The story of a seventeen-year search that’s helped me refine my ideas on art and futility.
It’s 11:48pm, and while I’m lying down trying to sleep, in my mind I’ve already sat back up and opened Google. Moments later, the screen casts its malarial glow as I hunch over my phone, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. Hunting.
In 2002, I was sitting in a dark room watching slides illuminated on a screen, click, click, click. One after another — dates, details, click. Time flows by twice; once by the ticking of the clock on the wall, and once by the moments of humanity captured first on canvas, then on film and projected on the wall. The slides were slowly catching up to the clock, but forever fated to be a movement behind. That day, however, the slides couldn’t have been much past 1960. The historical moment was rife with possibility and restriction; the ongoing friction between political censure and personal freedom was building in the United States. The art movement was abstract expressionism.
Professor Pierce was describing the reason behind the movement, but also the unreason, the emotion. The artists drawn to this style of work, and the power behind the statements they made with color and shape; the emotion they could show with strokes on a canvas. I remember her saying “Elaine de Kooning was often overshadowed by her husband,” click and on the screen there was a luminous, arresting, unapologetic goat. I don’t remember anything after that, but the goat. The confidence and brashness in the strokes, the energy and movement in a still image. The very goatness of the goat. It was an immediate and visceral reaction. I was in love with the goat. Elaine de Kooning’s goat.
When I was still in the art department in university, I didn’t feel compelled to seek out the goat. I had the artist’s name, I knew the picture down to the ground. I felt calmly confident of being reunited at some point, but that it could wait. I had other things to pursue, and plenty to keep me occupied. My goat wasn’t going anywhere.
As time and life both do, things continued such. I graduated and went to live in Ithaca, NY, with my best friend in a tiny attic garret in Collegetown. By day, I worked at a bagel place (Collegetown Bagels), also by day I worked at American Eagle, and by night I worked at a deli. This is the economic burden of an art degree. Eventually, I was able to give up those jobs in favor of a first shift job at MacKenzie Childs, trimming handmade ceramic tile before it was fired in the kiln. The job was 7am to 3pm, with a 30-minute lunch. We stood, and we worked in groups around long benches. I had time to think at that job. I thought about the goat.
I went back to school to take a master’s degree in English. My focus was American literature during the 20th century. Without particular deliberation, I found myself drawn to the period when the goat was made. Coincidence, perhaps. The style of both types of works were heavily influenced by the tensions of the day. The sense of speed, of the lightest possible touch presented in a heavy way, the audacity to say this is art.
I dove deeply into the time period, and I remember my thoughts finding the goat often. Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, McCarthy (Mary, not Joe) — all wrote in a way that camouflaged their aching and back-breaking investment in their stories. Simple stories told simply and clearly, and complex stories told cleanly, and non-stories told not at all, but redefined the genre. They all were able to do this by being excellent at the craft. Words to sentences, sentences to stories. Similarly, the abstract expressionists were able to create these wild, breathless paintings only because they could faithfully reproduce what they saw. Degas said, “drawing is not what one sees, but what one can make others see,” and these artists captured something raw and lovely, preserving it, and showing others what it felt like to see what an artist saw.
At the time I was thinking about my thesis and teaching freshmen how to write college papers, the internet was blooming. Wikipedia was being enthusiastically cited by professors and teachers the country over as a source not to cite, Internet Explorer was the most popular browser (and Netscape Navigator was going rapidly and quietly into that dark night), and Google was ebulliently becoming the search tool of choice. Google Images had been around for some time by now, thanks to JLo, and using the internet was much more natural for students than it had been even five years before. In between searching out criticism and research on my intended thesis subjects, I had at my fingertips an avenue to the goat. I began looking.
The guiding philosophy of the web may as well be “try again.” Good ideas don’t die, they just evolve, and nowhere do you see that happening faster than on the internet. There is perhaps a delicate line we could draw between how art and the history of art itself mirrors these radical shifts and the evolutionary nature of the internet, but further thought there is disrupted by the gnawing need to find. The goat; where is it? It must be out there. It must.
Except, it isn’t.
