Some writers on painting and sculpture can trace their fascination with the subject to an encounter with a specific artwork. My epiphany came when I first saw Willem de Kooning’s “Excavation" (1950) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (loaned by the Art Institute of Chicago) in the late 1960s.
It felt then as if the painting spoke specifically to me. So it startled me as the years passed each time in conversation an art world luminary—Robert Hughes, John Chamberlain, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman—unprompted, mentioned "Excavation" as a work of decisive impact.
"Excavation's" dishevelment and superabundance of detail, its refusal to settle down even under the most persistent scrutiny dramatized for me the feeling—as I imagined painters must experience it—of a work in progress pushing back, almost adversarially, against creative discipline. "I paint this way," de Kooning said of his process at the time, "because I can keep putting more and more things in—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space."
The sense of an artwork pressing demands—unforeseeable, unbidden, possibly unnameable—on its maker, as he piled on his own, became for me a mark of painterly ambition, irrespective of style.
Harold Rosenberg and other art writers almost immediately projected a kind of heroism onto the agonistic quality that de Kooning's "Excavation" laid bare to me, a rhetoric caricatured easily, frequently and dismissively since.
But more than improvisational extravagance, it is the struggle with freedom exposed in "Excavation"—struggle with opening and closing the question of what to do next—that I see as connecting the work of Sherie Franssen with that of de Kooning, whose example she embraces.
Fluency of marking, color unstinting to the point of overuse and a deferral of figuration appear to be the cardinal qualities of his work that hers shares. But these qualities appear most her own when they serve to communicate—like a nervous pathology—the creative disquiet that the silence of her art form can readily conceal.
Looking at Franssen's work, I think often of James Elkins' advice that really to understand a painting's formation we ought to re-enact bodily as many of the gestures and touches that we can discern on its surface. Circumstances, including our own inhibitions, make such a performance unfeasible more often than not. But we can try to execute it in imagination, an exercise surprisingly hard to sustain, and one possible only in the presence of the physical object. Even attempting it reminds me of Stanley Burnshaw's definition of poetry as "notations for an internal dance."
Franssen often finds spurs to painting much farther back in art history than de Kooning. "I like to have a map for a sense of where I'm going. Where the painting ends up is inevitably completely different" she has said, mentioning as points of departure works by Rubens, Goya, Michelangelo and, recently, Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.
Jasper Johns has famously incorporated fragments traced from a reproduction of the Isenheim Altarpiece into his paintings and works on paper, fitting them more or less recognizably into puzzle-like compositions.
The spirit and style of Franssens' borrowings from art history could not be more different, yet she and Johns and countless other 21st century practitioners face a common problem: how to give their anachronistic medium contemporary immediacy by summoning the irreproducible truth of its history. Only painting (and drawing) make this possible because, unlike automatic media—digital or analog—but like dance, paintings have to be lived into being.