Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint
On ViewThe Barnes Foundation
March 7 – August 8, 2021
“The painting is a battlefield where the pure vermilions, the chrome yellows, the Veronese greens, engage in terrible combat, sometimes it is the red that triumphs, like that astounding restaurant waiter,” a Paris critic wrote in 1927 of Chaïm Soutine’s first solo exhibition. “In front of the tragic horror that emanated from these extraordinary pieces of painting, it became impossible to resist this supremely displeasing art, whose pictorial and expressive impact could no longer be denied.”1 Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape of 1954–55 also enacts a battle in lush, fluid paint—a battle of apprehension rather than expression. Whereas Soutine’s work brings out emotional turmoil, de Kooning treats the ambiguities of perception as an exciting epistemological adventure.
Just when you think you see the naked, fleshy torso of a woman in Woman as Landscape—no, you definitely see it!—suddenly, what you thought was a shoulder becomes a horizon line with a blue sky behind it. Where, for a moment, an arm once descended, a pink country road drops down through a green field. Where is the contour of the head? It opens up and then disintegrates into the turbulent cross-layering of brushwork all around it. In an instant the very idea of representation itself suddenly evaporates into smears of saturated color, at high speed, erupting in all directions. The intensity of each brushstroke cancels out the one below it, in wet paint, muddying and complicating the purity of the hues and the integrity of the forms. Skirmishes of the brush appear and then disappear again under the quick slash of a palette knife. “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash,”2 de Kooning explained. He maintains a perpetual state of redefinition in his painting. No passage is more than a temporary respite en route to a new approximation, and this inherently always “in process” character of de Kooning’s work makes this canvas seem as freshly painted today as it did when the artist made it more than half a century ago.
The most radical Soutine, the painter of the early ’20s, turns you inside out with floes of color that transform buildings, landscape, and sky in Landscape of c. 1922–24 into an opera of dramatic brushwork. The succulent, tactile field of paint that is Hill at Céret (c. 1921) travels still further towards this metamorphic abstraction, anticipating, prefiguring the 1950s de Kooning. The current exhibition of Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is mostly about the extraordinary pleasure of beautifully handled paint. The curators—Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi—have offered up a feast of luscious objects; it is a particularly European curatorial touch to give you the space to enjoy this delicious meal. Although they had certain ideas about how one or another Soutine and de Kooning painting speak to another, the show doesn’t beat you over the head with an “argument” (a term that we might want to retire from art criticism). Instead, they saw themselves as eavesdropping on an imagined exchange between two masters of bravado brushwork.
In 1977, de Kooning was asked who his favorite artist was, and he said, “Soutine … I’ve always been crazy about Soutine … Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint.”3 Soutine, for his part, arrived in Paris in 1913 and went straight to the Louvre and immersed himself in the same great painters of the past that de Kooning found in the Frick and the Met in New York. As Harold Rosenberg recalled, de Kooning and his friend Arshile Gorky would spend hours looking at the brushstrokes on the cuff of a single sleeve in a certain Frans Hals, or another time the collar in a Diego Velázquez, and then head to a coffee shop on Madison Avenue to talk about it for another several hours!4 The whole history of painterly paintings is embedded in this exhibition.
Chaïm Soutine was born in 1893 in a shtetl near Minsk in the Lithuanian region of the Russian Pale of Settlement to which Catherine the Great exiled the Jews. Subsequent Tsars kept them there throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a life of poverty and hardship. The brilliant young Soutine nevertheless made his way to a small art school, open to Jews, in Vilnius. Then, not yet 20, he made his way to Paris. Arriving in 1913, Soutine tried out the École des Beaux-Arts but soon abandoned it, schooling himself instead in the galleries of the Louvre. He painted portraits, landscapes, and still lifes of plucked poultry and bloody sides of beef (inspired by Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, 1655). Soutine’s Carcass of Beef and Side of Beef with Calf’s Head (included in this exhibition) belong to a series from around 1925. Like the paintings of poultry, he painted the sides of beef from an actual carcass hanging in his studio, which he doused with fresh blood to keep the color fresh, although the stench quickly escalated until his neighbors called the police.