In the late 1950s, Elaine de Kooning moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to teach. While there, she traveled to Mexico and saw (presumably among much else) bullfights. Thus, a series was borne of her reaction to the intensity and violence of the tradition. This is a famous series — famous being relative to those people who know Elaine de Kooning exists, and are aware of her work — featuring a series of ungulates with horns in dramatic, bold strokes and vibrant, charged colors.
An interesting thing about art on the internet is that if no one cares to put an image of a piece on the internet, it isn’t on the internet. That may sound obvious, and of course it is, but lesser-known works can be effectively invisible, in a practical sense they are unpainted. Particularly if the artist themselves are lesser-known, possibly people who have been perpetually overshadowed by their husbands. Many of Elaine de Kooning’s works on the internet are found on one website, and no other. No one website holds them all. There is no easy catalogue, no set reference. No positive negative, no way to say “yes, this does not exist.”
A few years ago while visiting the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, I pounced on a book on Elaine de Kooning in the gift shop. I regret not buying it, but at the time the wave of disappointment I felt on not finding the goat in that one book manifested as disappointment in the book. I’m sure it’s a very good book; it was wonderfully fat and gorgeous. But it was missing our goat. The index didn’t hold any clues, and none of the photo reproductions I skimmed through gave me the rush I was searching for. Disappointment dimmed in the face of frustration; I remember this day vividly, because the rest of it was tinged by the hurt I felt at again not finding this elusive goat.
There comes a point in the life cycle of everything you know to be true, when you have questions. When is a goat not a goat? When is a goat a bull? Is a goat a bull? Does the goat even exist? What if I got it wrong? What if I don’t remember what I think I remember?
A consequence of returning to this search over and over again has been a deeper understanding of Elaine de Kooning and her work. In 2002, I was interested in Elaine de Kooning for one reason — a goat, and the high I got the first time I saw it. The order of priority for me was simple: (1) feel that intense excitement and contentment again by (2) finding the goat. EdeK was tertiary and not important outside providing authority; she was a search term at best.
Finding the goat became the first priority after a few years, because the search constricted. I would look for the goat in 5-minute increments, months apart, while doing other things. I’d forget about the goat and the mystery of where it could be hiding for a few weeks or a few months, or the better part of a year, and then suddenly the frantic search would be on again. I would drown in the hunt, for brief bursts. Unblinking searches, flitting through pages and pages of images, scanning articles and biographies of Elaine de Kooning to find a reference — any reference — to a goat painting.
Slowly and steadily, gyring out of the haze of disregard, my appreciation of Elaine de Kooning began to make itself known. I realized that I had unintentionally absorbed information about her, the person and artist, that I hadn’t looked for. I hadn’t had any interest in her, yet I now had an investment, unwittingly paid for. There was no attrition in my interest and pursuit of the goat, but now the goat had become infused in the woman. It was a sign that had gained an important signifier and the two could not be separated. The search for the goat became an investigation into EdeK. The goat had a second, metaphorical, face and a mythology, and that was the story and work of the artist.
A fair amount of an art degree is rote memorization. You have to know what came before and why, before you can likewise capture the ever-changing present in a way that undeniably is of the “now.” You start with the facts before you can start with the ideas. You sit in a carrel and whisper over and over “Mark Rothko was born in Russia in 1903. He moved to the United States. He died in 1970. Mark Rothko was born in Russia in 1903. He moved to the United States. He died in 1970.” Other times you flip flashcards scrawled with “Guernica was completed in 1937. It is massive and the size is meant to overwhelm. It’s about the bombing of Guernica and war.” You sit in classrooms, knuckles under your chin, as you take notes on art movements and their position in the constellation of history. Sometimes you get the privilege of connecting the facts and the ideas into a nuanced understanding of the artists behind the movement, and the motivation behind the artist, but not always. Mostly, it’s because of time.
Time is limiting or endless. It’s relative, and the endless ocean of boredom of the youth melts into the ceaseless distractions of adulthood. I look at art history MFA programs, and sigh at the time investment. Few offer remote options; few consider anything but full-time study acceptable. I let myself have a daydream about having nothing to do but learn, and how wonderful and enjoyable that must be. I forget the mindless acquisition of facts. I forget how disagreeable pleasurable things can be when on someone else’s schedule. I forget the constriction of canon, the work that goes into doing the work — classes that prepare you to write a thesis or get a job. I forget that even now, when I give chase to the goat, I resent the tiny micromoments I have to search. I resent every person who has constricted my search by not being interested enough in EdeK to put her work on the internet, and therefore have narrowed my very specific pool even further. I forget that I can learn anything I desire, given a long enough timespan.
