant cacophony. Thomas Hess, de Kooning’s most perceptive critic, picked up on this urban vibe, labeling this and similar paintings from 1956 “abstract urban landscapes.”1 He perceived the grimy, chaotic streets of New York in these paintings. Other de Kooning titles from the period explicitly reference the urban world of cheap detective novels and film noir: Gotham News, Street Corner Incident, Police Gazette.2

This glimmer of the popular world of urban kitsch is important to Saturday Night, as it challenges the usual seriousness of 1950s discussions about Abstract Expressionism, the movement with which de Kooning is usually associated.3 While Saturday Night declaims its status as a painting with its emphasis on mauled and stretched pigment, it is also a canvas that seems to negate elevated notions of painting, or at least the expectations of authenticity tied to the medium in the 1950s. At this time, critics viewed abstract painting largely as a vehicle for the unmediated expression of the existential artist—an utterance outside of societal and mass-cultural influences. The importance of Saturday Night lies in the ways in which de Kooning turned this view against itself, how he employed the syntax of Abstract Expressionism in order to demonstrate its limitations. By deemphasizing the handmade nature of his marks, he suggested that such gestural painting, which was considered emblematic of direct, subjective experience, is at best a fragmentary mode of expression. It is always mediated, always embedded within a larger social field. The artist conveys this embeddedness, an idea antithetical to the high modernist tradition, by finding a way to visually approximate the debased and deferred pleasures of the city. In a sense, de Kooning is “slumming it” within the language of high modernism. As such, Saturday Night is a 1950s hybrid—stuck between the humorless existential rhetoric of Harold Rosenberg’s notion of “action painting” and the glib, acculturated utterances of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, both of whom incorporated found images from the media into their work.4

Despite de Kooning’s reputation as an expressionist painter who makes marks, subtraction is an equally important gesture in his repertoire. For instance, he would often drag a scraper or other edge across his painted surfaces, thus stripping his brushstrokes of their immediacy and friction. The top right quadrant of Saturday Night dramatizes such a negation of the artist’s hand. De Kooning scraped down the prominent red passage until it reads as flat and semitransparent. The artist also blended the area to the right of this red passage—with its green, blue, and white patches—under a unifying haze. As such, these areas appear mediated, almost as if they are photographic reproductions of brushstrokes.5 Such scraped and flattened passages occur throughout Saturday Night. One small passage, however, is the exception that proves the rule: an oval of heavily impastoed black and white pigment, located just above and to the right of the painting’s center. If a memento mori is an object in a painting that prompts thoughts of death (a skull in a still life, for instance), then this particular passage serves as a memento mori in reverse. By reminding viewers of Abstract Expressionism’s vitality, tactility, and viscosity, this glob of paint emphasizes the mediation and flatness of the rest of the painting.

Throughout his career de Kooning also employed strategies of collage to mock painting’s singular authenticity, and Saturday Night appears as such a collection of separate parts.6 This process of painterly collage is not unrelated to his gestures of removal. For instance, he isolated the impastoed oval, detaching it from its surroundings by scraping away paint. This is comparable to cutting out material from a source; both actions create the appearance of a fractured surface. Furthermore, de Kooning’s studio practice was based on a collage aesthetic. At any given time the artist had a number of smaller drawings and oil sketches lying around his working area. He would often temporarily attach one of these examples to a larger painting, use this new element to rethink and change the canvas’s overall composition, and then remove the drawing. Of course, such a process created disjunctive pictorial effects.7 The blue line that begins to define an organic form in the lower left of the picture might well be one such passage. Additionally, de Kooning masked and covered elements within his paintings, thereby creating hard edges and awkward transitions. The pink stripe floating just beneath the blue sea of pigment at the painting’s bottom, as well as the way in which dashing brushstrokes halt along straight lines, dramatizes the complex processes through which the artist manipulated his painted surface. For de Kooning, painting was like collage: disjunctive and additive.

Despite the literal and figurative removal associated with de Kooning’s aesthetics of subtraction and collage, the painting’s energy and frenzy still convey a carnal sexuality. In the years leading up to his urban abstractions in the mid-1950s, de Kooning was primarily painting images of women, the most famous being Woman I (1950–52). He worked on this particular canvas on and off for more than two years—repeatedly painting, scraping down the canvas, and repainting. The end result shows its age and offers viewers something residing between an ancient fertility god and a brazen pin-up, rendered in the type of frenetic brushstrokes visible in Saturday Night. The latter work, despite its lack of an identifiable woman, is likewise a sensual painting with its orgiastic frenzy, organic curves, and fleshy pink hues. So although de Kooning violently fractured and dispersed one of his canonical women across the surface of Saturday Night, her radically abstracted parts nevertheless maintain a sense of carnality.

