Deep Thought Thursday: By the master’s hand?

In reading de Kooning: An American Master, it’s pretty clear that there’s a dispute over how much control Willem de Kooning had over his late works, when he was suffering from dementia.

At different points in time . . .

Someone else chose and laid the colors out for de Kooning.
Someone else drew the initial drawing on the canvas.
Someone else mixed the colors.
Someone else decided when a painting was completed or went to the gallery.

Willem de Kooning, Gotham News, 1955.
Oil on canvas, 69 x 79".

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Gift of Seymour H. Knox, 1955

This begs the question:

When is a master’s work not his or her own?

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10 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: By the master’s hand?”

  1. I think if de Kooning had some part in the process, and especially in his own studio, that it has position as a de Kooning.

    Separation can be argued for the artworks not even conceived or touched by an artist.

  2. For me, if an artist is willing to put their name on a work it tells me that they are satisfied that the work represents his or her artistic vision.

    For some artists the concept is the key, distinctive, element. For others it’s the style of execution. It some cases it is both.

    Architects rarely do the actual building, and for centuries some painters have had “factories” to block in and even finish major portions of their work. Rubens and Warhol come to mind.

    So when is a master’s work not his or her own? I think when the essence of what the artists intentions or style is no longer evident. That leaves a lot of gray area and it is completely subjective. I will leave that final judgment to the critics and art historians to work out.

  3. I like DeKooning, & his sad ending & his tough beginnings were so sympathetic (not sure if this is the word), I am inclined to defend the choices that were made to help him carry on…
    Takashi Murakami & Jeff Koons, represent to me the other side of that coin, possible exploitation of that leeway…
    Dale Chihuly is in the middle, though the damaged eye leans him towards favour…
    For me it’s a question of intention…Noble & pure or crass & commercial…

  4. In the past artists were artisans and had apprentices that helped them out. Today we get critique and opinion which can change our art…so we get some “help” and input as well. I guess it’s hard say in a clear cut manner.

    But although de Kooning might have had some “help” – the art could not have been created without him. Even in dementia…it’s still de Kooning. Especially since he was already an artist with great works – it’s not like people around him exploited a person that was sick who had never been an artist…etc

  5. It does become a thicker soup – which is always there to some extent, given the reliance on art history, peers, etc. in creation; at the stage where there was a lot of help given, it gets harder to separate out what de Kooning’s contribution was. The people who were doing parts of the painting would be following his style and colors, having an intimate understanding of his work. So in a case like his, it still feels like a de Kooning.

    The conception and supervision of a piece of art, that is then attributed to the “master” seems to be a very old and accepted practice. But in those instances the artist has the cognitive ability to decide whether the piece meets their standards.

  6. I believe it’s making the decision that a work is “finished” that determines whether the work is your own or not. I’ve worked on projects where I did not have the final say on the completeness of a piece – and trust me, I did not feel like it was “mine” anymore.

    It’s also why even collaborative art forms are not made by committee – someone has to say “this is done”. That person, working alone or as part of a team, is the master artist. The others are collaborators – which is not to say they are not making a significant contribution in their own right.

    Collaborators are the masters of any part of the project they bring to completion themselves – the scriptwriter, for example, is the master artist of their script, but NOT the master artist of the finished film (in fact, more than one scriptwriter has wanted to disown the finished film!)

    I’d say de Kooning was master of his paintings up to the point that someone else was deciding when the work as done. Laying out an initial drawing, choosing colors and mixing them can all be seen as collaboration – the artist would still be able to make creative decisions from that point. But saying a work is finished is the last (and most important) decision a creative person makes.

  7. Here’s one way to learn how involved de Kooning was with his late paintings and when his cognitive ability had failed to the point that he could no longer be considered the “master artist” who decided when a work was finished: Interview the home health aides who were with him for the last decade or so of his life. I spoke with one who was with him practically every day and who observed everything. In other words, if someone would think to move beyond the chattering class of art dealers/collectors/historians/curators/etc., he/she might learn a good deal about those final years. At the very least, it would be another voice in the discussion.

  8. Maeks sense that if someone else does the initial drawing and someone else decides when the painting is complete, then at best the painting is a collaboration.

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