In 1918, Soutine’s dealer Léopold Zborowski sent him to the South of France for four years, where he painted Hill at Céret and Landscape. The powerful distortion crushes these landscapes into a violently twisted, shallow space with an unsettling turbulence of the brushwork and color that lays bare Soutine’s anxiety-ridden perspective on the world. His portraits of the early 1920s, like Woman in Pink (ca. 1924) also overflow with an expressionism that prefigures the storm of brushwork in the 1950s by CoBrA in Europe and the Abstract Expressionists in New York. De Kooning observed that “Soutine distorted the pictures but not the people,”5 shifting our understanding of the content from the sitter to the inner world of the artist. Yet the deep psychic trauma in Soutine’s Woman in Pink unnerves the viewer in quite a different way from the disturbing uncertainty, the existential anxiety in de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape.
Alongside the unsettling psychological chaos in both Soutine’s painting and de Kooning’s is a sense of humor, like the portraits of Daumier (another artist whom Albert Barnes collected). This comic spirit of caricature surfaces clearly in such works as The Room Service Waiter (ca. 1927), impatient with the human circus before him, and Woman in Red (ca. 1927–30), whose twisted face and limbs reveal her anxiety so nakedly that it makes you cringe. Whereas de Kooning’s Women of the ’50s, like Woman as Landscape, seem simultaneously daunting and absurd,Woman Accabonac (1966) and de Kooning’s other, later Women are more relaxed, pleasantly humorous, and more frankly sexual. Their contours open out into expansive surrounding landscapes. These late-’60s Women express a tactile pleasure in life and in the human comedy. He even narrates a specific identity for them, as in Woman Acabonic about whom he speculated: “I think she maybe is a woman who makes hats. She’s kind of funny-looking; she’s here for the weekend … well, she’s turning into her forties, I guess … She’s sweet and friendly. Don’t you think so? People say I make such monsters. I don’t think so at all.”6
Albert Barnes discovered Soutine in 1922, buying 59 works and instantly establishing Soutine’s reputation in America, lifting him out of poverty before the artist turned 30. But by the end of the decade, the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe forced Soutine, a Jew, to flee Paris. He developed a stomach ulcer that eventually perforated, forcing him out of hiding for emergency surgery in Paris; he died in the hospital on August 9, 1943. De Kooning and Soutine never met. Too poor to buy a ticket, de Kooning stowed away on a cargo boat to the United States in 1926 at the age of 22. At first, he bunked in a Dutch seaman’s home and took work as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey, for nine dollars a day. In 1935 he found work for a year with the Federal Art Project (until they discovered he was ineligible because he wasn’t a citizen). But by de Kooning’s unique style of reasoning he concluded that the famous 23.86 dollars a week that the F.A.P. paid the artists was what it cost to be a full-time artist, and that seemed really cheap! So he took an artist’s loft in Manhattan. The year with the F.A.P. connected him to a circle of other brilliant painters who in turn introduced him into the downtown art scene. In 1963 he bought a house with Elaine de Kooning in East Hampton, Long Island, near Jackson Pollock and next door to Harold Rosenberg (who had become the outstanding critic of the movement). De Kooning died in 1997 at the age of 92.
This exhibition opens with the astoundingly beautiful, large de Kooning abstraction called, simply, Composition (1955). It offers a powerful gloss on the entire show, pointing the viewer to the abstract application in the work of these two painters. But it dwarfs and diminishes the small Soutine landscape on the adjacent wall, and there are no abstract paintings by Soutine. Had we begun just with Composition and moved into a room with Woman as Landscape beside Soutine’s Woman in Pink (1924) we might have focused more quickly on the parallels and counterpoints in the way these two artists processed and investigated the world through paint. De Kooning’s Women of the early ’40s which fill the first room instead have much more to do with Cubism than Soutine, though they do show de Kooning’s signature unwillingness to bring closure to anything. Nevertheless, this show is so beautiful that it’s a near religious experience.