Does the goat exist? Why does no one else love it?
While my sessions devoted to the goat may be sporadic, they are all-consuming. I am pushed, forced to look. My need to find it strangles me. I can’t take a deep breath, I can’t pull my mind away from worrying the problem, I can’t think. I just need to think.
When my brain isn’t burning in its own meninges to find the goat, I can sometimes think about the goat. I can sometimes struggle past the urge to look, just for a minute or two, and think. I wonder at the irrationality and ego needed to continue to look. I don’t want to be wrong, and I refuse to be wrong. The goat exists. I would rather accept that I may be lying to myself about the goat, than choose an answer. But no, the goat does not exist. There would be references to the goat. Would Elaine paint a goat? So similar to the bulls, but not actually related in theme or emotion. Why would she paint a goat?
Elaine de Kooning was born in 1918 in Brooklyn. She had an unperfect childhood, but more or less ok. She drew in school. Smart and lively, Elaine floated around some, getting in good with a group of artists. Her relationship to Willem de Kooning was … complicated. 14 years older than her, he was arrogant and cruel and incidentally an alcoholic. His relationship to Elaine was frustrated by her natural abilities. Elaine relentlessly promoted her husband’s work and believed in his talent. She, too, was an alcoholic, and steeped herself in affair and affair. Willem knew. Willem didn’t care. Willem only cared that she was the better artist. Elaine de Kooning was long overshadowed by her more famous husband. She wrote about art and she taught art. She had incredible talent and made time to nurture an appreciation for art in others. She was prolific and vital. Finally, however, Elaine died following complications from lung cancer, in 1989.
Elaine de Kooning was drawn to portraiture. She started in elementary school, drawing her classmates, and eventually painted JFK for the National Portrait Gallery. She didn’t confine herself to painting people posed for portraits; she painted basketball players reaching en masse for the ball, she painted movement and light and restless energy. She painted landscapes and bulls. She painted the suggestion of a bull or a landscape, the lightest, most breathless whisper. What the viewer saw might be a bull. The viewer may also see the spirit, the violence of the bull, the figure a palimpsest obscured by the vitality. The viewer saw what the artist drew, and more than anything, Elaine drew life. She fearlessly evolved her work and her approach to it. Her work, taken as a whole, represents potential. She is a complicated, brilliant figure, and she created art.
For seventeen years, I’ve looked for a goat among bulls. The roaring frustration at the fruitlessness of this search hasn’t changed. It hasn’t pushed me to give up my search, because it grows from the catastrophic need to find. The twist in my gut that’s partly thrill, partly fear whenever I feel I’ve almost caught sight of the goat — something out of the tail of my eye — is too heady a drug. The resentful realization that the goat may be a bull and I’ve already seen it but didn’t feel it, has been an ugly and unwelcome chapter, but I can’t yet let it be the end of the story. Academically, I recognize that the search is almost certainly futile. I have, however, surrendered to the futility, because I’ve found other things along the way. My frantic pacing up and down the same stretch of road has shown me more, more deeply, than a quick, cursory, and successful search ever could have, because it’s been spread out over time. I’ve changed and grown independently of the search, and each time I return, I’m seeing with a new perspective. I’ve been given the opportunity to sink into a time, place, a body of work, a person’s life; sometimes so shallowly as to skip across the surface, but often. I’ve been given a chance to open my eyes and recognize that a cupful here, a scoop there has added up to something significant. I’ve gotten to know an artist, a person, and her work as a very real part of my life. A small part, but a contented part. A part that is pleased by knowing and that has a relationship with the knowledge gained. I haven’t lost the time and freedom to study what I’m interested in. Indeed, I’ve never stopped. But now I know my labor and I know my path. I welcome a journey towards a goat that will always recede, just beyond sight. There is a pleasurable futility to the goat search. If I never find it, I need never stop looking.