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“What Abstract Art Means To Me”

By Daisy Fried

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.

Comments (3)

  • On January 21, 2008 at 11:29 am John Blackard wrote:

    Hi, Daisy– Here’s one of my attempts to describe an abstraction. Inadequate? Irrelevant? Probably, but there it is.
    Untitled Rothko
    God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing shows through.
    –Paul Valery
    Blackness—like a pit grave in the middle
    of the canvas—swallows their failures,
    unburdens them of their victims.
    Many years of image storms—each might have
    been a place to hide—and then his signature
    style of clarified silence—
    a loneliness washing over flat fields
    of sunlit or clouded color.
    The painter crouches—brush dripping
    on his shoes—
    in front of a new world and lets it draw
    him in like a breath.
    In his ear, the voice of Fra Angelico
    whispers, The artist must be a thief
    and steal a place for himself
    on the rich man’s wall.
    Jewel-toned bands of ruby and emerald
    like unrolled bolts of seamless cloth—
    threads vibrating over the abyss.
    Old worlds of woe—in their blood-stained rags—
    decompose grain by grain, blown by the wind
    until mountains flatten.
    If he could stand in the spaces between
    losses and still be himself,
    if he could find the windy dissonance
    between his world and theirs,
    if he could keep method from overwhelming
    they might not look for The Next Big Thing
    but become engulfed in the sea
    of their own tears.
    They might hear Arbeit Mach Frei rising up
    from the darkness and find new life—
    use a razor to cut ribbons
    from a shroud.
    John Blackard

  • On January 21, 2008 at 4:04 pm J.E. Stone wrote:

    Nice to shift the terms from the inadequacy of language to what is said and what is not said. The passage and your discussion of it remind me a bit of reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life for the first time. Her sentences are quite complete, and, if I remember properly, the sentences are ‘real’ observations. What becomes tantalizing about it is what is not said. This piece of DeKooning spirals around something central: the German man in Hoboken–while Hejinian’s spirals only around the abstraction of the title. The mind, though, wants to fill in what it cannot know. It’s like a reader and writer collaboration.

  • On January 23, 2008 at 8:43 am Daisy wrote:

    Interesting about Hejinian. Yes, with “My Life,” and with, say Ron Silliman, you always know where you are at any given moment, but the thing as a whole is always (intentionally) breaking down or changing the subject. There is, in both, I think, a descriptive urge–to say how things are perceived, what the senses want. And there’s plenty of clarity–okay, how about “gettability”–in both. In this bit of DeKooning writing, though, as you say, there’s a definite story being told–though you’re not perfectly sure what it adds up to–and all parts are in the service of the story. I like a story. I also like when a story, without rejecting the pleasures of narrative, acknowledges, as it’s doing its telling, it’s own instability.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 21st, 2008 by Daisy Fried.