Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Willem de Kooning

Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist Painter

"Maybe in that earlier phase I was painting the woman in me. Art isn't a wholly masculine occupation, you know."

"My interest in desperation lies only in that sometimes I find myself having become desperate. Very seldom do I start out that way. I can see of course that, in the abstract, thinking and all activity is rather desperate."

"My only interest was in being an illustrator or something like that... I was a good house painter."

"Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves. When a man ploughs his field at the right time, it means just that."

"On 4th Avenue I was painting in black and white a lot. Not with a chip on my shoulder about it, but I needed a lot of paint and I wanted to get free of materials. I could get a gallon of black paint and a gallon of white paint, and I could go to town."

"Not even for a million dollars would I paint a tree."

"New York is a great city, but in the long run I got kind of dried out by everything happening there day and night. I was less and less able to work regularly."

"Now I can make some highways, maybe. Of course there will be something else. Now I can set to do it, and then it will be, maybe it will be a painting of something else. Because if you know the measure of things – for yourself there is no absolute measure – you can find the size of everything. You say now that’s just this length and immediately with that length you can paint, well, a cat. If you understand one thing you can use it for something else. That is the way I work.. .. I mean I have an attitude. I have to have an attitude."

"People worship the painting of an artist and don't know anything about the man. I never get conceited about my work because the paintings are not me. And no matter how hard an artist tries, it can never be good enough."

"Once, after finishing a picture, I thought I would stop for awhile, take a trip, do things — the next time I thought of this, I found five years had gone by."

"Spiritually I am wherever my spirit allows me to be, and that is not necessarily in the future... Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity."

"Some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even has to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out were they ought to sit. They do not want to ‘sit in style’. Rather they have found that painting – any kind of painting, any style of painting – to be painting at all, in fact – a style of living, so to speak. That is where the form of it lies. It is exactly in its uselessness that it is free. Those artists don’t want to conform. They only want to be inspired."

"The ‘Women’ had to do with the female painted through all ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn’t go on. It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light – all this silly talk about line, color and form – because that was the thing I wanted to get hold off."

"That's the person I feared most in the whole world. [after seeing his elderly mother in a Rotterdam nursing home]."

"The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves."

"The artist fills space with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone."

"Style is a fraud. I always felt the Greeks were hiding behind their columns."

"The aesthetics of painting were always in a state of development parallel to the development of painting itself. They influenced each other and vice versa. But all of the sudden, in that famous turn of the century (around 1900) a few people thought they could take the bull by the horns and invent an aesthetic beforehand. After immediately disagreeing with each other, they began to form all kind of groups, each with the idea of freeing art.. ..The question as they saw it, was not so much what you could paint, but what you could not paint. You could not paint a house or a tree or a mountain. It was then that the subject matter came into existence as something you ought not to have."

"The pictures (I have) done since the 'Women', they’re emotions, most of them. Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city – with the feeling of going to the city or coming from it. I am not a pastoral character. I’m not a – how do you say that? – ‘country dumpling’. I am here and I like New York City. But I love to go out in a car.. ..I’m just crazy about going over the roads and highways."

"The point they (Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Tatlin, Gabo, the neo-Plasticists, and so on) all had in common was to be inside and outside at the same time.. ..For me, to be inside and outside is to be in an unheated studio with broken windows in the winter, or taking a nap on somebody’s porch in the summer.."

"The idea of space is given to the artist to change if he can. The subject matter in the abstract is space."

"The potato seems like a Romantic (organic) object... you can watch it growing if you don’t eat it. It is going to change – grow, rot, disappear. A pebble is like a Classical thing – it changes little if any... If it was big you could keep the dead down with it... The Classical idea is not around much anymore (comparing in a discussion at the Artist’ Club the potatoes of Vincent Van Gogh to the pebbles of Jean Arp)"

"The texture of experience is prior to everything else."

"The women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn't go on. It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light - all this silly talk about line, color and form"

"The sentiment of the Cubists was simpler. No space. Everything ought to keep going! That’s probably the reason they went themselves. Either a man was a machine or else a sacrifice to make machines with... Personally, I do not need a movement. Of all movements, I like Cubism most. It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection – a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice his intuition. It didn’t want to get rid of what went before. Instead it added something to it. The parts that I can appreciate in other movements came out of Cubism... It has force in it but it was no 'force-movement'."

