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“What Abstract Art Means To Me”
Here’s something I have tacked above my desk to which the question of language’s inadequacy is irrelevant. This is Willem DeKooning, from a talk he gave called “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” at a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 on the occasion of the show “Abstract Art in America.”
About twenty-four years ago, I knew a man in Hoboken, a German who used to visit us in the Dutch Seaman’s Home. As far as he could remember, he was always hungry in Europe. He found a place in Hoboken where bread was sold a few days old—all kinds of bread: French bread, German bread, Italian bread, Dutch bread, Greek bread, American bread and particularly Russian black bread. He bought big stacks of it for very little money, and let it get good and hard and then he crumpled it and spread it on the floor in his flat and walked on it as on a soft carpet. I lost sight of him, but found out many years later that one of the other fellows met him again around 86th street. He had become some kind of Jugend Bund leader and took boys and girls to Bear Mountain on Sundays. He is still alive but quite old and is now a Communist. I could never figure him out, but now when I think of him, all that I can remember is that he had a very abstract look on his face.
I give this to students and they are tremendously impressed—and, like me, have a hard time figuring out what’s so nifty about it. Here is personal anecdote and theory, economics and politics, inner and outer, experience, memory and imagination, something very concrete and yet illuminating about abstraction. It’s quite serious and also lighthearted and witty. It simply sidesteps questions of language irritably hunting and seeking and failing, yet there’s nothing of flatfooted confession, the declarations of truths or grievances or joys or wounds, that one may associate with the transparent narrative. What is happening in this paragraph is perfectly clear. There is nothing vague about it. And yet the passage remains marvelously mysterious: Both certain and uncertain, recognizable and unstable, engaging and opaque. It does not require anything external to itself. It doesn’t mean anything more than what it is. How splendid! And yet it is made up of nothing but defiantly realist observations.