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Bill the King

It's important that we have some place we come from, and another we get to. For if it is true that no one is going anywhere, like they say, ultimately, nonetheless we do literally come into this world and finally we leave it—and, in the meantime, live a life. So what's to be done. Who's going to tell you what you've got to know about anything, how you move at all, for example, or why you move, or even when. This country needs heroes possibly more than any other, just that there's still no time we can count on, and no backwall of history we can take as intimately our own. We're still the immigrants we started with, and we've killed almost everything else that was here.

But our heroes have to be men and women, as the poet Ed Dorn put it—the classical measure, the dry, the particular. In short, they can't be the accumulated gods or the spirits of mountains and rivers. They've got to be the staggering, bemused, grotesquely but inevitably appropriate persons of that instant of act or insight makes the whole damn world a possible splendor. Or have wooden false teeth like George Washington—or say not much at all like Daniel Boone. Above all, they have to stick, both with what they do and what they do for us as their people.

It isn't easy to be an American, and one of the great pleasures of de Kooning is that he really chose to be one of this great country's bedraggled company despite he might have had all of Europe at his feet, I like to think. He really believed in that old American folksong, that our streets were paved with gold. But, even more, he dug the cowboys and Indians, and the heraldic look of our flag. It took

Previously unpublished.


him six tries to get here, and he made it—and three days later had a job in Hoboken as a house painter. New York was it from the first.

Not long ago, looking at a large book of reproductions of de Kooning's work with the painter Jorge Fick (whose book it was), he kept insisting I should really look at the recent photos of de Kooning in his studio, at the literal things he had there—like the bowls for the paint, the safflower oil, the large pail for the slops—like, nothing wasted, nothing other than common, but for the brushes which, again, had absolute functional utility, they could hold a lot of paint, etc. Because this fact is also paradoxically heroic, American—you don't depend on solutions that are privileged, isolating, expensive. You find your means in the common. Like going to work, like living in New York with millions of other people.

It used to be said of William Carlos Williams that the literal fact of his being there gave us one clean man we could utterly depend upon, that nothing could buy his integrity. We had the same feeling and respect for de Kooning, who, in those days, we'd see most every night in the Cedar Bar, usually in company with Franz Kline, another of our absolute heroes. De Kooning, characteristically, was good to us, but he didn't let us off the hook—as, for example, the night Kline got stomped and lost a tooth on his way back downtown from a party at Motherwell's in our company. De Kooning's question, very simply: "And where were you guys?" Likewise he could demolish the whole Black Mountain mystique with an equally quiet comment: "The only trouble with Black Mountain is that if you go there, they want to give it to you." So the sense that the Beat poets, as Gregory Corso, were just trying to hitch on to a star is too simple in that it forgets the fact and use of heroes , which we were desperately in need of to offset the awesome weight of social authority in our art, poetry. Here was this man, then, living in a common walkup apartment on 10th Street, who was also, by all our conceptions of the possibility, a great artist, who had, often, a wad of bills in his pocket would choke a horse but did not seem to be overly concerned about it, who would sneak us into an opening at Janis' our very state of dereliction would offend, and who, at the same time, would not let us off the hook of our pretensions, bullshit, faking, laziness, you name it.

In hindsight, and with this country's apparent dominance in the arts, it's all too simple to forget how harsh the battle then was to force a recognition that here was a place of equal possibility and authority. The European habit of symbolization and patina, the intensive intellectualization of idea , the incremental power of tradition, all seemed a weight beyond anyone's ability to change, much


less to move. So Soulages and Hans Hartung were thought to be doing what Kline was doing—but better. And Fautrier wondered how any painter could presume to be seriously "prepared" if he'd not had the resources of a $40,000 a year income, presumably, from birth. It was snobbisme , clearly enough, but it found a significant favor here as well as in Europe.

If one might rephrase Williams' famous battle cry to accommodate de Kooning's, it would become, "No ideas but in paint "—no symbols, no concepts but those actualized, no styles or groups or schools of any generalizing order. At the same time one can hardly be dumb about it, or think that just because one is born into this world for the first time, that's the first time it ever was. Much has been made, usefully, of de Kooning's extraordinary information of the traditions of painting and of his intimate relation with the master works of the past. But never forget how he says it: "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented . . ." That's the Renaissance—think of it. "The drawing started to tremble because it wanted to go places . . ."

All dressed up and no place to go is a familiar dilemma in this country. Sometimes it all seems elsewhere, over there , as it were. Or else you can get cosily familiar, make those baked beans a veritable caviar. But images, things , call them, if you determine to look at them, not just cover them up with some glaucous gravy of great thoughts, have an active demand to make—that you change, in that seeing, and that they also change, in that sight. So it is that two persistent themes in de Kooning's work, landscapes and women, are not the simple fact of a 'subject matter' but, rather, the insistently provocative demand of place and person , as most humanly obvious facts. In whatever he has said of his art, the emphasis is always upon the directness of the engagement, literally—and "abstraction," for example, would be most usefully understood as the endlessly complex task of making 'there' here , not the possibility of a part of something's being taken away from it, either to 'symbolize' it or to become, merely, something else. "Form ought to have the emotion of a concrete experience."

Because, otherwise, what have you got—some snaps of Betty the day of the wedding? Mother smiling from the porch? Neither of which, humanly, can be so simply rejected—but Betty? Mother? And you can't just make them pretty, or comforting, or just another 'abstraction.' It's got to be as good as the German de Kooning tells of, with all the international breads, in Hoboken yet, who let them get "good and hard and then he crumpled [mark you, not crumb led] it and spread it on the floor in his flat and walked on it as on a soft


carpet . . ." As on some summer day, as 'twere in dream, as if it were once and for all. "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 guess, finally, what I so respect in this dear man's work is that he does stay in there, that he comes on with everything that's in him, all the mind, all the heart, and that it all moves with such intensity. I'm fascinated by where his line goes, and with what consummate human grace. How all the colors, particularly those one was told years ago weren't nice, get a chance. How like it all is to a physically lived world—but more, how much in that world it is. And the humor —thank god! Subtle, droll, persistently relieving—just that it is the last resource for any one of us. I remember years ago now, having been given the honorable task of keeping him company in his place on 10th Street—he'd been drinking, as the saying goes, and usual friends had told me, a kid!, to mind the store—anyhow he'd lain down on his bed, in this meticulously shipshape apartment entirely occupied by his stuff for painting except for the cot and small place to cook, and I backed off and gawked at the actual work there, one painting on the easel, several others hung on the walls. It felt like being where we were all first made, so to speak. And then I must have figured he'd gone to sleep because he was now fully out on the bed, but one extraordinarily valuable leg had not made it, and was off the near side, looking very uncomfortable. So with intensively deliberate care, I got a hold on it, and tried to lift it so as to place it alongside the other, on the bed. Then, for whatever reason, I looked up at his face—to find that he'd been watching me all the time, with a lovely, wry smile. So—what's left to say that he hasn't? Surely you'll see that point. Therefore—"it's a personal thing . . ."—these few last words:

The World

                      for Bill

Never to be wrong, mama—
and never to be right either.
Just to eat as I was able
everything they put on the table.

Placitas, N.M.
February 24, 1979


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