Infinite Riches in a Little Room


De Kooning’s “Weekend at Mr. and Mrs. Krisher,” lithograph, 1970

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More on De Kooning, Part 2

Another issue that emerged from spending the day at the De Kooning exhibit is a theme that I have written about here before: epic vs lyric; working large vs working small; the proclivity to grandiosity in contrast to the tendency toward the intimate. So much of De Kooning’s work is larger than life, a kind of willful overwhelmingness. It felt very different to spend time with his smaller, more intimate works—the drawings, the lithographs, the monoprints. Something shifts in the viewing, and it is more than just scale.

This tension exists in other aspects of creative expression as well. A recent article in New York magazine memorializes the early friendship shared by literati stars Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeff Eugenides and Mary Karr. The same issue is given a literary context:

Franzen was feeling pretty dismal, too, corresponding with Wallace about “how irrelevant we were feeling to the culture” as novelists—a subject Franzen would later tackle in a much-­discussed Harper’s essay that tried to crystallize the question hanging over all of them: Was fiction about mastering the sweep of the culture in an innovative way, or was it about telling a more intimate story and delivering reading pleasure?

These issues have relevance for me when I spend time with the works of De Kooning as well as with other large scale artists like Anselm Kiefer. In response to my post regarding the recent documentary on Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, artist Altoon Sultan left this insightful comment:

I used to be a great fan of Kiefer’s work, but in recent years the grandiosity, the heaviness, the sheer romantic male posturing of it has put me off. Oddly, I don’t feel this about Serra’s sculpture, where I’ve gone from disliking it to loving it. I think it’s something in the excess of emotion, to the point of manipulation, in Kiefer, while Serra is more formal.

I’m now much more interested in “infinite riches in a little room”.

(The last line refers to a quote I included in the post from a writer friend who summarized his position quite succinctly: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room’”.)

It is another way to be and to see, that willingness to find those infinite riches in smaller formats. Maybe what I am really saying is that I would like for there to be more of both rather than skewed one way or the other.

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3 comments

  1. Maureen’s avatar

    The line “infinite riches in a little room” reminds me of seeing the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

  2. Altoon Sultan’s avatar

    These are two very interesting posts on your responses to de Kooning’s work. Thank you so much for quoting my comment; in relation to that I had a very different take on the show: I was surprised that when seeing the sweep of the years of painting, although there was grand ambition, the paintings were actually moderate in size compared to much going on at the time; the early paintings are quite modest, and later ones, though large, are human sized, not like the vast expanses of Pollock or Newman, or the later stain painters, etc. I felt the paintings were just as big as they had to be. And I also have to say that I love the Woman paintings, their sheer force of life, their ferocity, their power.

  3. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    Altoon, thank you for your provocative comment. This is such a complex issue–when is a painting just the right size? I think about this a lot and don’t know if I have a Golden Mean rule on how to answer that query.

    It is amazing that the Woman paintings are still polarizing, even after all these years. I dislike them more than I ever have, and you connected. As sympatico as I feel to almost everything you say and post, this difference enlivens our exchange and introduces some grit. Which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

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