By Eliza Jones
One of the artists we’re studying in my Black Mountain College (BMC) seminar this semester is Willem de Kooning, a Dutch American artist who was best known for his role in the post-World War II development of Abstract Expressionism, a style of art largely influenced by the New York School.
De Kooning came to America in 1926, moved to Manhattan in 1927 and began painting in his free time while earning a living doing odd jobs such as carpentry and house-painting. In 1928 he joined the art colony in Woodstock, N.Y. and became friendly with and greatly inspired by Modernist artists in Manhattan like Gorky, Stuart Davis and John Graham — a group he called the “Three Musketeers.”
De Kooning’s paintings in the 1930s and early ’40s were abstract still-lifes utilizing bold colors as well as both geometric and biomorphic shapes. In the summer of 1948 he taught at Black Mountain College, and it was there that he painted one of his most famous works, “Asheville.” This was a small but complex work of oil and enamel on cardboard that showed his experimentation with “collage painting,” a style in which he used different collage procedures and materials such as torn paper and drawings to create illusions that he later used as a source for visual ideas. The final work is one of deception. In addition to its mimicry of collage, “Asheville” features several other illusions, including what appears to be paper peeling from the surface as well as a tack holding a cut-out form in the painting’s upper left.
In my BMC seminar, we stared at “Asheville” for a few minutes, and then asked the question of what exactly we were looking at. Nearly everyone immediately saw an eye, some saw a mouth; others imagined a cartoon dog, a jaw line, a traffic jam. I saw eyeglasses, a flamingo, a folded envelope. Steven Evans asked us if we regarded the painting as geometric or biomorphic. We decided it was perhaps a little bit of both. None of us being learned art experts, my classmates and I probably sounded a little bit silly trying to “read” a world renowned painting worth millions. But what our rudimentary interpretation showed us was the sublime ambiguity of de Kooning’s painting — its multiplicity of meaning and transformations of reality. Evans explained how the human eye is trained to try to organize chaos into pattern. The mind does not like disorganization. We try to see what we want to see — an eye here, a mouth there, a hand over there. And the truly crazy thing is that we convince ourselves that the trickery is truth.
I am presently in the middle of a mess myself. My life, much like de Kooning’s painting, is being scraped down and built back up, scraped down and built back up. And amidst all of these layers, among the falling flailing pieces and the rubble and the chaos, everyone around me is trying to put my life back together for me. Organize the fragments into pattern. Arrange my scattered pieces into their version of truth. They look at me and they try to read me. They see traffic jams and cartoon dogs, gaping eyes and gasping mouths, and they are uncomfortable. Their eyes try to fix the chaos that is me. But what do I see when I look at my life? I see a shot for a second chance. A new story. I see destruction and then I see something new and better being built in its place. I’m embracing the mess and the ambiguity.
Maybe that’s something we should all try to remember: be kind to one another. Let’s strive to respect each other’s unique patterns and complexities, shapes and pieces. The chaos you see and try to fix may be read as truth to someone else.