Many an artist has been characterised as having "lost his mind." It's a figure of speech, of course, often denoting a viewer whose mind has simply been passed over by that of the artist. Alfred Stieglitz once commiserated with artist Arthur Dove by telling him, "People don't like your work because it's over their heads," - typical Modern Art exclusionary mindset. But what happens when an artist actually does lose his mind? Actually it's not that simple. The artist is one of Modern Art's towering giants, Willem de Kooning; the disease was Alzheimer's. And the loss of mind happened not suddenly but over a distressingly long 17 years.
The story of Willem de Kooning is so familiar it almost needs no retelling. Born in Rotterdam in 1905, and painting since the age of twelve, de Kooning came to the US in 1926. He settled in Hoboken, New Jersey - not exactly the culture capital of the free world - but close enough to New York to be convenient. From the beginning, his work was unconventional. To some, his art has always suggested an absence of mind, while to others, it was the ultimate example of mind over matter. Picasso admired his work, calling it "melted Picasso" - insightful, if somewhat self-centred. Critic Clement Greenberg (no friend of de Kooning) referred to it as "luciferian." In any case, by 1945, de Kooning was the heart and soul of Modern Art and the driving force, with Pollock and one or two others, behind the New York School and the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s.
By the early 1960s, however, Modern Art had passed him by, his lyrical, inventive, style of action painting having been supplanted by coolly analytical, conceptual control as evidenced in Minimalism and the last gasps of the Modern Art era. Yet despite Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, de Kooning's work remained cutting edge, if not nearly as popular as at the crest of Abstract Expressionism a decade earlier. Radicals of the early Post-modern era pronounced not just his work, but all of painting, dead. And though not mentioned by name, but as the fountainhead and figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement, let there be no doubt it was de Kooning they visualised in the coffin.
But as Mark Twain once remarked, reports of his death (de Kooning's in this case) were greatly exaggerated. Painting was so deeply ingrained in de Kooning's heart, mind, and soul; it could never be laid to rest so easily. His work moved on, not so much forward, but laterally, discovering new inspiration if not style. By the 1970s, the voluptuous, fleshy, female loops and sensuous curves became more violent and moody. By the 1980s, dementia was beginning to take its toll. By 1986, he could no longer sign his name. Yet he painted, more deliberately, his strokes leaner, a fighting retreat, progressively losing spontaneity and yet resourcefully compensating through sheer will. As the disease progressed, it wasn't so much a matter of forgetting how to paint as why. Experts on Alzheimer's contend that "style" is the deepest part of one's being and that which is most lastingly preserved, even in the final phases of the disease.
De Kooning's painting had one last "hurrah" in 1996, just a year before he died, when his late, late work made one last, nostalgic splash with what was not so much a retrospective as a rediscovery. What had gone around, came around. Yet despite the newness of his work, it was the Alzheimer's that the public grasped as a handle in viewing it. The creative output of one so deeply into the final stages of this disease became something of a case study providing clues as to the horrible, twisted path followed by a powerful artist in losing his mind. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC recently showed "Willem de Kooning: In Process," an exhibition organised by the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art which allowed both admirers and the merely curious to follow this path, and begin to understand, if not experience, the painful numbness of the artist and his work during his last 20 years when, despite his progressive debilitation, he produced over 340 huge canvases.