Atelièr

Another artist might have declared the work finished, but for de Kooning it was nothing but the beginning. “On countless ccasions”, Elaine wrote, “I lived through the familiar yet agonizing experience of coming home to find a painting, which had been precious to me, destroyed.”

Elaine de Kooning

The street to home

There are no shutters, no blinds, and no curtains on the windows of the studio. The only barrier between outside and inside are the window panes – often wide open, for the paintings dry more quickly with air coming in – and grates painted white, which seem to keep the painter imprisoned on rainy days.

Today it is raining; it has been raining for three days, three nights which he has spent at the studio, three days of faded milky light which  distorts colours and forms: the eyes give in easily, months of efforts flatten on the canvas, it is impossible to paint, a torture to watch.

Since when he arrived the painter has only been able to turn the draft of the painting he has been working on for too long by now from the wall towards him.

 

This painting is completely wrong: even if there was any possibility to get it right without passing a coat of white over it and start a new, without doubt working on it in today’s mean light would only make everything worse.

He would almost be happy if he could go home and enjoy the storm and the fog from his armchair near the chimney.

The woman keeps sending him pictures on his cell phone of the first fire lit in this early autumn; she takes pictures of biscuits and a cup of tea, the reflection of the orange flames on the carpet where they could be making love, her own face, stretched into an incredibly sad caricature, because she knows that today’s light is not a good one for painting and she does not understand what the painter might be doing on his own in his damned studio.

Well, he is not doing anything but feeling resentful while every few minutes changing his position in the battered swivel armchair which is the only chair in the room. The pictures she keeps sending him are pointless, sloppy, yet painfully genuine

compared to anything he has ever painted in all his life; the stains and bubbles of humidity on the walls, his shoelaces, the cotton weft of his coveralls he has put on for work in vain, the deep furrows in the palms of his clean hands: everything is a better image than his pictures today, everything would be worthier dedicating one’s lifetime to paint it, even if it only means to finally get a not utterly indecent approximation to it; everything stimulates him, makes his fingers quiver as well as a small part of his soul, ultimately annoying him though, while the bunch of paintbrushes
stays unmoved two metres further away like a black outline of the Hydra against the bleached windows.

It is always this way when it rains and he cannot work. When he has his hands tied by the rain for too long a time – this very rain, as said before, has been pouring down for seventy-two hours – the poisonous thoughts, which he eradicates by painting every day, germinate inside him and make bad blood. Another reason why he cannot go home to the woman waiting for him next to the chimney: today he detests himself, and when he detests himself, he obviously finishes up detesting everybody and being detestable to everybody including mother brother fiancée and friends. Without hope for the sky to brighten up any moment the only way to avoid remorse is to keep waiting.

 

In the meantime he reflects – against his will – and scrutinizes – against his will – the canvases piled up at every wall awaiting the two expositions scheduled for next month. Somewhere somebody once wrote about his ability to paint the light which is inherent in every human being by way of urban spectra stripped of any signs of human life. Nice words, these, but he has never taken them seriously: in moments like this he doubts his abilities as a painter, and it seems to him that even the large paintings, which help him pay for food and rent, have been printed by day light, and all he could do was add some black blots. Light is the artist, he is nothing but a paintbrush – a paintbrush of minor quality; as if this was not enough, by watching his work of the previous months he is getting more and more to the conclusion that he must have been trembling like a child throughout the whole time it took him to complete it. The dozens of city labyrinths around him are about to collapse upon him and they might bury him forever.

The painter pulls himself together and finally stands up from the swivel chair. He slaps his leg, which had gone to sleep, longer than necessary, he closes his drawing table, he pushes the cart where he keeps his colours on into a corner and starts to spread the dozens of canvases, piled one upon the other at the walls, on the floor forming a gigantic mosaic. Then he steps onto the armchair and stands there with his arms spread like a tightrope walker, settling in a shaky balance. The upholstered armchair continues to move beneath him like the anchor of the lookout tower on a mast in a storm: the painter gazes at his future exhibitions from above, at length, defeated, and he doesn’t see absolutely anything which he would deem worthy of at least some friendly words of encouragement if it was a colleague’s work.

About half an hour goes by, then he gets off the armchair and starts carrying all the paintings into the entrance hall of the studio. Breathing has become a little easier now.

 

He takes a scraper, bends over and starts to scrape off the vacant floor month-old drops of varnish which have dropped off his paintbrush and dried. He only stops when the scraper’s blade slides across the perfectly clean arble without encountering any hitches. He sweeps up the tiny scales of varnish arranging them into a shiny heap with the dustpan. He then scatters them on the floor again and shuffles them with the tip of his toes. He circles around them, taking photographs from various angles, then, isappointedly, gathers them again and throws them into the dustbin. He fills a bucket with water and ammoniac, soaks a cloth. He clears the drawing table and cleans every bit of it with a cloth soaked in alcohol; he carefully examines the sheets, piling up those which need further elaboration and stuffing all the others into a big folder. He dusts sculptures, snack bowls, drawings, pictures in frames and all the other objects, which he has been given by former lovers and friends; he then rearranges them on the shelves but only after having polished them with alcohol as well.

 

The window panes, still wet, die away in the shade of the evening, the woman at home calls him mournfully on his mobile phone while he sacrifices his toothbrush to clean the baseboard crusted with black. Using white paint he provides for the spots of varnish to disappear from the walls, he climbs onto a ladder to remove the cobwebs from the vaults of the enormous ceiling, he washes the cans he uses to mix water and Indian ink with washing-up liquid first, then with lemon, until they look like sparkling soap bubbles in file on the window sill where the rain is still visible from.
As he takes back the paintings from the entrance hall to the studio, they seem a little less hostile. It might be due to the electric lighting, which has replaced the rainy white from outside immediately after nightfall. Tentatively the painter approaches the last painting, the disastrous draft which he has kept turned towards the wall for days, and even this one captures him, against expectation, absorbs him like a lover with its pure the road at least, the sky above, a mixture of exploding stars and darkness, the shadows on the  cobbles, the buildings which create these shadows, and a very specific window, just slightly less black than all the others due to the first autumn fire which keeps crackling for him in the chimney.

When he closes the front door, it is  past nine o’clock. The woman expects him cross-armed. ‘Have you been painting at least?’ she asks him, blatantly angry, violently chopping two innocent tomatoes on a wooden board.
‘Sure.’
‘In this white rain light?’
‚That’s exactly why I’m so late.‘
‘I don’t believe a single word’, she protests. ‘Where have you been? With whom?’ She is chopping the tomatoes forcefully now as if wanting to slaughter an animal until she ends up with a gash in her thumb. The woman curses very loudly, and when she resumes talking she is definitely furious. ‘I don’t believe you have been painting’, she screams.

‘Do as you like’, he says and comes closer; he takes her bleeding hand, examines the cut and the trickle of red varnish flowing down till her elbow, then he looks for some skin-coloured pink to correct both of them as she keeps ranting and raving while working busily in the kitchen.

Barbara Di Gregorio