Is it “better,” as Neil Young suggested, “to burn out than to fade away?” When you look at the two greatest artists of the Abstract Expressionist school, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, you can weigh the possibilities. Pollock died relatively young in a drunken car accident. Born April 24, 1904, de Kooning lived much longer and sadly slipped into the slow oblivion of Alzheimer's disease. Of all the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was perhaps the most charismatic—handsome (Val Kilmer played him in Pollock), funny in an English as second language kind of way, and devoted to his friends, which included Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, and the rest of the gang from the infamous Cedar Tavern, watering whole of the 1950s New York art scene. In 1981, de Kooning painted Pirate (Untitled II) (above), which shows some of the traces of his glory days of the Woman series but a definite softening and simplifying of his style, still based on gesture and movement yet no longer as brash and confrontational. Was this the way de Kooning wanted to take his art, the direction his illness was pushing him towards, or both?
Four years later, de Kooning painted a Triptych (above, individually named, from left to right, Untitled V, Untitled II, and Untitled IV, from 1985) for St Peter's Church in New York. The thick colors no longer appear. Instead, only the gestures remain. Some critics see de Kooning’s late work as a dialogue with other great artists, from his friend Arshile Gorky to modernist influences such as Kandinsky and Picasso. Again, de Kooning’s condition may have contributed to both the simplification of his gestures (as his dexterity waned) and his look backward. Alzheimer patients often develop a great sense of nostalgia for the past, longing to cling to their memories at the moment they become the most slippery. Emotions rise closer to the surface as well, making the memory of Gorky’s own painful end seem present despite being decades in the past.
de Kooning’s disease and his paintings during that period touch me for personal reasons beyond their obvious beauty. My family has a history of Alzheimer’s, a tradition I hope to evade. I remember visiting my grandfather in a nursing home with my father and having him mistake me for my father, unaware that the middle-aged man beside him was his son. Questions remain as to whether de Kooning actually painted such works as Untitled (above, from 1988), but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that they’re the works of his brush and not fakes perpetrated by others, however much they differ from the rest of his work. These last works turn to pastel colors—simple, pleasing color arranged in broad, simple strokes. In that sense, they are childlike in their honesty and openness, much like an Alzheimer patient stripped of all their memories and, thus, identity and left with only the core of who they are. de Kooning’s late works show the core of who he was as an artist and a person, free of all the bravado and posturing. I like to imagine that looking at them I get a glimpse not only into the mind of the artist but into the mind of my grandfather and all those who are afflicted by this disease.