"The word ‘abstract’ comes from the light tower of the philosophers.. ..one of their spotlights that they have particularly focused on ‘Art’... (abstraction was) not so much what you could paint but rather what you could not paint. You could not paint a house or a tree or a mountain. It was then that subject matter came into existence as something you ought not have."

"There is a train track in the history of art that goes way back to Mesopotamia. It skips the whole Orient, The Mayas, and American Indians. Duchamp is on it. Cézanne is on it. Picasso and the Cubists are on it; Giacometti, Piet Mondrian, and so many.. ..I have some feeling about all these people – millions of them – on this enormous track, a way into history. They had a peculiar way of measuring. They seemed to measure with a length similar to their own height.. ..The idea that the thing that the artist is making can come to know for itself, how high it is, how wide and how deep it is, is a historical one, - a traditional one I think. It comes from man’s own image."

"There used to be a garden-type place in the Bowery -- flowers, plants and benches -- where the bums would go snooze and wine-dream. I envied their art of measured imbibing. I used to give them money to buy their sweet wine. Why not help them feel good? Now, me, I used to be a boozer. I had to stop. I couldn't drink, sip by sip, through the day, just enough, like they could. I would just get stoned and sick. How did they do it? I envied them that."

"Watercolors is the first and the last thing an artist does."

"Wassily Kandinsky understood ‘form’ as a form, like an object in the real world; and a object, he said, was a narrative – and so, of course, he disapproved of it. He wanted ‘his music without words’. He wanted to be ‘simple as a child’. He intended, with his ‘inner-self’ to rid himself of ‘philosophical barricades’ (he sat down and wrote something about all this). But in turn his own writing has become a philosophical barricade, even it is a barricade full of holes. It offers a kind of Middle European idea of Buddhism or, anyhow, something too theosophical for me."

"These guys are so lousy. Why don't you flunk them? [on teaching at Yale]"

"Today artists are in a belated age of reason. They want to get hold of things. Take Mondrian; he was a fantastic artist. But when we read his ideas and his idea of Neo-Plasticism – pure plasticity – it’s kind of silly. Not for him, but I think one could spend one’s life having this desire to be in- and outside at the same time. He could see a future life and a future city – not like me, who am absolutely not interested in seeing the future city. I’m perfectly happy to be alive now."

"When, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Arshile’s (Gorky) studio for the first time, the atmosphere was so beautiful that I got a little dizzy and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately. If the bookkeepers think it necessary to make sure of where things and people came from, well then, I came from 36 Union Square (address of Gorky’s studio at that time)… I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence."

"Well, I don't know. In a way I have him on my mind all the time. But I forget what the paintings -- his and mine -- look like at a certain point. -- when asked if there was an homage to Arshile Gorky in a late painting"

"What you do when you paint, you take a brush full of paint, get paint on the picture, and you have faith."

"What fascinates me about Van Gogh is that his sun dries up everything. Maybe he was melodramatic but my point really is… if you are a painter you have to face that self-consciousness. You get dirty and pathetic; very miserable. It makes me self-conscious to talk about it. There is something corrupt on art. Nothing do with any ‘ism’ but a thing in nature loses its innocence and becomes a grotesque thing… maybe this difficulty is personal with me, and maybe it is something that other painters have in common. Perhaps it is also something of today."

"Whatever an artist’s personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists."

"You get old, you get used to yourself. A painter can go down, way down, when he's waiting to go down. Franz Kline went very down, and I used to be so nervous I got palpitations. Now I don't have that trouble. I see the canvas, and I begin. But you have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies."

"You know the real world, this so-called real world, is just something you put up with. Like everybody else. I’m in my element when I am a little bit out of this world. Then I’m in the real world – I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing all right. When I’m slipping, I say: he, this is interesting. It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me.."

"You can work and work on a painting but you can't start over again with the canvas like it was before you put that first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it's no good, no matter what you do. But with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back to it the next morning and if I don't like what I did, or I changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It's always fresh."

"You think because your father is rich, culture is going to stick to your ass. -- said to a student. [on teaching at Yale]"