Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 6, 2010

One, many and an artist’s philosophy

For Dr. Michael Zakin, William De Kooning is more than an artist. He himself is a philosophy.

Zakin visited Knox this past Friday to discuss the work of De Kooning. Zakin is a specialist in and curator of abstract expressionalist art and the current director for the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art. A Dutch-American abstract expressionalist, De Kooning’s works were often dismissed as emerging unplanned from the artist’s head. When Zakin looked at the work, however, he had the impression of something deeper going into the paintings.

“There’s something about De Kooning’s paintings and his writings and his interviews that struck me as being more thoughtful,” Zakin said.

Zakin turned to philosophy and De Kooning’s own statements about his work. De Kooning’s statements were often very fragmented and hard to understand, and for this reason were rarely studied. Zakin looked more closely.

One versus many

Zakin’s first insight came when he stumbled across a book that examined the ideas of Lebinz, a Baroque-period philosopher. Lebinz struggled with the idea of contradictions. How, Lebinz asked, could there be one world and one universe and yet have “all these individual particulars that are so different from each other? How do you reconcile those ideas?”

Lebinz became obsessed with the ideas of one versus many and singularity versus multiplicity. It was a preoccupation Zakin saw reflected in De Kooning’s paintings.

“I think that these are the problems De Kooning wrestled with,” Zakin said. “I don’t think De Kooning was trying to advocate a particular personal philosophy—but he had one.”

For evidence, Zakin pointed to observations De Kooning made about Dutch paintings, which were frequently filled with dozens of objects and people. The artist was impressed by how so many individual pieces nonetheless made up the one whole of the painting.

“Western artists have the ability to change, to alter,” said Zakin, pointing out De Konning’s delight at the fact that an artist could do whatever they wanted with the many objects available.

The fold

Lebinz proposed a solution to the conflict of one versus many: the fold. An object could be folded and end up with many sides and parts even though it remained one object.

The fold, according to Zakin, is a solution that can be found in De Kooning’s paintings. Often busy abstract paintings with numerous lines and shapes, the pieces give off a “sense of forms jostling, pushing, shoving.” In one painting of an attic, objects made up a chaotic jumble of everything people don’t throw away – and yet still make up the whole of a room.

“Every time the line changes direction, it’s cutting back on itself, folding in on itself,” Zakin said.

The concern with the fold and one versus many was something that influenced De Kooning for his entire life, according to Zakin. The challenge to “paint something very ordinary, like a part of the landscape…where everything is a part of it: the trees, leaves, grass, rocks, birds…how do you get everything into the one?” was something evident in most of his major works.

“For DK these weren’t just painting problems. They were life problems,” Zakin said.

Ben Reeves

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