Saturday Night’s flatness and collage elements clearly converse with Cubism, a movement that de Kooning admired.8 Furthermore, many of the most important Cubist works are in fact portraits of women—Pablo Picasso’s Ma Jolie (1912), for instance. Some critics have interpreted this painting as a flattened, angular representation of Picasso’s lover that is drained of three-dimensional, curvy carnality; she is more diagram than portrait.9 In emulation of Cubist practice, Saturday Night is also organized around a loose grid; two black vertical lines anchor both the painting’s top and bottom portions, providing a foil for the many horizontal brushstrokes. Yet with the painting’s fleshy and frenzied sexuality, de Kooning could reclaim a paradoxical sense of Cubist lustfulness; he could have the loose, diagrammatic grid of Cubism and a debased eroticism.

Ultimately Saturday Night dramatizes a sexist urban visuality—a flat, disjunctive site of dispersed and deferred desire. The painting can approximate a momentary glimpse of a fetishized body part, whether spotted on a crowded city bus or on the street, whether real or in an advertisement. For the artist the city is a place of artificial and collaged desires, and Saturday Night’s cool blues and fleshy pinks—collaged together into a flat, chaotic field— suggest this experience. Even de Kooning’s Cubist grid seems to be in a hurry. By reorienting the canvas to make his painterly drips move from right to left (thus defying gravity), the artist suggested the mobility of the viewer or the painting itself. Despite its stasis on the gallery wall, the painting always threatens to slide out of view.

In 1960 de Kooning declared, “content is a glimpse,” thus acknowledging the fleeting qualities of imagery in his paintings.10 Saturday Night is obsessed with such glimpses but ultimately dramatizes a frustrated and frenzied urban vision. While in dialogue with the action painting of Jackson Pollock, the canvas also crosses over into the world of everyday life, comparable to Rauschenberg’s use of found images in his combine paintings from the 1950s or Warhol’s blurry photographic silk screens from the early 1960s. If the latter two artists used photography as a kind of brushstroke, de Kooning’s work in a sense allows for brushstrokes to take on qualities of photography—at a slight remove from reality and its immediacy. With Saturday Night, the artist both speaks the language of Abstract Expressionism and negates it. As such, the painting looks both inward and outward—back to modernist notions of authenticity and autonomy and forward to postmodern ideas of fragmentation and mediation.

  • 1 Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 103.
  • 2 See Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning: An American Master (New York: Knopf, 2004), 378.
  • 3 David Sylvester refers to de Kooning as a “post-Abstract-Expressionist.” See David Sylvester, “Flesh Was the Reason,” in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, ed. Marla Prather (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 15–31, esp. 26.
  • 4 On action painting, see Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News 51 (December 1952): 22–23.
  • 5 These mediated passages operate in a way similar to the found photographic images arranged under gauze or scrim in the “combine” paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. Rosalind Krauss has described these as akin to “a splinter under the skin.” Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” Artforum 12 (December 1974): 36-43.
  • 6 Formerly a sign painter in the 1930s and 1940s, de Kooning incorporated painted letters and other letter-like forms into his paintings of the late 1940s, such as Zurich (1947). Despite their hand-painted nature, these appropriated letters acknowledge collage traditions. In other paintings from 1956, de Kooning employed a technique of newspaper transfer: he placed a sheet of newspaper flush onto the canvas’s wet paint and removed it, thus leaving faint traces of the original sheet’s text and images embedded in the pigment. Such a gesture refers back to Picasso’s first collages from 1912.
  • 7 See Richard Shiff, “Water and Lipstick: De Kooning in Transition,” in Prather, Willem de Kooning, 33–73, esp. 54. Additionally, the cover of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s de Kooning biography (see note 2 above) features the artist standing in front of a collage of painted fragments.
  • 8 In 1951 de Kooning said, “Of all movements, I like Cubism most. It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection.” Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me” (1951), reprinted in Willem de Kooning: Pittsburgh International Series (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1979), 23.
  • 9 Rosalind Krauss, “The Motivation of the Sign,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, ed. Lynn Zelevansky and William Rubin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 269.
  • 10 A text derived from an interview with David Sylvester conducted in 1960 is thus titled. See Willem de Kooning, “Content Is a Glimpse” (1963), reprinted in Pittsburgh International Series.