Neither Soutine nor de Kooning painted in the pure color of Fauvism. Rather, they both muddied color, smearing and layering it. Both painters made a different, more complex beauty using the process of painting as a means of encountering and examining reality (internal and external). “There is no plot in painting,” de Kooning told Harold Rosenberg. “It’s an occurrence which I discover by, and it has no message.”7 Soutine as well as de Kooning kept all possibilities open and maintained an atmosphere of uncertainty. Soutine’s Woman in Pink emerges from an entropic moment at the edge of the informe, an existential formlessness. De Kooning’s Woman as Landscape and Woman Accabonac and even those Women of the early ’40s are a moment in the process of recognition. De Kooning had what he called “slipping glimpses”8 of things as they glanced in and out of apprehension. “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure.” he said. “I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.”9 The complicated density of the paint in both artists’ works enrich it with this probative tension.
De Kooning’s open-ended working process provided the paradigm for Rosenberg’s idea of the “action painter.”10 It is a fundamental assertion of existence. De Kooning loved Kierkegaard’s idea that everything necessarily contains its opposite: “That’s what fascinates me,” he told Rosenberg; “to make something that you will never be sure of, and no one else will … That’s the way art is.”11
John Dewey dedicated his 1934 book Art as Experience to Albert C. Barnes, who read and discussed every chapter with him as he wrote them for the inaugural William James Lectures at Harvard. The influence of Dewey’s ideas pervades the Barnes Foundation, and this exhibition precisely suits its aspirations. “The real function of art itself,” Dewey wrote, “is to remove prejudice … perfect the power to perceive;” finally, the goal is “the expansion of … experience by the work of art.”12 De Kooning saw in Soutine, and Soutine saw in his struggle to define reality, what John Dewey understood about art: that “art is a quality of doing and of what is done.”13 The task, he said, “is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.”14 It was in this vein that Josef Beuys famously insisted “every[one] is an artist.”15 Each Soutine painting and each work of de Kooning is an epistemology, instantiating de Kooning’s conviction that “painting … is a way of living.”16
- Georges Charensol, “Soutine,” L’art vivant, 62 (July 1927): 547; excerpted in Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi, eds., Soutine De Kooning Conversations in Paint (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation, 2021), translated by Dr. Robert Hutchin, 148.
- Willem de Kooning, “Content Is a Glimpse,” excerpts from an interview with David Sylvester broadcast on the BBC, December 3, 1960; published as a transcript in Location 1:1 (spring 1963); reprinted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968), 148.
- Willem de Kooning, cited in “The Genetics of Art: Interviews by Margaret Staats and Lucas Matthiessen,” Quest 77, no. I (March-April 1977), 70; excerpted in Soutine De Kooning Conversations in Paint, 152.
- Harold Rosenberg, in one of a number of conversations with Jonathan Fineberg during his trips to Chicago for the Winter term in 1976, 1977, and 1978.
- Willem de Kooning, quoted in Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, The Impact of Chaim Soutine (Cologne: Hatje Cntz, 2002), 54; excerpted in Soutine De Kooning Conversations in Paint, 3.
- Willem de Kooning, interview with Judith Wolfe, April 14, 1981; cited in Wolfe, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951–1981, exh. cat., Guild Hall Museum (East Hampton, N.Y.: Guild Hall Museum, 1981), 14.
- Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Artnews (Sept. 1972); reprinted in Harold Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973), 47.
- Judith Wolfe, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951–1981, exh. cat., Guild Hall Museum (East Hampton, N.Y.: Guild Hall Museum, 1981), 7.
- Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 18:3 (spring 1951), 7; reprinted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968), 145.
- See: Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Artnews (1952); reprinted in Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon Press, 1959).
- Willem de Kooning, cited in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Artnews (Sept. 1972); reprinted in Harold Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973), 51.
- John Dewey, Art As Experience  (N.Y.: Penguin, Perigree, 1980), 325.
- Ibid., 214.
- Ibid., 3.
- Joseph Beuys, cited in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979), 7.
- Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 18:3 (spring 1951), 4-8; Harold Rosenberg develops the idea in Harold Rosenberg, “The Art Galleries: ‘Painting is a Way of Living,’” The New Yorker (February 16, 1963), 126-37; reprinted in Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object (N.Y.: Horizon, 1964), 108-120: and in Harold Rosenberg, De Kooning (N.Y.: Abrams, 1974), 15.
*Special thanks to Deirdre Maher, Director of Communications at the Barnes Foundation for her patient help with materials for this review.